Before I begin, I should explain my own experiences with fees and student debt. When I was 17, I took a Foundation course in photo-journalism with my A levels. On passing this, I applied for and secured a place on the next stage, the Pre-entry NCTJ Photo-Journalism course. However, when I was told this good news, I was also informed that I’d have to fund the course fees of £2000 myself. Being far from wealthy, this actually forced me away from the course and I moved on to pursue music. Eight years later, the European Union began to cover the fees for those accepted and I managed to get a position once more. Without that financial assistance, I would never have completed the course so I can thoroughly understand how some can say that £9000 of fees will be enough to dissuade them from attending University. Fees are bad, mmkay?

Having managed to time my days off with all of the three previous student tuition fee protests, the fourth demo became my first full day of revolting students. With other photographers having already experienced the fun and games involved, many were already complaining about the long day ahead before it had even started. Not a good sign.

Speaking of signs, a group holding oversized model textbooks gathered at the front of the march before it set off, making quite a nice frame. It only dawned on me later in the day that it was a “novel” (snigger) way to disguise your riot shield.

The march from the University of London to the Houses of Parliament went smoothly enough with a few kids at the front running ahead and taking a different route but eventually regrouping with the main body of protestors. When they finally reached the arranged destination, it quickly became clear how odd a decision it is to march on Parliament; the square is one giant containment area surrounded by buildings with bomb and bullet-proof windows. Basically, the march led itself into the kettle.

While the people filed in, all was calm enough but within a short period, a handful of protestors began to kick off with the odd missile being thrown at the police, barriers being pushed down and statues being vandalised. While the majority of the crowd were happy to just be there and make their presence speak for itself, it was clear that others had come to cause trouble. It didn’t take long for it to begin.

At the junction of Victoria Street and Parliament Square, a flashpoint soon became apparent with the police line being consistently tested by surging crowds. For those that have never been in this kind of situation, allow me to give my take on how the stories of police brutality against innocent youngsters occur. Firstly, Mr. or Mrs. “FightThePower” gets to the front line and starts kicking off and pushing the police around. Once it’s started to get loud and aggressive, others come over to see what’s happening. The initial troublemakers take a step back from the front line, allowing the less-aggressive protestors to slip to the front. Once they’re safely away from the danger, the incredibly brave soldiers of anarchy begin throwing sticks and rocks at the police line while surging forwards, pushing the ones at the front into the police. The police respond by pushing back and inevitably someone gets hurt.

Throughout the day, you could clearly see that the majority of the masked kids that were shouting for people to target the horses and throwing broken chunks of concrete were conveniently never on the front line. Way to go, tough guys.

It was around this time when the first photographer casualties occurred with colleagues James Vasey and Luke McGregor both suffering cuts during crowd surges. With the crush becoming more severe, a number of photographers were pushed to the floor under fencing with two of them saying that they thought that it could be about to get REALLY serious.

With the police horses now out to hold the line, a few small groups in the crowd started to take out their frustration on what was to hand with construction fencing and a security shed being targeted.

Before long, the fencing was being used against the police back at the flashpoint. It was so clear how this was going to end up by this point. If you try to force a large metal section of fencing at police and they start wrestling it back at you, who’s going to come out worse; the police dressed in body armour and helmets or the guys on the front line with nice soft heads?

As the sun went down, the fires began with benches and the previously mentioned shed getting the lighter treatment. With all this happening, I have to restate that the vast majority of the people in Parliament Square were chatting, chanting and remaining calm. From what I saw, there is very obviously a smaller element that are just there to break things, or in their words, “fuck things up”. A man mentioned to me that he’d asked one of the masked protestors if he’d heard when the vote to decide if the fee increase would be going through in Parliament. The masked man responded by asking him what vote he was talking about.

By 4pm, the police decided to close the area of, effectively forming the “kettle”. From this point on, only accredited media or those with medical emergencies could pass out of parliament Square. By now, the marchers had been in the square for around 3-4 hours with at least a few more hours in containment ahead of them. A small area in the centre of the grassed area became an impromptu toilet with a definite “festival” feel to the mud around that corner of the square.

As it got colder and people got hungry and tired, more of the demonstrators headed towards the exit but found the “kettle” still in place with nobody allowed to leave. With nowhere to go, the flashpoint moved to Whitehall with huge numbers funnelling into the closed off road.

This time, I decided to get right into the thick of it and managed to both lose my protective headgear and have a flashgun smashed. Whoopee. Still, it resulted in me having to shoot catch-flash instead which, thanks to an abundance of photographers in the area, was pretty easy with some decent results. Like most of the protests and demonstrations that happen now, the media is there in the front line with agency, newspaper, freelance and amateur photographers scrambling for positions. A number of times in the evening, there were similarities with the clashes at the G20 demonstration in central London where I was half expecting a PR to come along and start handing out press releases to the rows and rows of media.

