The protest, organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Universities and College Union (UCU), began as a peaceful demonstration against changes to the government’s higher education policy.
52,000 students, including a contingent organised and subsidised by the Students’ Representative Council, travelled to London to attend the event, which was arranged following government announcements that higher education funding would be lowered while tuition fee caps would be raised by almost £6,000 to £9,000 per year.
The protest was scheduled to include a march from Horse Guards Avenue to a rally held beside Tate Britain, passing the Palace of Westminster in the process, in a demonstration lasting two hours from 12:30pm to 2:30pm. The route had been pre-approved by Metropolitan Police, who had initially considered the march to be a ‘low risk’ demonstration.
Proceedings were overshadowed, however, when the Millbank Tower complex, which sits along the route, was set upon by thousands of students demanding changes to government policy.
The complex was targeted by protestors as it hosts the offices of the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, who rent floors inside office building 30 Millbank.
The first sign of disorder came when far-left protestors broke off from the march at around 1:30pm, setting fire to a pile of placards stacked in the complex’s main concourse and creating a bonfire that attracted the attention of other protestors passing along the route. The growing crowd quickly began to outnumber the 20-30 police officers initially posted to guard the premises.
Swelling numbers of protestors eventually overpowered the police presence, taking the opportunity to smash windows on the lower floors of the building and proceed into the atrium, where they ransacked surroundings.
A large number of students proceeded unhindered to the roof, where they waved anarchist flags, vandalised the upper floors and sprayed fire extinguishers in celebration at the crowd below.
Although riots were directed toward Conservative Party buildings, coalition partners the Liberal Democrats were also a focus for the protesters’ anger. Chants included ‘Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top. Put the Lib Dems in the middle and burn the fucking lot,’ and ‘Nick Clegg, we know you, you’re a fucking Tory too.’
Protestors occupying the building eventually triggered fire alarms, causing emergency access doors to unlock and allowing greater numbers of students into the building.
In addition to dangers posed by rioters throwing debris including bricks over peoples’ heads, a fire extinguisher was thrown from the roof of the building, missing the heads of police by inches.
During the scheduled rally intended to close the demonstration, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt incited anger within the crowd, leading chants of 'Tory scum' before reminding the crowd of promises the UCU believed politicians had broken. This was followed by NUS President Aaron Porter, who also gave a speech to the crowd.
Despite their actions at the rally, the UCU was keen to distance itself from the violent nature of the demonstration, which the UCU had quickly lost control of. General Secretary Sally Hunt said: “The actions of a mindless and totally unrepresentative minority should not distract from today's message. The overwhelming majority of staff and students on the march came here to send a clear and peaceful message.”
Roughly 300 employees in the building were evacuated for their safety by police, however 80 – including Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Warsi – stayed at their desk. Protestors ultimately failed to reach Conservative Party offices within the building.
The Metropolitan Police only regained control of the situation at around 5:00pm, several hours after the building had been stormed, when hundreds of extra officers armed in riot gear and equipped with armoured vehicles were dispatched to the scene.
The Met apologised for what they termed an ‘embarrassment’ to the organisation. Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner said: “This was an embarrassment for London and for us. We cannot accept this level of violence. It was totally unexpected.
"We have to ask 'should we have anticipated it better' and a thorough post-incident investigation will establish this and bring all those responsible to justice.
"It must have been an awful time for the people inside that building, and I'm terribly sorry for what must have been a traumatic experience. We cannot allow thuggish behaviour like this again."
The actions of protestors were roundly criticised by student and university organisations, who claimed it undermined the event.