When I headed along to the demo this afternoon, I wasn't expecting much: a medium-sized crowd, a few speeches. The news was out that Vince Cable (Govt Business Secretary) had cancelled his visit, but the demo was going ahead; mission accomplished already, perhaps, and you'd be forgiven for thinking most people would've stayed home as a result. I nearly did.
First Skirmishs and Speechifying
Glad I didn't! In stark contrast to the rather tame trade union rally at Bonn Square recently which stayed obediently in one corner of Oxford and preached to the converted, I arrived to find people attempting to make their way onto the High St (from Radcliffe Square), and just a handful of police with the gall to try and stop this massive crowd.
Bizarrely, it worked, at least to begin with. It only took a few up-for-it folks to push the police out of the way, but even when presented with a hard-won gap in this tokenistic police line (3 or 4 cops on the alley between Catte St and High St, if you know it) the rest of the crowd just held back timidly. In their sheltered lives they presumably hadn't disobeyed a cop before, let alone gone through a police line, and I guess they imagined being arrested or hurt.
So, after several attempts, the handful of folks on the spot who had been pushing gave up for a while, disheartened, leaving the field clear for some megaphone junkies who wanted to boost their own egos by getting people to 'sit down' while they gave speeches.
But then our next wave: after a few speeches we started encouraging the crowd to come with us (which worked even though the speechmakers tried to shout us down), and pushed aside the handful of cops blocking the way up to Broad Street. Now the road was much wider and harder to cordon, and we had some momentum. Chants of 'No Ifs, No Buts, No Education Cuts' were in the air again.
The crowd was slow though, and the police formed another cordon. Again it was thin enough to easily get through, but again we came up against the timidity of the crowd. The same dynamic: a smallish number of radicals trying to prevent the police blocking us, some disdainful reformists trying to distance themselves from it, and the bulk of the crowd caught somewhere in between, scared and hesitant.
We didn't manage to coax them to come through the line at Broad St, though we tried many times; instead people quickly ran down Turl St (the cordon being sloppy at that point). At the bottom of Turl St, another police line, another tussle. But the bulk of the crowd took a smart turn down Market Street, heading for Cornmarket, the busiest plastic shopping land in Oxford.
It was here that we faced the most serious police line so far. An unruly demo getting onto Cornmarket was probably the last thing the cops wanted. But by this time, people had seen enough times how possible it was to get past police, and more people started to join in. As their line started to sway and disintegrate, the calls of 'Disengage! Disengage!' amongst the police were music to our ears, and we flooded onto Cornmarket.
Bemused shoppers looked on as this huge crowd - which must have seemed to come from nowhere - marched down Cornmarket, chanting and dancing to a small portable soundsystem.
Finally, the High Street; a chance to make ourselves heard by blocking traffic and reclaiming another very public space. Again, we found a police cordon attempting to stop us. Again we broke through. The demo went jubilantly along High Street and finished at the Exam Schools, where the whole story started; it was here that Vince Cable was originally scheduled to speak! A few relatively fiery speeches, some chanting, and we dispersed, feeling that we should leave things on a victory note and not having any better plan to hand.
A note on Repression
The only downside to the demo today was the ease with which the police will have been able to identify and film us, particularly those of us in the riskier position of taking a more confrontational position. The inexperienced and hesitant nature of the crowd made it super-easy for them to single out such people, film them, attempt to intimidate them, and threaten them with arrest.
I overheard one FIT officer [Forward 'Intelligence' Team - double irony as they are neither 'fit' in the colloquial sense nor particularly intelligent] namedropping prominent protesters in the usual attempt to scare. Masking up was out of the question, unfortunately, as it would have alienated us from the rest of the crowd entirely. So instead we end up confronting police in the full glare of city-centre CCTV, which isn't something I feel great about.
One guy was arrested as people were dispersing (I didn't find out this until later) for refusing to give a name and address, presumably cos FIT-type cops didn't know him already and wanted to. Last I heard there were a bunch of friends at the cop shop waiting for him to get out, and hopefully they won't press any charges (fingers crossed). Would be good if someone could confirm he got out and is OK?
A very sucessful day, not only did large numbers come out onto the streets but we used our numbers to make an impact, instead of staying timidly in an out-of-the-way place speechifying each other. Hopefully many naive Oxford students will have been radicalised and empowered somewhat by the experience, and we can build towards further politically-concious disobedience! This, after all, is how the cuts will be stopped. Not by polite persuasion of those in power. They will stop when we become ungovernable, when we pose a threat to their power itself.