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.”

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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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