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Universities and Police Versus Britain's Students

Last night's protest at the University of London didn't end peacefully.
December 5, 2013, 4:10pm

Last night, three students were arrested after deciding to occupy Senate House on the campus of the University of London. Once they were holed up in the vice-chancellor's office, they issued their communiqué. The protesters' demands included a halt to halls of residence being outsourced and run by private companies and a reduction of rent in line with the rising cost of living. They also wanted the pay ratio between the lowest paid and the highest paid staff in the university to be reduced to a maximum of 10:1.

The occupation doubled as a show of support for the "3 Cosas" – a campaign by outsourced Latin American cleaners at the University of London to get sick pay, holiday pay and pensions (they already won the first two and are now just holding out for pensions).

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This protest forms part of a national picture, with occupations taking place at Sussex, Liverpool, Goldsmiths, Warwick, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh in the last month. They're all broadly centred around the privatisation of education, outsourcing staff and overpriced student accommodation, which – say the protesters – all equate to a heist of higher education, with profits being dropped directly into the greasy palms of private contractors.

I went along to see what went down.

At the start of the evening, over 100 students flooded into Senate House and began roaming the corridors like a bunch of burly jocks in a high school movie. Only they were there to establish higher education reforms instead of scouring for band geeks to bogwash.

Students entered the offices of management staff and, depending on the situation, either demanded that they left or politely informed them about the occupation.

I spoke to Alex Roberts, a music student at King's College University, while she was inside the occupation. She repeatedly stated that staff were allowed to exit the building safely, as it was a demonstration, "not a kidnapping".

The students feared that their considerate lack of force might not be reciprocated by campus security, so secured their position with some very tidy barricades.

But before long, some men wearing university ID badges who looked like shit magicians turned up and started playing tug of war with occupiers' heads and legs.

A demo had been scheduled outside the building in solidarity with the occupiers but I'm not sure they were on the same page. They were mainly chanting about Mark Duggan and calling the police fascists.

Accusations of the police going too far seemed a little presumptuous, considering everyone was stood outside and had no real idea of what was happening in the occupation – until a police van drove out carrying one of the occupiers.

Members of the protest tell me they had assurances from security and staff that the occupiers weren’t going to be forcibly removed, but I guess those assurances were bullshit.

The protesters had been ejected less than 12 hours after their occupation had started, with a spokesperson for the university explaining that they were concerned the students might be in danger.

It's difficult to see how some well-educated teenagers standing in an office is an innately dangerous situation but then I guess I don't know much about running a university.

Students began wheeling bins out into the road to impede the police vans. As you can imagine, this didn’t go down very well with the police.

This officer in particular was far from happy with the situation. He manhandled our photographer Jake to the side of the road and told him not to follow the protest unless he wanted to spend some time down at the station. Which seemed completely fair enough – since when have the press had the right to cover news events?

For a while the protesters were swamped by cops, until a little later, when the balance shifted and demonstrators ended up circling the police. This prompted a bizarre cry from the kettled cops of, "Who's kettling who now?"

Things got a bit hairy and this guy was pushed to the ground and forced to stare directly into the bearded officer's groin. Still, someone later accused a police officer of punching a student, so I guess this guy got off lightly.

Not that this offered much solace to him at the time.

Students began chanting: “Scum! Scum! Scum!” at the police, and it looked like it was dragging up some painful memories for the guy on the left. Perhaps he'd been cornered during the riots and screamed at by marauding gangs of teenagers? Or maybe he was just getting sick of being compared to residual waste for simply standing around and doing his job?

At the end, all that was left was this girl pawing at the gates of Senate House. She’d obviously been inside the occupation and been removed before she could get her stuff together. You’d think she could wait until the morning for a student card and some cardboard placards, but she said that her travel card, house keys and important medication were all being held behind lock and key.

Overall, the protest and the police's response to it seemed to follow a familiar recent pattern, which is universities calling the police as soon as they catch sight of any kind of student demonstration. Many of the students I spoke to were cagey about their photos being taken, which perhaps makes sense given the recent arrest of the President of ULU, Michael Chessum, for his protest activities. They're institutions where you can read all the Chomsky you want, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to actually partake in any acts of dissent.

Additional reporting by Oscar Webb

Follow Caroline, Jake and Oscar on Twitter.

Previously: London Students Spent Yesterday Trying to Save Their Union