Students will not be intimidated by the police

Yesterday's demonstration was a clear statement that students will not be intimidated by the police, writes Tom Harris.

Tom Harris is a member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC)

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.

3 Responses to “Students will not be intimidated by the police”

  1. Sparky

    When they say ‘cops off campus’ are they claiming that they should have some special exemption from police intervention that the rest of society doesn’t enjoy? If so, on what legal basis? I’m quite intrigued. If they succeed, then presumably, I too will be able to mount a similar challenge based around my street: Cops off Arcacia Avenue! Their sirens are drowning out my TV.

    Also, does it mean: Cops off Campus Only When We Say, or does it mean Cops Off Campus Permanently, even for rapes, thefts and assaults? Presumably some new kind of student-run police service is being proposed. I’d be interested to see how that turns out.

    Yes, a sensible protest. And a good use of time, which will undoubtedly bring results.

  2. Dave Stewart

    It is not meant to be literal. It’s a slogan it needs to be catchy.

  3. John

    Really? I’m shocked (and a little dismayed)

    When we have seen instances of police over-reaction and abuse, your reaction is ‘how childish these students are’.

    perhaps if you were hurled to the floor for questioning a police officer you might understand how they feel and perhaps, yes, wish to right a slogan banning them from your street; it would be safer!

    The police serve an important function in our society, I agree. However when that function is distorted, abused, or exceeded they must be held to account. If there is no official action (or if it is the officials who are doing the abusing) then it is up to us, the public, to raise awareness of the issue and demonstrate this is unacceptable behaviour. This is one of the core concepts of democracy and not to be taken lightly!

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