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Attack on British royals spotlights student rage

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In Britain, furious student protesters threw sticks and rocks at riot police, vandalized government buildings and attacked a car with Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, after lawmakers approved a controversial hike in university tuition fees.

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By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 10, 2010; 7:56 PM

LONDON - The street cleaners swept up the ashes of burned placards and washed away the graffiti marring the stately buildings of Westminster. But a day after Britain's most violent protests in 20 years, one image lingered, iconic and inerasable: The heir to the British throne and his wife under attack by furious students shouting "off with their heads."

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More than any other scene from the night of fury, the assault on the stretch Rolls-Royce of Prince Charles and Camilla as their chauffeur unwittingly drove through a crowd of protesters seemed to declare the seriousness of a student movement that has seemingly risen up overnight.

The light of day led some students to express remorse for what officials described as a surreal evening of "wanton vandalism" and "appalling violence." But others described it as a warning to the new Conservative-led government coalition.

The protest underscored how students have emerged as the primary force of opposition to the government's historic plan to bust the British budget deficit, and how they could potentially grow into the kind of anti-establishment movement not seen here since the 1960s and 1970s.

The demonstration - the fourth but by far the most violent of recent weeks - was in opposition to a measure that Parliament approved Thursday, dramatically reducing government subsidies on university tuitions. But instead of the end of their campaign, student leaders suggested that Thursday night marked the birth of a new, more aggressive social movement that would not use polite measures to resist spending cuts.

For the government, it raised the disturbing prospect that the tactics employed last night - when students vandalized stores and turned parts of Central London typically reserved for tourists and Christmas shoppers into no-go zones - might be a taste of things to come.

The image of the agape royals, their Rolls splattered with paint, their car window smashed, captured like nothing else that anti-establishment rage. The attack was vigorously debated across Britain on Friday, along with other acts of student vandalism including urination on a statue of Winston Churchill and the defamation of a prominent war memorial.

"I think most people will agree the students went further than too far last night; it's going to turn British public opinion clearly against them," asserted Dickie Arbiter, Queen Elizabeth II's former press secretary. "You've got a bunch of students out there who are mostly better off and can afford to pay more for their university educations anyway, screaming 'off with their heads' and urinating on Churchill. That is not going to get the sympathy of the public."

Indeed, the British public has been only partially sympathetic to the protesters' crusade, with the working class particularly apathetic to the plight of university students seen as more well-to-do than most. Yet even for some who have backed the protests thus far, the attack on the royals seemed a tipping point of sorts.

"I am all for these protests, but the violence is totally uncalled for," said Debbie Sears, 55, an adult student at Westminster University. "It has ruined the meaning of the protests. It will go against them, they will lose their sympathy vote."

Heard even more than recriminations against the students, though, were concerns about the stunning lapse of royal security that allowed the heir to the throne to come face to face with an angry mob.

There were no indications Friday that the assault was premeditated. Charles and Camilla, officials said, were on their way to a charity event at the London Palladium when a crowd of students trapped their Phantom VI on busy Regent Street. Camilla's window was half open, with protesters able to jab her in the side with a stick. Officials launched an investigation Friday into security lapses, although experts said the incident could have been far worse.

"How did the anarchists get so close to Charles and Camilla?" demanded London's Daily Mail.

But many students remained unrepentant and blamed the media for focusing on the royal attack instead of what they called the heavy-handed tactics of the police. One protester was left unconscious with serious head injuries after apparently being hit by police batons.

"I hope that people are sane enough to show perspective," said Julie Radman, 21, a student from the University of Sheffield who traveled to London for the protests. "If people look at the whole story, they will realize that the [attack on Charles and Camilla] was a complete accident. The fact that it was the royals didn't have any bearing on it.

"All that is being reported is this one event," she said. "It is ridiculous. I think that it's important to remember we are fighting for something we believe in . . . and we will not stop."

faiolaa@washpost.com Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.


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