Police swamped central London today to keep a lid on any violence during the latest student fees march. Protesters accused Scotland Yard of “ludicrous” tactics as officers appeared to outnumber protesters but the strategy appeared to work. An estimated quarter of the 10,000 expected demonstrators initially turned up after Scotland Yard announced 4,000 officers had been made available.
Minor skirmishes broke out as officers made several arrests moving a group who set up camps in Trafalgar Square by pitching pop-up tents. There were also violent exchanges as anarchists threw items at police lines.
But many demonstrators were thought to have stayed away after chiefs warned that rubber bullets were available after major disturbances in November and December last year.
Demonstrator Beth Atkinson, 27, from London, said: “It is ludicrous. It is antagonistic, it is like they are egging on a fight, which is frankly embarrassing.”
Protesters carried placards which read “Scrap Tuition Fees” and “Free Education”.
There were chants of “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts” and “David Cameron f*** off back to Eton” while demonstrators slowly made their way through the streets.
They also shouted: “You can shove your rubber bullets up your arse.”
News and police helicopters hovered overhead and workers came out of their offices to look at the march, which was led by mounted police.
Officers on foot carrying batons and riot helmets walked alongside the protesters.
There were only small clashes along the route after organisers claimed “antagonistic” police comments ahead of the protest made trouble more likely.
As part of their efforts to keep the peace, police handed out leaflets and warned demonstrators they risked arrest if they did not stay on the agreed route.
Marchers were also told they would only be allowed to remain at London Wall for two hours.
An officer walking alongside the march said it was estimated that there were around 2,500 protesters.
But John Roberts, a 25-year-old architect from London, said: “I have got friends who haven’t come along because of the threat of rubber bullets.”
Imperial College PhD student Sheridan Few, 24, added: “I think it makes it even more important – we shouldn’t be intimidated.”
Protests were led through central areas from midday by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.
Annette Webb, who is reading international development at Portsmouth University, said: “I was against it when they raised fees from £1,000 to £3,000, but to go up to £9,000 will price out most students.
“It will mean that education is only for the rich and I believe it should be for everyone.”
Police kitted out in riot gear formed lines on Fleet Street to prevent demonstrators making their way towards St Paul’s Cathedral where the Occupy London Stock Exchange group set up its camp.
“We are trying to stop them getting down to St Paul’s and causing mass chaos,” one officer said.
The beefed-up police presence came amid fears of a repeat of scenes in November and December last year when hundreds of arrests were made amid disturbances over fees.
Regarding the potential use of baton rounds, a police spokesman said: “There are a range of tactics available if there is criminality and violence associated with the event.
“One of these is the authority to deploy baton rounds in extreme circumstances.
“These are carried by a small number of trained officers and are not held and used by those officers policing the route on Wednesday.
“To give context to their use, the MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) had authority to use baton rounds during the disorder this summer but did not do so.”
Dee Doocey, a London Assembly Liberal Democrat member, echoed anger over the potential use of rubber bullets.
She said: “Their use in Northern Ireland has led to 17 lives being lost, including eight children. How can anyone believe plastic bullets deliver security when their record is so horrific?”
One demonstrator said she decided to join today’s march in “solidarity” with students after her brother was jailed for violent disorder following the last fees protest.
Ariadne Mitchell-Kotsakis, 24, a documentary researcher from Ladbroke Grove, west London, also hit out at the “overwhelming” police presence.
“I think it’s too much,” she said. “I think the march is a lot smaller than they were expecting and having this number of officers is quite overwhelming. I’m here because my brother Zenon was sentenced to 15 months at Kingston Crown Court. I’m here for solidarity and to be part of it.”
The Oxford University graduate also condemned moves which led numerous universities to raise tuition fees.
“I think it’s disgusting. I am angry, sad and frustrated,” she added.
Jenny Jones, a Green Party member at the London Assembly, expressed fears that families had been scared off attending as she joined protesters.
“Policing isn’t an exact science and it is often impossible to assess what levels can be expected at a demonstration such as today’s,” she said.
“However, by issuing a statement that threatens the use of rubber bullets, the police have not only directly discouraged protesters from attending, but also potentially changed the nature of the event itself.
“Surely those committed to peaceful protest and those with children are most likely to be put off by this kind of warning?”

There are two sides to every story. Nobody wants to see a repetition of those scenes we saw last year during the student riots however neither should we forget that the protesters have the right to demonstrate peacefully and the Police have the right and the authority to police the demonstration, however with all this publicity regarding the potential use of rubber bullets some people are asking, “have the Police intimidated peaceful protesters from exercising their right to protest peacefully?”
Fighting the PR battle is a continual struggle for this police and stories such as this don’t help.