The recent protests on the rise in tuition fees allows a Mitcham resident to take a trip down memory lane
“Police tempers began to fray and truncheons started to be used. We were determined to stay until our voices were heard. They used police horses against us and after clashes lasting more than an hour we were forced back by policemen.”
You could easily associate this description with the recent protests against the government’s decision to raise university tuition fees in England.
However this is Gareth James, 68, of Mitcham. He is remembering back to the protests in the 1960s where he marched through London to oppose the Vietnam War.
Nearly 50 years on, his niece Emily O’meara, 20, is describing the exact scene after she walked the same London streets to protest against the government’s decision to increase tuition fees.
She said: “As we tried to walk away from the square, we met a line of police advancing – both on horses and with batons. We were penned back against the other line of police who were blocking us from the square.
“They crushed us into a tiny space, hundreds of us, tighter and tighter. It was painful. I was forced up against a van, and yet the police were still screaming ‘get back’.
“It was impossible to move any further back. We were shouting ‘where are we supposed to go?’ and an officer was shoving a shield in my face. It felt like pure violence against us.”
The rise in fees, voted through by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition last week, forced thousands of students from across the country to demonstrate on London’s streets.
In angry scenes, protesters battled with police in Parliament Square and hundreds were contained on Westminster Bridge for some time by officers.
After the decision was announced, fires were started, graffiti sprayed and windows were broken in Whitehall by demonstrators who were being contained by police.
According to the Metropolitan Police, 32 were arrested, mainly for public-order offences and criminal damage and 17 were injured.
Emily, who is a student at Leeds University, attended the protest.
She said: “I don’t condone the violence, most of us there were there peacefully. But I think it is important to show that we feel it’s wrong.
“It’s not just the rise in fees or the prospect of facing up to £50k of debt when leaving university, we are angry at the betrayal of the Lib Dems. They made a promise to us and they have broken it.
“I plan to carry on campaigning. This isn’t a single issue. We all know this is bigger than just student fees – this is ideological. The government is attacking the working classes.”
Mr James says his niece’s account and the wide-spread television coverage reminds him of his march in the 60s where Britain’s biggest anti-Vietnam war demonstration ended in London.
In the Vietnam protests, an estimated 300 people were arrested, 86 were treated for injuries, and 50, including 25 policemen, were taken to hospital.
He said: “I was protesting against the Vietnam war outside the American embassy in Grosvenor Square. They used police horses against us and we never got near the embassy. I subsequently found out that if we had got in the marines were under order to shoot to kill.”
Looking at the student protests Mr James said: “The protests today are different because we did not aim to smash any building indiscriminately, but were intent on getting in to the embassy to make our views known to the ambassador.
“Like us, the students are right to protest, but they are still in the main privileged middle class kids. I’d rather see protests held to help all those poor people that are about to lose their benefits.
“I always think it is right to protest if you feel that things are wrong.”