Last week, West Midlands police CS-sprayed a load of students at Warwick University during a sit-in demonstration about free education. The following night, around 300 students pitched up to protest against the cops on their campus and have been occupying the university's Rootes Social Building ever since. Today, two of those students are being taken to court for allegedly inciting the occupation, threatened with having to pay any legal fees incurred.
Hattie Craig, 22, is one of the students going to court. She reportedly used the words "occupy, strike, resist", followed by "let's move", before the crowd started moving towards the building and ended up in an occupation. "From that, they seem to have determined that it was my fault," Hattie told me.
The occupiers have demanded that Vice-Chancellor Nigel Thrift retract his statement about an alleged assault at the original protest ("Everybody I know who was there never saw anything that they believe could be classed as an assault," said Hattie), to uphold the students' right to hold peaceful protests, to support free education and to condemn the unjustified and disproportionate violence used against students.
However, according to Hattie, university management have refused to engage with the occupiers, instead preferring to ask the court for an injunction that will allow them to bring in bailiffs to clear the occupation. "Rather than trying to talk to the students and listen to why they're so concerned after being CS gassed, they've decided to take us to court," said Hattie. "People have said it took the line of, 'We don't negotiate with terrorists.'
"Obviously it's terrifying to be going up against an institution as powerful as the university in court. They'll have barristers and we'll have no legal representation because we can't afford it and we don't qualify for legal aid. We've been put in this horrible situation by the university where we don't really have any power or control."
If they're successful in court, the university's management may also be able to ban anyone taking part in the occupation from protesting on campus for the next year. As the injunction states "persons unknown", anyone wishing to take part in a future demonstration would have to prove they weren't at the original occupation. "They're hoping it will quell the upsurge in protests in the last few weeks," Hattie told me.
In a statement released after the original protest, Amnesty International condemned the police response. Oliver Sprague, the organisation's UK control director, said: "Videos of the incident raise serious concerns about whether the police acted heavy-handedly and seriously endangered people at the scene. Eyewitnesses report that CS gas was used in a relatively confined space against peaceful protesters posing no threat, while one police officer is clearly seen discharging a taser into the air for a prolonged period, an action that could have caused serious injury if gas had been ignited.
"A taser is only supposed to be used by police as a 'distance-control' weapon when confronting dangerous individuals – it should never be used as a crowd-control device. West Midlands police already use tasers more than any other police force in England and Wales, and we're increasingly concerned that its officers are misusing the weapon."
There have been other occupations in the last week at Lancaster University, the University of Sheffield and the University of the West of England, but in each case the university has negotiated with the students about their concerns. No other injunctions have been imposed.
However, a similar injunction was raised at the University of Birmingham following a protest last year. In a press release about today's court case, Deborah Hermanns from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts said: "This outrageous move follows similar legal action taken at other universities, including the one at Birmingham, which was condemned by Amnesty International for breaching human rights. We utterly deplore Warwick management's decision and will continue to fight for the right to protest on each and every campus – free from management and police repression."
For now, students remain at the occupation, awaiting the court's verdict.