Are Students Who Protest Against the Cuts 'Extremists'?
Birmingham's counter-terrorism police seem to think so.
Police and protesters share an awkward moment at Birmingham University in January (Photo by Ed Ive)
Usually, if a parent receives a concerned letter about their errant progeny, it's because they've been lucky enough to raise a kid who gets that smoking while your lungs are still developing is totally badass. When you're an adult, it's accepted that 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 that 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 excuse the police for wanting to get in touch with his family. But Pat wasn't flying to Syria to build a new caliphate, or trying to spearhead a Combat 18 revival on campus.
In fact, Pat is a member of Defend Education Birmingham (DEB), a group that opposes tuition fees and is calling for a living wage for all university staff, a public register of university investments and greater staff and student control over university management. All of which is pretty run of the mill student activist stuff – there's nothing there that's particularly extreme or worthy of terror police attention.
The letter sent to Pat's parents 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, who are 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 aggy 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 at a "Cops Off Campus" demo in Birmingham in January, along with 12 others. He'd refused to give police officers his details, which they requested as a condition of allowing him to leave the kettle. At the time the police denied the kettle was even a kettle – merely a bunch of people held en masse and then arrested. Whatever it was, Pat ended up “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." Dealing with that, he says, 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 the Prevent programme has been that it focuses too heavily on Muslims. While it has also been used against the far right, there aren't any known cases of the scheme being employed against anti-austerity activists – though 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, who first kicked up a fuss about Pat's situation. “It's less common for Prevent officers to get involved in this way," he confirmed, "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 said, "We cannot 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 Millbank's forecourt in 2010, Birmingham has been home to a significant number of left-wing students complaining about their tuition fees. 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 were 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... 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 his singling out was politically motivated. They haven’t responded to my email.
Whether the university put them up to it or not, it seems that Prevent has taken a step away from trying to prevent real extremism and towards hassling legitimate protesters.
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