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Monday, March 28, 2011
Peaceful protest turns ugly in London
There were two demonstrations in London yesterday. The first, and most enduringly important, was that by half a million people against the cuts that are falling disproportionately on vital public services and those who provide them.
The other one was a demonstration of just how easy it is for a few hundred people to steal the occasion with sporadic acts of violence. Last night, it the latter one which was taking the headlines as police and protesters clashed in Trafalgar Square.
Earlier half a million people descended on central London for the biggest protest the nation has seen since demonstrations against the Iraq war eight years ago. They streamed into the capital from across the country to vent their anger at government cuts, their only weapons peaceful chanting and waving placards.
There were 500,000 people and, with their disperate causes, represented 500,000 different reasons to take a stand.
From students facing rises in fees to parents whose Sure Start services are being slashed, the message was the same: "Stop the cuts." The March for the Alternative was organised by trades unions, but its anti-cuts message chimed with a much wider audience. Hundreds of coaches were chartered and public transport full to bursting as people came from across the country. Diane Richards, 62, a nurse from Aberystwyth, was one.
She said: "I was born in the same year as the NHS and I'm doing better than it. Politicians have no concept of the impact of these cuts on small communities, poor communities."
But other protestors - a few hundred at most - brought with them splintering glass, flying paint, smoke, and violence. As night fell, a hardcore of protestors continued skirmishing with police in Trafalgar Square, and a blaze started deliberately in Jermyn Street had to be extinguished by firefighters.
The trouble had begun in the afternoon as breakaway groups targeted London's main shopping streets. At Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Mayfair and Oxford Street anarchists hurled smoke bombs, glass bottles and lightbulbs filled with ammonia. Late into the evening, an apparent attempt by protesters at camping in Trafalgar Square to turn it into a British version of Tahrir Square, the scene of the Egyptian uprising, descended into the day's worst skirmish with police. A party atmosphere with music and dancing turned into clashes with columns of police officers facing protesters throwing coins and bottles.
But it is the violence which was making the headlines. More then 150 people were arrested for public disorder and criminal damage offences following confrontations with police, who had laid on more than 4,500 officers. The police were using markedly different tactics from previous demonstrations, however, keeping in touch with the marchers via Twitter. The kettling that took place was mainly for shorter periods and away from the main protests.
The policing minister, Nick Herbert, said the main TUC rally had been a "testament to the British model of policing" but he condemned the violence in the West End as "completely unacceptable".
Dressed all in black and with balaclavas and scarves covering their faces, groups calling themselves the Black Bloc rampaged across London's centre, smashing in the windows of bank branches, including HSBC, RBS, Lloyds TSB and Santander. The Ritz hotel, BHS, Topshop and a Porsche dealership were also targeted.
London Ambulance Service said 30 people were treated for injuries throughout the day, 11 of whom were taken to hospital, ranging from assault to collapsing with illness. Five police officers were injured. Four were treated for minor injuries and one was taken to hospital.