Those of you that noticed the fleet of riot vans and police cars surrounding Sussex House last Thursday may have wondered if some disastrous or imminent threat had just been announced or maybe that Sussex House had been the scene of some hostage-taking scenario.
Whatever the reasons, surely such a large police presence would require serious justification; surely it was a proportional response to some real danger?
Yet to those who were at the protest, it was clear that such a police presence was far from proportionate – it was a completely overblown and aggressive response to a peaceful demonstration by students and staff about the mismanagement of university finances.
All that was missing was for snipers to line the rooftops, though the police cameramen (the so-called Forward Intelligence Team) recording the whole event did enough to make you feel watched.
Our university management called in the dogs, as it were. As protesters had already occupied parts of Sussex House, a heavy police barrier blocked the remainder of us outside.
During the remaining hours some students were arrested, others handcuffed and cautioned, and many others prodded, hit, verbally abused and intimidated. To say that the police reaction to this protest was gross and overblown is an understatement.
I personally witnessed a student attempt to stand in front of one police recorder who was then violently thrown out of the way down a hill. Another student who was trying to shield his face was bundled downhill by police, thrown to the ground, and handcuffed.
Unsurprisingly, riot police used the scuffle as a pretext to try and drag a student out of Sussex House. Violence against violence is bad enough, but violence against peaceful protestors is abhorrent and not remotely justifiable.
Josh Jones, USSU Education officer, said, “The violent tactics used by Sussex police on demonstrators will not surprise anyone who has attended other political demonstrations. Such disproportionate methods seem to have gradually become the norm in the UK.”
He certainly has a point. The prominence of over-aggressive police tactics to control protests has been made undeniably clear since the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protest last year.
He was murdered by police simply for being in the wrong place in the wrong time, and the police attempted to cover up their part in killing a man who had nothing to do with the protest at all.
Jones went on to say that “what is most shocking is that this act of brutality appears to have been carried out with university management’s full consent.”
Though the actions of the police in this case are cause for great concern, they will carry out any ‘job’ with the same cold indifference– their job is not to question the policy. Who really is to blame, as we all know, is the management of the university.
Instead of seeking to negotiate the situation they saw red. They know well that those involved in the protest have absolutely no intent to either cause damage to the building and least of all for anyone to get hurt.
In my experience, university security have been amicable to student protesters (their jobs are under threat too!) and despite this have successfully managed to control previous occupations without the need for an excessive police presence.
Students have managed to converse with security even in the midst of what the management would call an “emergency.”
I do not think the same can be said for some of the nasty and abusive police officers who attended yesterday’s demonstration.
Violence and aggression breeds more violence and more aggression. A usually passive person could understandably become agitated when faced with a row of heavily protected, baton-bearing police officers with constantly barking and straining attack dogs.
But then, that was the whole point, wasn’t it? The dogs, the riot police, all of it was staged to escalate the demonstration into violence.
Not only were the management responsible for the events that culminated in the arrest and detention of some students, they also went immediately on the offensive, gaining an injunction which will make it a criminal offence to gain unauthorized access to any university buildings. What exactly constitutes “unauthorized” access will, naturally, be determined by the management when it suits them.
In terms of the future of the campaign against cuts to education, this injunction will make it possible for any person ‘occupying’ to be physically dragged out and face prosecution. With University College Union (UCU) planning to go on strike, this means that staff and students could theoretically – and likely – be pulled out of buildings and arrested whenever the management claims they have no right to be there.
Where will this line be drawn? And by whom? This sets a dangerous precedent of the management resorting directly to police force to quell legitimate demonstrations.
The management want to criminalise people who have been fighting against the cuts to the university. When the university press releases talk of management being ‘engaged’ in dialogue—what they mean is ‘dialogue’ on their terms and their terms only.
University committees and governing bodies are nothing more than a rubber stamp to them.
This injunction will not stop these kind of things from happening in the future. Now that UCU have decided to go on strike, it seems unlikely that the management will engage in dialogue.
They will use their power and influence to silence anyone who challenges them, by any means
Shocking scenes of police brutality may become frequent as the fight against cuts intensifies. The battle lines are well and truly drawn.
This article was written by Mark Jenner & Tabitha Rohrer