Harry Potter protests: when children faced riot police

Britons like to tell themselves that it is not in their character to make a fuss. Nothing could be further from the facts.

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Of all the stories Britons like to tell themselves about themselves, one of the most common is that it is not in their character to make a fuss. British history is one of calm, measured reform, releasing the pressure valve on dissent with a minimum of bother, unlike those hot-headed continentals who have three revolutions and a civil war before breakfast. It is merry nonsense. From the 17th-century Civil War "agitators" to the two million who marched against the Iraq War in February 2003, British history is riddled with protest.

As the cuts to education and public services imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government begin to take effect, a student protest movement which harks back to les événements in Paris in May 1968 has emerged. With little warning, there have been three major days of protest across Britain, attended by hundreds of thousands of young people. Scores of university buildings have been occupied, as well as Conservative Party HQ and several local town halls. Banks and shops deemed guilty of exacerbating the financial crisis are also being targeted.

The sharp rise in university fees is the focal issue, though there is a backdrop of huge government spending cuts: an estimated 490,000 public-sector jobs will go by 2015. The trade union movement, traditionally the cornerstone of organised protest, has been strangely quiet: in its stead have been students. And not only young adults studying for degrees: many who took to the streets were children in school uniform, some as young as 13.

This has thrown up some unlikely iconography. One observer at the second London protest reported seeing 15-year-olds "screaming 'expelliarmus' and 'expecto patronum' at riot police" - to the uninitiated, the first of these was the spell Harry Potter used to kill Voldemort, the latter a spell to summon a spirit to shield its conjuror. Whether the riot police got the references is unclear. But public sympathy has been heightened by stories of police "kettling" the young protestors in freezing public spaces for hours without opportunity of escape.

At the third major protest, on Tuesday, the field tilted again. Underneath London's first winter snowfall, thousands of children and students played a cat-and-mouse game with police squadrons, constantly darting down sidestreets, or making sharp U-turns to avoid looming police lines, splitting off like tributaries before rejoining the main currents at iconic spots across the capital, from Oxford Street to St Paul's Cathedral to Buckingham Palace.

At the head of one phalanx of young people marching down Holborn, I found two boys in school uniforms plotting their route, directing the placard-waving foot traffic and leading anti-government chants. Jack Gillespie, 14, and Chris Leonidou, 15, had come from Latymer School, a 386-year-old state grammar school in Edmonton, North London. "We got a three-hour Saturday detention after the last one." Jack told me. "They said if we missed school for this today we'd be excluded." Didn't that worry him, I asked? "I'd rather have one day's exclusion than pay £9,000 a year," Chris replied without hesitation.

As dusk fell over Trafalgar Square, the kettled crowd surged against the police lines. Suddenly it was snowing again, much heavier than before. "You can come in, but you're not getting out again," the police explained to late arrivals, as they put the lid on the kettle, closing ranks around thousands of young protesters. Inside, fireworks and flares were set off, a samba band played, helicopters buzzed overhead, and somewhere in the distance sirens wailed. More than 100 of these protesters had been arrested by the end of the night. Twitter revealed that there were countless other demonstrations and occupations going on across the country. Meanwhile there were rumours that government ministers were considering resignation over tuition fees, after three spontaneous weeks of chaos. How very British.