By now, word had come through of THE incident of the day with Matt Dunham of AP managing to be at just the the right place at just the right time to capture the moment that a breakaway group of protestors attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Now when something like that happens, it’s game over. Everyone very quickly realises that with an image like that on the wire, there’s no point in even thinking of another angle. Sure enough, Matt secured nearly every front page in the UK the next day and very probably in countries all over the world. Up to that point, Ki Price had been the man of the day with his picture of a guy swinging on a Union flag, suspended from the Cenotaph war memorial. Thankfully, he also managed to get his day of front pages the day after Matt, when it was discovered that the boy in question was the son of Pink Floyd‘s Dave Gilmour. Despite him being a history student at an exclusive University, he claimed to have no idea what the Cenotaph was. With today’s news that he’s been arrested, I guess he’s going to be learning something for free after all.

After smashing a few windows on the Treasury building and the Supreme Court, the Police managed to push the group back and after holding them for a little longer, the containment was slowly opened along a secured route, allowing the remaining group to slowly make their way over Westminster bridge and home. With this being the final protest scheduled for 2010, the new year promises to hold more demonstrations, despite the bill passing through Parliament. With neither side appearing to want to back down on their opinions, it looks like this story is set to rumble on for some time. Looks like I might need to get that hard hat replaced…

18 Responses to “Fees, fights, foes fumped”

  1. Great shots bro :)
    I wonder if all these students had voted during the GE what would have happened ? probably a totally different Government?

    Posted by walnuts
  2. @walnuts – The precise reason many of were are there is because they voted Lib Dem – you know the ones who promised not to increase fees. And the rest of them are too young to vote yet.

    Posted by Rudolph
  3. Excellent, nice insight too. Love the shot of the fire and masked demonstrator. Great shots using the catch flash too.

    Posted by Adam
  4. Great Stuff Leon. Amazing photos, but its with a sense of sadness that I look at what happened. Those who wish to simply cause destruction and violence have hijacked a legitimate protest and sullied the image of students. I still find the whole decision on fees bizarre. Here we are supposedly in a meritocratic society, turning university education back in to the preserve of those who can afford it. Yet now to be a nurse, or social worker or indeed many other professions you need a degree. How will we recruit these staff?

    From a personal perspective, I was the first person in my family to go to university. My Dad drove lorries for a living and my mum died when I was 16. Without a student grant and student loans I would not have achieved my degree and subsequently not be teaching maths in the education system, providing a service to the government.

    I wonder how many parents of the year 10 and year 11 students I teach were on the march because it is them who will be hit the hardest.

    Posted by Craig
  5. @walnuts Cheers, kidder! Surprised you weren’t there, old bean. Could have done with creating the super-team, watching each other’s backs!

    @Rudolph Yes, I think there is certainly a strong feeling of betrayal, aside from the chanting and placards. Clegg has to do some serious repairs if he has any hope of being taken seriously again.

    @Adam Thanks, Adam. I’d like to say the catchflash was a conscious decision but the broken flash on my desk here is testament to the phrase, “Necessity is the Mother of invention”!

    @Craig Cheers Craig. A very interesting point there. As I said in the opening paragraph, £2000 in fees scared me away from further education entirely so £9000 would be a total no-no. I guess some people may be more open to the idea of debt but I guess they’ll have no option soon! It’s great to hear that you managed to get to Uni, despite being the first in your family to try that route. Let’s hope you aren’t the last.

    Posted by tabascokid
  6. Great blog as usual Leon. I started University last year and if I didn’t have to be in class for marked presentations, nor 200 miles away, i would have been there to show support in some way or another. I voted Lib Dem because of their policy, and feel pretty betrayed. It makes me wonder what the point in voting is when they say one thing to get into Government and then do entirely the opposite. Clegg see’s his policy of eradicating fee’s as having compromised with the Tories, but its less of a compromise and looks more like bending over ready for Cameron to put his own policy right his ….

    It’s a complicated issue and there are lots of funding issues to address but having experienced higher education bring out my potential, I think its seriously damaging to block this passage to those who are not so well off. Even at my age, without the support of my family I would have seriously struggled the last couple of years. Others are not so fortunate, and it could bring out the worst in those who already have numerous obstacles in the way of their pursuit of a better life.

    Posted by tom ashmore
  7. Great photos, and a nice balanced view. My own view is that there are, quite frankly, far too many people at university doing too many useless degrees. I’m not surprised that people feel betrayed by the Lib Dems, but I really feel that if people benefit from their education that they should be prepared to pay for it.

