Yesterday's demonstration was a clear statement that students will not be intimidated by the police, writes Tom Harris.
Yesterday, around 3,000 students demonstrated at the University of London against police violence and the repression of student protest. Organised around the slogan ‘cops off campus’, the crowd marched from college to college in dramatic defiance of an injunction banning protests on campus.
Elsewhere, a wave of direct action across the country saw students occupy university buildings in Manchester and Aberdeen.
The size and militancy of the demonstration took many by surprise, especially given that it had been organised at less than a week’s notice.
After a period of relative quiet in the student movement, this sudden eruption might seem confusing. Why are so many students angry, and why now?
Far from being spontaneous, the ‘cops off campus’ demo took place in the wake of months of growing tension at the University of London and elsewhere. A number of disputes between university management on the one hand and students and low-paid workers on the other have been bubbling for some time. Many of these issues have come to a head in the last couple of weeks.
Firstly, outsourced cleaners have been engaged in a fight to receive the same conditions as other University of London staff. The cleaners, most of whom are Spanish-speaking migrants and women working several jobs in order to stay afloat, launched a campaign for ‘Tres Cosas’ or ‘three things’: sick pay, holiday and pensions.
The vibrant campaign, involving protests, direct action and strikes, has forged close unity with student activists. Their militant tactics have already proved effective, and management have begun to grant major concessions.
But these have not been easily won – the cleaners’ demonstrations have been notable not only for Latino music and salsa dancing, but also for the overbearing presence of security guards and police. 3Cosas protests are regularly filmed by security personnel, and earlier this year police physically dragged a young woman from her student union and arrested her for scrawling pro-cleaner slogans on a university wall – in chalk.
Another flashpoint has been the future of the University of London Union. In the last two years, ULU has increasingly become a hub of student activism in London, and the union has been centrally involved in campaigns over the extortionate price of student housing and in support of the cleaners’ struggle. But University bosses have decided to close it down, without any democratic input by students themselves.
As with the cleaners’ dispute, the University’s primary response to the ‘Save ULU’ campaign has been to rely on police intervention. Two of the union’s three sabbatical officers have been arrested in the last three months – Daniel Cooper for objecting to police stopping-and-searching black students, and Michael Chessum for having the temerity to organise a protest against ULU’s closure on his own campus without informing police.
Chessum’s bail conditions forbade him taking part in protests within half a mile of a university. This put him in the awkward position of a student representative legally barred from campaigning in the vicinity of any students.
Set against this background, last week a group of around 80 students occupied university management offices at Senate House, the looming, Art Deco building which inspired George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. A further hundred congregated outside in support of the occupiers. Their demands included justice for the cleaners, for ULU to be saved, and for cops to get off campus.
But whilst most university occupations last for weeks before an eventual eviction, the response in London was swift and brutal. Swarms of riot police violently evicted the protesters, with social media, the Guardian, and Channel 4 news showing mobile phone footage of police punching people in the face and hurling women to the ground.
The next day, a protest against the police violence was met with dozens of riot vans and around 38 arrests, including of academic staff and student journalists.
Only with this context is it possible to understand why so many turned out for yesterday’s demonstration, and why so many took solidarity action across the country. In London, in Sussex, in Birmingham and elsewhere, University bosses are engaged in a bitter argument with their students and workers over how, and in whose interests, their institutions should be run.
As they begin to lose the argument, managers are showing themselves to be more and more willing to rely on the truncheons of the police to settle it for them. Yesterday’s demonstration was a loud, clear statement that we will not be intimidated.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.