9 Dec 2013

Has the policing of student protest become political?

There were ugly scenes last Wednesday night in the heart of London’s student district. Protester footage apparently shows a woman thrown violently to the the ground by police; a police officer clearly punching a demonstrator to the floor. Those remonstrating threatened with arrest…

The violence happened as police evicted a student occupation of the university’s admin building, Senate House.

These scenes – and further violence during a “cops off campus” demo the next day – have left students across Britain angry.

After last week’s violence more than 40 people were arrested, but only one charged. Among the rest, I’ve seen bail conditions which forbid them assembling in groups of more than four people.

Students are beginning to wonder whether the policing of protest has become political.

Hannah Sketchley, editor of the UCL student newspaper, witnessed the crackdown. She says:

“The politics behind it are almost certainly an absolute repression of student dissent. The bail conditions especially show they really want to stop people being active and fighting for their rights on campus.

“They’ve created a whole new generation of students who’ve lost their faith in the Metropolitan police.”

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

It’s three years to the day since the student riot that marked the trebling of tuition fees.

Since then many of Britain’s universities are engaged in privatisation programmes, and they’re trying to attract more foreign students. The protests this year have involved occupations from Birmingham to Sussex, and demonstrations alongside striking lecturers and – in the case of the University of London – cleaners.

‘No argument but brute force’

Michael Chessum the president of University of London Union told me:

“University managements across the country are calling the police in because they’ve lost the substantive argument. There is a consensus on a lot of campuses against the privatisation of education. And they’ve realised there is no argument they can use other than brute force.”

Mr Chessum was arrested for allegedly organising an unofficial procession, three weeks ago. He says:

“I was released after eight hours in custody, with bail conditions saying I could not demonstrate or engage in any demonstration on any university campus, or within half a mile of any university campus.

“After a few weeks the police called up and said your bail conditions have been lifted – but these new conditions are significantly more draconian.”

Preventing further violence

The University of London declined to come on camera but told me they had not called the police onto their property last week.

The Metropolitan police confirmed that 39 people have been bailed on suspicion of affray from last Thursday, and that only one of four people arrested on Wednesday has been charged, in this case with assault. In a statement to Channel 4 News they said:

“We always encourage those who wish to protest to engage with us as early as possible so that we can work together to organise the event. As with all large public order incidents, a range of material will now be subject to review in order to establish the full facts.

“The bail conditions imposed on those arrested are designed to prevent further violence and disorder whilst investigations are ongoing. Those individuals do have a right to appeal their bail conditions in the first instance to the Metropolitan Police Service, or secondly through the courts.”

There’s a protest tomorrow at Sussex University after five students were suspended following allegations in their role in a campus protest. Student organisers are gearing up for a nationwide protest on Wednesday with the hashtag #copsoffcampus.

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15 reader comments

  1. Molly Cooper says:

    A statement signed by over 300 Academics and Higher education trade union members in Unison, UCU & Unite has been published on this blog, tradeunionrighttoprotest.wordpress.com

  2. alliecat says:

    “Has”? “Become”? It’s not in question, nor is it new. The basic function of the police is to defend the existing social order – that’s a fact, barely contested by the police themselves, and only narrowest possible definition of “politics” could characterise it as apolitical.

  3. Christine Owen says:

    The police’s ruthless response to the latest student protests is simply another example of the increasingly authoritarian and oppressive strategies, by the British state, towards dissent of any kind.Recent actions by the political class mark a qualititative change in the relation between the authorities and, in this case, student dissent. The government’s treatment of students is, however, symptomatic of its general attack on civil liberties, in respect of the general population and specific groups like students and trade unions.

    Could it be that the government is afraid that dissent might actually ‘kick off’ in Britain and is preparing its forces to suppress any opposition to its extreme neo-liberal project?

  4. Charley says:

    The protest was called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. NUS has agreed to support it though.

  5. larion myakicheff says:

    Of course it’s political. This Coalition see every thing with a profit motive and they dont really want a well educated and informed student body questioning their motives. Where are the voices from the tutors and professors on this matter? Have they already been gagged?

  6. Philip Edwards says:


    I’m beginning to worry about you.

    Firstly, policing of student protests has ALWAYS been political, and always will be. After all, students are young enough to know the truth and try to do something about it. Surely you don’t think the bizzies restrict themselves only to dressing as clowns and infiltrating environmental movements? Our “intelligence” services try to infiltrate any movement, however innocent, that looks like it might put them out of a job by linking them to the latest police thuggery. Nothing new about it. It’s been that way since Walsingham. The uniform lot are merely the boot boy thugs of the establishment. For which also see current events in Chile, a country no stranger to fascist methods.

    Secondly, this follows on from that appallingly stupid “report” you did from Dallas on the 50th remembrance of the John Kennedy murder. So help me, your prime “interview” was of Hugh Aynesworth, the ageing Dallas journalist – who, as usual, lied his head off about what happened that day. Now a simple check of the record would have told you that Aynesworth applied to join the CIA in 1963, and five years later tried to bribe and threaten witnesses in Jim Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw (you remember him, the CIA agent exposed years later). He also sabotaged Garrison’s case. You can check these events in the public record: (a) CIA Domestic Contacts Division, Chief, Houston Field Office, memo 25th January 1968, Case 49364, (b) CIA Headquarters memo, same subject, signed “Ernest A. Rische.” 100-300-17. NARA, (c) CIA memo, date 10th October 1963, to Chief Contact Division via Chief, Houston Office, from Resident Agent, Dallas. Aynesworth tried to threaten and bribe witnesses in Clinton and Jackson who saw Clay Shaw, Lee Oswald and David Ferrie together.

