Did the police really need to break up a peaceful sit-in with CS spray and tasers?
Police used CS spray and drew a taser on students while breaking up a sit-in protest at Warwick University yesterday. The incident was captured in several videos that have been shared online, with students describing the police's use of force as "extreme, disproportionate and unprovoked". They maintain that up until that point the protest had been peaceful.
Craig McVey, a PhD student, described how, "a police officer drew his CS spray and sprayed it in someone's eyes; a minute later [he] started spraying the crowd of about ten or so students". McVey says the spray "really stayed in the air, like a cloud – people were coughing and spluttering and they couldn't see".
Another student, Callum Cant, said he saw the police "whacking people in the face, using chokeholds, CS spray and dragging people by the throat. I saw a taser held above the head of one particularly angry copper, it was on cattle prodder mode... They were basically assaulting all 30 of us in one fell swoop."
The protest at Warwick was part of a National Day of Action called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). It follows thousands of people demonstrating against tuition fees on the streets of central London on November 19th. Similar actions to the Warwick sit-in occurred across the country yesterday but despite them often being more provocative in their approach, they attracted far less media attention. In most cases this was because the police opted to stay away, mindful perhaps that their presence at campus protests inevitably results in "Cops Off Campus" follow-up demos.
At SOAS in London, students staged a successful temporary takeover of a university building, throwing around Monopoly money stamped with the average student's debt before leaving voluntarily. They then took the Cops Off Campus theme into their own hands, surrounding a riot van and rolling it gleefully towards the horizon. Students at Lancaster and Sheffield universities occupied buildings where they remain today.
Unlike many other universities' actions, McVey insisted that the Warwick sit-in was neither particularly disruptive nor a full-blown occupation; the students – who didn't intend to stay overnight – "just wanted a space to hold meetings and little seminars in, somewhere to talk about free education and to invite people to join us". Cant said the action started spontaneously and peacefully, following a rally outside. "Security thought about stopping us, but there were so many we just walked in, they were letting us in and out," he said. "We pulled up some chairs, and sat in a circle for about half an hour, chatting about free education."
It was then that the police showed up and set about picking off individuals from the 30-strong crowd of protesters. "It was as if they'd been warned or briefed on who to pick," another student, named Jon, told me.
Three students were arrested and taken to a police station in Coventry, with fellow protesters waiting outside overnight for their release.
West Midlands Police have released a statement alleging that they were called to the university because of an assault: "Officers arrived at Senate House at 4.50PM to find a group of around 25 students protesting about fees and a staff member reported that he had been assaulted by one of the group.
"Three people were arrested from the site, one on suspicion of assault and two others on suspicion of obstructing police. Police officers and security staff from the university worked together to ensure everyone was safe. The protest continues and officers remain at the scene to ensure there is no further breach of the peace."
Unsurprisingly, all of the students I spoke to said they knew nothing about an assault, and maintain that the actions of the police were unprovoked. "The Warwick Free Education Campaign only started in September," said McVey, "so most of the people have never really been involved with activism – today's demonstration was their first."
The use of CS spray and tasers on students in the UK is almost unprecedented and marks an escalation in force deployed against free education protesters. "Tasers aren't standard kit," McVey pointed out, "the decision is made to deploy an officer with a taser and those officers have received special firearms training."
McVey describes Warwick as "quite a quiet campus, in terms of student activism". He believes the explanation for yesterday's heavy-handed approach can be found in the broader political context: "We are seeing a very heavy neo-liberalisation of the university as an institution," he said. "Warwick in particular really leads the way in terms of business partnerships, things like that – it makes a lot of money.
"When universities become institutions that are profit-driven rather than education-driven there's always going to be some degree of force needed to ensure that those profits aren't disrupted. And so I think that the neo-liberalisation of the university goes hand in hand with security and police being heavy handed.
"If the university were hoping to quieten protesters down, that's not what it's done."
As McVey predicted, a Cops Off Campus protest has been called for 3.30PM today at Warwick. Solidarity protests are also happening in London, Manchester and other cities.
It's exactly a year since the violent eviction of students from London's Senate House sparked Cops Off Campus protests in London, resulting in mass arrests and further reports of heavy-handed policing. That anniversary in mind, Cant hopes the protest will act as a wake-up call: "The NUS passed a policy to get cops off campus at the national conference last year. It's shit that it's taken my friends getting beaten up by the police to remind them about this, but hopefully now they'll actually do something."
Additional reporting by Michael Segalov.
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