Students in Birmingham Are Squabbling with Each Other

Some are prepared to fight with police, others definitely aren't.

03 February 2014, 3:05pm

Last week, Britain's students wanted to let everyone know that they still hate having police on their campuses. A protest at the University of Birmingham was arranged to keep the momentum up, after demos in London last year saw thousands of people waving signs around, receiving punches from police officers and being arrested by cops on campus for protesting about there being cops on campus.

Wednesday's protest in the West Midlands wasn't quite as big a deal, with around 300 people gathering in the drizzle on the university grounds. But after a lull in London – where the Met sensibly avoided the most recent anti-cop protest – the police were back on their A-game, kettling and arresting numerous students, six of whom were also banned from campus with restrictive bail conditions.

Before things got started properly, a banner drop was attempted. It didn't quite work, and for a while it just spelt out: "LIVING WAGE ORALL", which sounds like an attempt at protesting the economic rights of sex workers. Everything became clearer when it unfurled fully to read: "LIVING WAGE FOR ALL".

Evidently, these students feel like they're part of a wider war on austerity, rather than campaigning in isolation against the high fees and economic conditions that are threatening to turn the British university system into a production line for well-read, debt-ridden baristas.

Another gripe was the first-year Modern Lit reading list. Or maybe this was part of that anti-cop thing, IDK.

There was another cause, but nobody could tell what it was because the banner dropped from Old Joe clock tower wasn't weighted properly, so it just hung there like a sad, wet dishcloth.

After ten minutes or so of trying to get the banner to hang straight, the students gave up on it, dropping it into a clutch of nearby trees. I never saw what it said, but a bystander said it bore the name of Defend Education, the group who had organised the protest.

Their banner plans thwarted, the students stalked the campus until they came across a lone policeman on a bike. A few guys in black bloc clothing confronted him, shouting, "Cops off campus!" and, "You killed Mark Duggan!" Anyone who's been to a protest recently will know that this kind of aggro is pretty standard stuff, a bit like a fan at a football game calling the ref a wanker, or a bus driver shouting at a cab driver for cutting him up.

Unfortunately, it appeared that nobody told the university's student Guild that sometimes people shout at demonstrations. Later, the President of the Guild wrote that her "distress was so severe" that she collapsed and had to be "supported by another sabbatical officer". She also called the banner drops "extremely dangerous". What she would have made of the Millbank protests or the recent Cops Off Campus demos in London, I have no idea.

The policeman who was the target of the abuse didn't seem to care as much, and cycled off in the direction of the chemistry building. The protesters moved on too, wandering off to try to storm the management building, where they were headed off by security guards.

They ran around trying to find another entrance, some of which had been blocked by security. Mild pushing and shoving ensued.

After being repeatedly foiled, the students had a breakthrough: they found an entrance to the university's Aston Webb Hall. Those with "book bloc" shields formed a protective barrier against any prying CCTV cameras, while people knocked the door off its hinges. Demonstrators then milled about, sang anti-capitalist songs and toppled this red chair – which goes by the name "Queen Elizabeth's Chair" – as a very polite piece of anti-monarchy protest.

This act of treason struck a chord with The Guild, who later released a statement condemning it. Apparently the hall's brief occupation meant that the "Give it a Go" fair due to be held the next day had to be postponed. And they had a point; who cares about the dismantlement of publicly funded higher education when people are having to wait a bit longer to sign up for spinning classes?

Before long, word spread that the cops were on their way to liberate the hall. Some people got away in time, but others found themselves kettled and given the option of either removing their masks and handing over their details, or getting arrested. Commenting later, Simon Natas of ITN solicitors pointed out that, last year, "the High Court ruled that it was unlawful for the police to require people to provide their names and addresses as a condition of release from a kettle or containment". He added that he would find it “very disturbing indeed if any police force was still engaging in this practice".

Superintendent Lee Kendrick of West Midlands police denied that the kettle was even a kettle. He said: "We strongly refute any suggestions of containing – or ‘kettling’ – a lawful protest. The suspects were detained by police and required to give their details ahead of the pending criminal investigation. Any that refused were arrested."

So maybe it's just a semantic point, but basically they had to stand there and weren't allowed to move for four hours – whatever that's called. All in all, 13 students were arrested for refusing to give their details, ten on suspicion of criminal damage, aggravated trespass or assault and three for violent disorder. None of those who were arrested saw daylight for 24 hours, after police applied to a magistrate for an extension on the time that they could legally hold people without charge. Most were released on Thursday night.

Kelly Rogers was detained for 27 hours, during which time she was strip-searched. When she finally got out, she told me, "I have not been charged with anything, due to there being absolutely no evidence suggesting I committed these crimes." Nevertheless, she was one of six students suspended from the university – with no right to appeal – for their part in the protest.

Ten more protesters were also handed pretty restrictive bail conditions, with students told they must spend every night at their home address. They're also banned from publicly meeting in groups of ten or more, or associating with other arrestees.

Unsurprisingly, the Guild sought to distances themselves from the protest in general, saying: "The Guild will only support lawful direct action and peaceful protest." This prompted some 50 student unions from around the UK to distance themselves from that statement, pointing out that the protesters are innocent until proven guilty, and that what they did was not technically unlawful at this point. They were also annoyed that the Guild didn't call bullshit on the cops' arguably unlawful actions. It remains to be seen whether the Birmingham Guild release a statement to counter the statement about the statement. Either way, it seems that a certain amount of divide and conquer has been going on.

Before Christmas, over-zealous policing galvanised the pro-free education, anti-cop movement. With another protest this Wednesday, we'll have to wait and see if the same thing happens again, or if a combination of depressing weather and the prospect of a night in the cells puts everyone off the idea.


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