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Are Students Who Protest Against the Cuts 'Extremists'?

Birmingham's counter-terrorism police seem to think so.
July 23, 2014, 8:00am

Police and protesters share an awkward moment at Birmingham University in January (Photo by Ed Ive)

Letters to parents requesting a meeting to discuss “concerns that have been raised" usually only happen at school to the parents of kids with the foresight to realise that smoking while your lungs are still developing is totally badass. When you're an adult, you don't have to worry about your parents finding out what you get up to, unless you're stupid enough to get duped into taking a free holiday by BBC3.

So you can imagine the surprise University of Birmingham Politics student Pat Grady's parents felt when a letter from counter terrorism police, landed on their doormat inviting them “into the local police station” to “discuss concerns” that their son “[might] be involved with domestic extremism”.

If Pat was getting involved in a terrorist cell, you could probably forgive the police ignoring the fact that he’s a grown up responsible for his own actions, and doing whatever it takes to stop him hurting someone. So, was Pat planning to head to Syria to help build a new caliphate, or heading up a new branch of Combat 18 on campus?

In fact, Pat is a member of Defend Education Birmingham (DEB), the aims of which are to oppose tuition fees, a living wage for all university staff, a public register of University investments and greater staff and student control over university management. All run of the mill student activist stuff, none of which sounds particularly extreme or worthy of terror police attention.

The letter showed that he was being targeted by the government’s “Prevent” programme. Prevent was devised by the Home Office in the wake of 7/7. It aims to nip extremism in the bud. It does this by providing funding for groups with an “anti-extremist” message and by making contact with individuals, to quote the letter Pat's parents received, believed to be “at risk of being sucked into domestic extremism”.

But all Pat got sucked into were some demonstrations and occupations on campus. “I got involved because they are doing stuff rather than just poncing about”, he told me. Admittedly occupying a university is more agitating that writing a sternly worded letter to the Times, but it's not extremism. He described himself as a, “pacifist who'd never use violence”.

Pat was arrested on suspicion of assault on a "Cops Off Campus" demo in Birmingham in January, along with 12 others, after refusing to give police officers his details as a condition of leaving a kettle, which was legally dodgy of the police to ask for anyway. At the time the police denied the kettle was even a kettle – merely a bunch of people held en masse and then arrested with minimal grounds in a public space. Pat was “chucked into the back of a van, strip searched, hauled into a cell and reduced to ringing a bell when [I] want[ed] to flush the fucking toilet”.

He was released without charge, only to find that following his arrest he was one of six students suspended by the University. “The next two weeks were massively intense, constantly ringing people up, writing to them, campaigning to be reinstated… I became seriously depressed,” he said. Dealing with that meant that he struggled to work, “I was so far behind, especially with my dissertation”. And things hit a new low last week when it became apparent that Pat was under suspicion of "extremism".

One of the main criticisms of Prevent has been that it focuses too heavily on Muslims. While has also been used against the far right, there aren't any known cases of the scheme being used against anti-austerity activists – although Pat's letter comes only a month after it was revealed the Metropolitan Police had placed two senior Green Party politicians on a domestic extremism database. It seems that Pat is the first person targeted by Prevent to be on the left of the political spectrum.

I spoke to Kevin Blowe of the Network for Police Monitoring, which was first to kick up a fuss about Pat's situation. He told me it is, “less common for Prevent officers to get involved in this way. They are usually concerned with harassing young Muslims. However, as their role is 'deradicalisation' and, as… 'radical' is whatever officers have a 'gut feeling about, it may happen far more often and we just haven't heard about it. Because the… process is so opaque, it's almost impossible to find out.”

When I asked West Mercia Police why they contacted Pat, they responded saying, "We can not discuss specific cases. However, we can say that, if police receive any credible information to suggest there are risks or vulnerabilities concerning an individual’s behaviour, officers are duty bound to make appropriate inquiries regardless of what the ideological or political motivation may be.”

Ever since the first shard of glass hit Milbank's forecourt in 2010, Birmingham has been particularly hot in the left wing students complaining about the tuition fees stakes. It seems that opposites attract. Birmingham’s Vice Chancellor, the recently knighted Sir Professor David Eastwood, is a key enthusiast for the injection of private capital into universities. Eastwood sat on the Browne Review – the one that recommended raising fees in the first place – and as Chair of the Russell Group of “elite” universities called for the tuition fee cap to be increased to £16,000 a year.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that the university has been pretty harsh on protests. In 2012 it took out a 12 month injunction against occupations, which was condemned as excessive by Amnesty International. In February this year a DEB activist wrote that when they approached the counselling service they was told that “due to my involvement in the protest, I did not have the right to speak in confidence”.

Pat believes that his referral to Prevent is part of this pattern – a political move by the University. He said, “for me this is what their Prevent strategy is all about… Preventing me from speaking out against these thugs in suits after neo-liberalism-max. I'm worried that they've tried to divide my family against me… Who knows if anybody else will receive one of these letters”.

I contacted the University to find out whether they consider DEB “an extremist group”. I also asked about their engagement with Prevent, raising Pat’s specific concerns that it was a political act. They haven’t responded to my email.

Whether the university put them up to it or not, it seems that Prevent has taken a further step away from preventing extremism and towards hassling legitimate protesters.

More stories about the police hassling people:

London's Under Fire Police Swamped Brixton Yesterday

The Thought Police Won't Let Me Be An Anarchist

The Metropolitan Police Are Out of Control