Lord Blair was met with vocal protests at the University of Sussex last Wednesday 23 November. The talk, an instalment from the Sussex Criminal Justice Series of law lectures, addressed the topics ranging from counter-terrorism to police legitimacy.
However one Economics undergraduate labelled the event an “incorrect departure point for a debate,” echoing concerns from a group of students that the former commissioner of police should not be given a platform to speak at the university.
In particular, protesters expressed resentment that the lecture implied an endorsement of Lord Blair by the university and a Facebook group was established to rally support for a protest march and communicate opposition.
Students were in full voice as they accumulated in Library Square to oppose the presence of Lord Blair, before marching across campus to the Brighton and Sussex Medical School.
They were met by staff from private security firms Alpha Guard and K9 who guarded the medical school ahead of Wednesday’s event, leaving attendees and protesters alike standing outdoors waiting for the arrival of the former police chief.
Second year Sociology student and protester Robbie Bryant said: “We want Sussex to stay the university it always has been with a good reputation for arts and humanities. We don’t want to sacrifice this for churning out heads of MI5.”
He branded it a regressive step for the university.
A spokesperson from the university said: “We maintain a policy of freedom of speech on the campus that is of absolutely fundamental importance to the nature of academic institutions. A small number of students suggested that we should cancel the lecture because some people might be offended by Lord Blair’s presence on campus.
“Such an approach would be directly at odds with this very important principle. The ‘critical analysis of contemporary issues’, which characterises what we are seeking to achieve with the Sussex Lectures, is certainly not aided by banning leading figures involved at the heart of contemporary issues from speaking on campus, whether one agrees with their views or not.”
Protesters blocked the main entrance to the medical school to prevent access to the sold-out event, with organisers ushering attendees through an entrance to the rear of the building.
Protesters responded by blocking the back doors and engaging visitors in debate about the lecture. One university staff member who was unable to gain access said: “Debates with students about these issues should take place and the university is the place we should be hearing them. Everybody has a right to be heard.”
Disruption to the talk continued inside the Chowen lecture theatre, with protesters interrupting the opening words of the lecture to highlight the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and questioning the disproportionate use of ‘stop and search’ powers within ethic minority groups.
Lord Blair remained calm throughout chants of “Ian Blair, you’re not cool, get out of our medical school”, and microphone levels were raised to partially conceal the banging on the external lecture theatre doors.
Questions were invited from attendees following the lecture, with the audience calling on the retired head of the police to justify his substantial and well-publicised pension in the wake of job-losses and cuts to the police force.
He defended this as being a “personal matter” and something that he had consistently paid 11 percent of his salary into. Lord Blair also responded to the allegation that the police are seen as representing only a small sector of society with claims that a forum is needed to foster better links with the public. He said that only then may public confidence be won.
Outside, protesters continued their demonstration after security staff seized the battery from their megaphone. One student said: “It’s kind of disgraceful that they employed private security to police a student event on campus.” Asked about her impression, postgraduate law student Lara said: “He came across as thoughtful, experienced and moderate and I liked the fact that he referenced historical events as maybe many of the people protesting haven’t been around long enough to know about those events.”