    Posted by Jonny
  8. @tom Cheers, bud. :)

    @Jonny It really is a tricky subject to tackle as my main feeling on it is that it should be free or heavily subsidised for those on lower incomes as there are definitely situations where people just feel unable to pursue their aspirations due to financial concerns. However, I used to work in a University many moons ago and it was quite clear that there was a definite percentage of the students that were going to Uni simply because that was the next thing to do in life, not because they needed the education for any purpose. While it was clear that the majority had a definite aim and were working hard to achieve a goal, there was a certain group that were almost delaying their entry into the real world by having a few more years at Uni, followed by a gap year or two.

    In terms of solutions, I have no idea as the right to attend Uni cannot be categorised by any easy grouping such as class or financial situation. I guess that’s why I’m just a photographer!

    Posted by tabascokid
  9. I didn’t even finish school and still walked away with $6000 debt. Oh America, where they heavily encourage university but offer minimal financially sound ways to achieve all four years…

    Posted by Sara H
  10. Great to get your take on things Leon. I stopped shooting protests altogether after having a flash smashed at the Kensington demos and the G20 free for all. Have you seen David Hoffman’s talk on the subject? It’s well worth a look

    Out of interest, do you think you would have got where you are now without doing the photography course? And would you do it if you were starting out today? I advise our photographers to think very carefully about doing it; there’s a huge surplus of well trained snappers coming out of universities right now and in my experience they’re finding it next to impossible to make it pay.

    Posted by Isaac
  11. @Sara H – Sounds fun. God bless it! 😉

    @Isaac – I’ll check out David’s talk. I’ve not seen it yet so thanks for the heads-up. Regarding my education, I can quite confidently say that I wouldn’t be in my current job. It was through the encouragement of my lecturer that I entered the Times/Tabasco competition which got me down to London. It’s an unfortunate but very wise move on your part to ask your students to consider their career plans carefully. I started to write a blog the other day about how my opinions and advice to new photographers has changed over the year. It was too depressing to finish. :(

    Posted by tabascokid
  12. These are amazing images! I was covering the protest for the London Student newspaper (and, to be honest, demonstrating with my friends – nice conflict of interest!) but these pictures blow mine away. You’ve given me a standard to aim for. Keep it up, and stay safe 😛

    Posted by Dougal Wallace
  13. @Craig
    Violence started when the police decided to use the “kettling” method again. The tactics of the police outraged many of the protesters and hence, I can understand this generation for being ignored and forced to obey useless ethic rules of this conservative status quo.

    Posted by Me
  14. I have to disagree with this. Walking with the protestors from Malet Street, there was a small group of teenagers at the front of the group who, within five minutes of setting off, were revving each other up and shouting that they should “fuck shit up.” As I’ve already said countless times, this was not the vibe of the majority of the group by a long stretch but it cannot be denied that there were individuals there that were wanting to fight from the beginning. While I can see that kettling raises tensions and can increase problems, you cannot say that it was all down to police tactics.

    Posted by tabascokid
  15. The police will do everything possible to stop you even if you are peacful. I don’t deny that some protesters had intention to fight with the police but most of them were NOT involved in any political group and they were really few. They are just angry teenagers. Nevertheless, who is rensponsible for that? Perhaps this thing would not happen if these youngsters would not have been ignored. This generation is treated like parasites. The media promote the most conservative propaganda. It sickens me that people still follow some archaic moral rules and don’t see the truth in front of their eyes. Greed has poisoned our minds. We have the power to improve ourselves but instead we do nothing. As Charlie Chaplin has said “We live from eatch others misery”.

    I am the what so called anarcho-pacifist, I don’t accept violence as a mean social struggle. I have seen a lot of violence in my life. Enough is enough, but I would noway disown these youths. I believe that civil disobedience, collective communities, dialogue, suggestions, counter-proposals and information can achieve more than 1000 violent conflicts. “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” (Sigmund Freud). However, I believe that pacifism is a matter of strategy and use of a more effective method to change the grass-roots of the society and not an excuse for apathy and insignificant action. It should not be used also in a way to justify trivial ethic rules of a conservative establishment.

    Posted by Me
  16. @Me ^

    Have you got a better idea? You seem to know what’s so broadly wrong with the country – how would you sort it out?

    Posted by Tom
  17. Great insight into the day, and well said about the so called ” Tough Guys” I have that picture of the thug and Winston Churchill etched in my mind and felt complete despair when I saw it due to the total lack of respect for statutes and what they represent . That is an iconic picture of that regretful day , one that will be shown for many years to come. Merry Xmas to You and Your Family .

    Posted by Paul thurlow

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