Sign and circulate the statement UK academic staff against criminalisation of protest now on-line:
Three years ago today, parliament voted by a narrow margin to triple tuition fees and cut the educational maintenance allowance. Outside, thousands of students, lecturers and others gathered in the freezing cold to protest against everything the vote represented – the closing off of further and higher education to all but the rich and those prepared to take on thousands of pounds worth of debt for a job that might never come. Riot police charged horses into crowds, lashed out with batons to devastating effect and kettled hundreds for hours on Westminster Bridge. Dozens were later charged with serious public order offences, although juries thankfully didn’t buy it, acquitting 18 of the 19 who pleaded not guilty.
Three years later, we find the right to protest yet more eroded. Following successful student actions in support of cleaning staff, “occupational-style protests” have recently been the subject of an injunction at the University of London, turning a civil matter criminal, and recent “Cops Off Campus” demos have seen a return of aggressive police tactics in the form of physical violence, kettling and mass police presence. The only thing the police seemed to have “learned” from last time was the short-term impact of mass arrests – as the 286 anti-fascist protesters arrested recently in Tower Hamlets will know. Protesters are loaded into police vans or specially commissioned buses, taken to police stations all over London and sometimes even outside the city, held for hours, released on police bail with ludicrous conditions (not to enter the city of Westminster, or to attend any protests, or to congregate in groups of four), then the charges are dropped many months down the line.
The speed at which the police arrest protesters is mirrored by the slowness of the state to drop charges: bail is used as a temporal weapon to continue punishment when protests are over. University managements are complicit with such prosecutions, calling the police to take action on their own students, enabling police to film protesters and colluding with the authorities to ban students from campus, as the recentsuspension of five Sussex students shows. All of this makes very clear where the battlelines are drawn: staff, students, and everyone who keeps the university going on one side; management, police and courts on the other.
As a lecturer, I was horrified to see the treatment of protesters during and after the anti-fees protests three years ago. I am equally worried now, as police and management do their best to maintain the image of campuses as sites of privatised, client-based services, rather than places of dissent, disagreement and debate. The fees increase has not created the docile, indebted students the government presumably had in mind – on the contrary, the anger is visceral and real: the future of higher education is as yet unwritten. Students are increasingly aware of the true purpose of the police: the middle-class compact that grants the police a protective role in some situations is being dissolved in the recognition that police brutality at a protest is the tip of an iceberg that includes the kinds of violence (daily stop and search, deaths in custody or at the hands of firearms officers) that some students would otherwise not encounter.
A third national Cops Off Campus demonstration has been called for Wednesday, despite the threats and arrests. But this is not just about students, who after all are fighting for the rights of cleaners and support staff, as well as for open and public access to higher education. Lecturers must stand with their students against management and against the police – the students who fought against the introduction of tuition fees are the same ones standing with staff on picket lines: we owe our students far more than our livelihoods.