Somewhere around 4,000 students protested in London yesterday against what they feel to be an overbearing police presence on their campuses. The police did their best to render it a non-event by staying off campus. Protesters filled the vacuum by burning bins, indulging in some graffiti and charging through gates using wheelie bins as battering rams.
Tensions between students and the authorities are probably running at their highest since the mass protests of 2010. This is thanks to a number of incidents in recent months, which began in July when a woman at the ULU dared to chalk a political slogan on a wall and was promptly arrested. This particular protest was called after another against the cops last week that, ironically, resulted in 36 arrests.
A noisy crowd gathered by the University of London Union (ULU) building – which, btw, might not exist in its current form for very long – chanting about how much they hate the police. It's impossible to know exactly what the gaggles of 16 and 17-year-old prospective students being given guided campus tours made of this, but you'd imagine they were fairly bemused by it all, as they would have been by the banner had they not been paying attention.
There's a feeling among activists that universities have been in cahoots with the police to suppress student dissent. In perhaps the most prominent example, five people were banned from the University of Sussex campus for their part in a protest that, according to the uni management, amounted to “a threat to the safety or well being of students, staff or visitors”. However, after a public outcry led by various MPs and Cara Delevingne, the ban on the "Sussex 5" was lifted on Tuesday.
I got talking to a student who was affiliated to a loosely defined anarchist collective called the Imaginary Party, which, he said, had done a lot of agitating for the demonstration. He was keen to draw attention to the 3 Cosas campaign, in which outsourced Latin American cleaners won a battle to get sick pay and holiday pay from the universities that employ them. (With the help of sympathetic students, they're still battling for their pensions – the third "cosa".) The anarchist told me their fight was a symptom of an ongoing and rapid marketisation of higher education, aided by the police crackdown on campus activism.
"What we are seeing in Bloomsbury with outsourced workers is wage supression in action. For capitalism to survive without detriment to those in power, labour conditions need to be degraded. The police need to enforce that. So, austerity equals the police and police equal austerity," he said. In other words, at least for some of the people involved, "Cops Off Campus" is less about the right to protest, and more just another skirmish in the war against austerity.
With their shields dressed up as books, some of those assembled looked pretty badass.
Others were less scary. Or perhaps much more scary, if you have a fear of clowns, mimes, the French or annoying street theatre.
As the crowd moved off, it was hard to shake the feeling that something was missing. And then I realised what it was: the police. Their strategic absence marks a considerable shift in tactics from the “total policing” that has seen a number of protests over the last couple of years reduced to little more than a traffic jam of slow-moving kettles. Maybe all the “Who killed Ian Tomlinson?” stuff had finally got to them and they'd decided they just couldn't hack any more abuse.
On the weekend, the University of London announced an injunction banning sit-in protests on its campus. This guy found a copy of it attached to a gate and burnt it in disgust. It was the first of many things that the students came across that ended up on fire.
After the flaming show of defiance they started battering down the gates to Senate House, which had been locked to prevent them from entering.
After some considerable heaving, the gates cracked and they flooded through. Chants of "Whose university? Our university!" ricocheted off the walls.
For good measure, somebody decided to set a bin on fire. With no cops about, it seemed a little pointless, but I guess there aren't many situations that aren't made more atmospheric by smouldering cardboard and plastic.
Around the corner, at a different entrance to the campus, more protesters were streaming in. The University's flimsy defences of a few wire fences and some wheelie bins had no chance.
Nevertheless, this guy attacked them with such gusto that his sarcastic novelty police hat flew off.
It was time for another bin to get it in the neck. The poor things were dropping like flies.
Having vanquished their inanimate foes, the students stormed into the courtyard, flags waving like a conquering army.
They took the chance to mark their territory and send a message to the university authorities.
But there was disquiet in the ranks. On one side, there were the people who wanted to smash down the locked gates of Senate House, storm it and decapitate the management of the university in a bloodthirsty coup (or possibly just occupy it and issue some demands about stopping the privatisation of education). On the other side, there was the guy with the beard, who was adamant that this would be a bad idea. It seemed like in the absence of cops, the students had resorted to fighting people dressed up as cops.
As the argument raged, people queued up behind a wheelie bin ready to use it as a battering ram, which made the outcome of the debate somewhat academic.
They sent the bin thundering into the gate again and again, smashing the glass.
Before it could be breached, the protesters felt a pang of doubt. Some didn't want to perform for the media circus; others possibly decided that damaging a listed building wouldn't necessarily be the best way to reclaim it. They went to rejoin the rest of the students who were round a corner listening to a samba band, leaving the courtyard like a wheelie-bin killing-fields.
Then they all decided to take a walk through London. Often when this happens on a protest, it becomes one giant game of cat and mouse between cops and protesters that, if they're not lucky or agile, ends in kettling and arrest. This time, though, the police were nowhere to be seen and the students were free to run as amok as they wanted. There was talk of marching on the Mark Duggan inquest up the road, as if the students now constituted some wandering mob of justice that could parade through the streets of London long into the night, righting any number of wrongs.
But eventually the police did show up and were promptly climbed upon by a girl wearing what look like anarchist UGG boots.
I don't know about you, but if I worked in a profession that allowed me to tazer people, I'd find this pretty humiliating.
We weren't on campus any more, but it didn't matter: the police still weren't welcome. Several riot vans showed up, but the protesters simply larged it to them, throwing placards, jeering, blocking them with yet more bins.
I guess you could say the cops were having a pretty rubbish time (ayoooooooooo).
The vans turned and left. Granted, the barricade was pretty formidable, but it seems impossible that this wasn't a tactical retreat.
Having toured from Bloomsbury to Victoria via Parliament, the march eventually wended its way back to ULU where it all began. There, an impromptu meeting called for another demonstration in Birmingham in January. If the march was just about getting the police to stop hassling people at student union bars, today would probably have been the end of it. In fact, the students seem to be treating it as a way-paver for further anti-cuts activism – so watch this space.