On November 10, 2010 I arrived in London to visit my daughter while on her study abroad program. She had arrived earlier that day. We had planned to spend a few days seeing the sites before she returned to the University of Birmingham.
I was emerging from the Westminster Tube Station with my travel bags. Big Ben on my left was as familiar to me as the Statue of Liberty, but on my right was a sea of about 50,000 protesters. That was certainly unexpected. I pushed my way through a wall of students that were reminiscent of protest marches in the 1960s in America. They were mostly peaceful, carrying signs and shouting slogans against proposed government fee increases for higher education.
As I passed Westminster Abbey on foot I was at street level not more than a half block from a modern building at 30 Millbank constructed of glass and steel. This was the flash point of the protest. Around a thousand students were concentrated in the area, some of them began breaking windows and calling out rally cries that served to taunt a grossly outnumbered line of London police. I was astonished at the restraint shown by the police, especially the officers on horseback.
This was a reception I had not bargained for on my first day in London. The scene was surreal. I glanced back at Big Ben which appeared like a sentinel rising in the distance above the melee of thousands of young protesters – all around my daughter’s age.
The more militant students faced off against the police, pressing into their riot shields and helmets. I heard the crashing sound of windows breaking and the corresponding cheers from the crowd. Violence was in the streets of London, but the spectacle was already out of my mind later that evening when I suddenly had a breakdown in the quiet calm of my hotel room.