    Now, if a Joe Citizen like me can take a few minutes to do reasonable research and dig out these facts……how come someone like you, who is PAID to research his facts, can come up with an obvious crook like Aynesworth……and then talk codswallop about police treatment of students engaged in peaceful protest? Surely that junket to Dallas didn’t just end at your hotel bar?

  7. Noam says:

    Wake up and smell the coffee. Policing of protest has always been political, and probably always will be.

  8. Hugh Mooney says:

    Policing all protests has always been political.The Police have always been political tool for governments to quell dissent.

  9. Andrew Dundas says:

    There are two issues here: whether non-UK students add or detract from university learning, and how civil order can be maintained?
    Universities are not, and never have been, part of the public sector.
    None responds to any Ministerial code any more than, say, a contractor like BAE Systems or numerous charities. Universities are free agents that gain much of their revenues from government, but by no means all.
    Therefore, universities cannot be “privatised”. Most are registered charities.
    I welcome the influx of students from other countries, whether coming here as ‘Erasmus’ students funded by the EU, or otherwise. So far from injuring UK student opportunities, the revenues and contributions of students from outwith England & Wales enrich the student facilities and experiences. The more there are, the better it is.
    Unfortunately, too many students are informed by concepts of static institutions and stationary economics. They’re unable to think dynamically of the opportunities these developments present. Perhaps their curricula need amendment?
    Turning now to matters of order, surely we want compromises and reason to prevail?
    Regrettably, the parties involved are both myopic and unbending. This is not the way for adults to behave, whether they are university managers, the police or, especially our very privileged UK students.

    1. Chris Atkins says:

      Why exactly do you describe our students as “privileged”? They or their parents pay dearly for an education that is purchased, not gifted by the establishment. This is the type of free market economics that the Right would normally applaud. Their rules say that If you have money then any type of behaviour is totally acceptable, otherwise how would you explain lobbyists? Students are simply exercising their rights to influence by right of their financial contribution. The neoliberals just don’t like the fact that students are lobbying for ideals that are an anathema to the ruling neoliberal establishment.

  10. sue_m says:

    Sad to read this on a day when a memorial service is held for a man famous for peace and reconciliation, The police behaviour is the kind of thing we used to watch SA/Asian/Communist and any other repressive regimes doing on our tv news – now it is the UK people being repressed and that is shocking in itself.
    Add to this the fact that it wasn’t that long ago that the police were shamed by the killing of Ian Tomlinson… not really learnt that lesson yet it seems.

    1. alliecat says:

      Nope, not shocking. Repression is not and never has been exclusive to the Third World, that’s some racist bull assuming it is.

  11. alliecat says:

    https://www.facebook.com/events/565580810188930/ followup demos at universities across the country at 2 this afternoon

  12. Philip says:

    The best thing we could do would be to make all police officers “servants of the court” – i.e. accountable to the judicial system, not to political hacks or people in power in the public or private sectors who don’t like to be challenged.
    I’d also note that by and large the police & students are an accident waiting to happen. Nearly half a century ago I took part in several demonstrations, including at least one where we charged ranks of police defending a politician speaking in a building somewhere. The police seemed to have an inherent dislike of students (it takes no logic to work out why) & took some pleasure in giving as many as they could a good kicking. But our police remain accountable to the courts in a way that is not the case in many parts of the world. The system is far from perfect, but I wouldn’t want to be a student trying the same thing in Russia or China!

  13. Iain Firth says:

    Yes the police are a tool of the establishment, they always have and they always will be, and over time, as democratic public oversight has kettled them, they have had to change their tactics in order to achieve the goal -putting down decent – in line with human rights legislation etc. Legislation won by students, fought for by students, with casualties. So as an old bastard watching this unfold, wearing very minor scars of my time on the front line, compared with some major scars of contemporaries, I sing “Carry on” because your kids will thank you for it. You are arguing a cause that affects you directly but you are stemming a tide that will destroy your children’s chances. When John Major comes out and says that social inequality is spreading to a point where he can’t imagine achieving as he did in this modern world……….society is in retrograde and it is You the people with words, with vitality and passion who will or will not do this. You made it to university, how many people in your community can say that. Whether you or they like it or not, you are going to have more say in how your and their community develops in the future, how your and their kids community develops in the future. Your Grandad will talk of how he went up against fascist bullets to defend “Our way of life” He fought for our freedom of speech, our free press, our legislated POWER to dissent. I am 47 my daughter is 11, her future is in your hands, in the modern arguments that you present. Be strong, be passionate, be clinically concise and extensively researched. Be BOLD be LOUD and be wise to the work of the suffragettes and the suffragists, two wings of the same movement, working for a common goal. It takes all sorts working in different ways, working in their ways, working according to their passion. If your passion is an equitable society, a sociable society, where empowerment and facilitation of the growth of community are your goals, for the love of the kids of the kids you were at primary school with; Get stuck in my friends and don’t take NO for an answer. You will be bullied, you will be abused, not because you are wrong but because the Establishment fears you. And so they should!!! If the establishment doesn’t fear you, frankly you’re not doing your job :-)

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