Last night student protesters occupied their Warwick University after a protest to demand "cops off campus". This was a response to the police's use of CS spray and the threat of a taser on students holding who were sitting around in a circle chatting about free education on Wednesday afternoon. As solidarity actions kicked off around the country, angry Warwick students took their demonstration indoors, occupying a university building and – rumour has it – forcing Vice Chancellor Nigel Swift to cancel the gala dinner he had planned for the evening.
The protest began late on a cold, soggy day, on the notoriously apathetic Warwick campus – I wondered if it would be a non-event. But as often happens when the police go HAM on some peaceful protesters, their brutality managed to achieve the precise opposite of what they were hoping – by pissing people off and bringing greater numbers out in anger. By cracking down on thirty protesters, the police had provoked nearly a thousand more.
They gathered in a university courtyard and speeches began. "People told me Warwick is not that political," said Hattie Craig, from Defend Education Birmingham and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), addressing the crowd. "Well just look around you. What we needed was a seed, a spark and tonight we have a spark. We have to show them [police and management] that we will not accept the limits that they put on our protest, we will occupy if we want to occupy, we will walk out if we want to walk out."
In case anyone had forgotten what happened at Senate house the day before, a statement was read to the crowd on behalf of one of the protesters, who had just got out of a police cell, but remains banned from his own campus. "I had my head bashed against a wall, a knee placed heavily into my neck while I was lying on my back in cuffs, before being turned over and being threatened that the taser being pushed into my lower back would be fired if I continued to try looking round at the officer assaulting me."
After listening to this, students marched to Senate House and smashed open the door.
It seemed like the plan was to occupy, but this was abandoned when it turned out there were too many security guards and locked doors inside. People scampered off leaving a cop to survey the wreckage.
Undeterred, protesters turned the other way and marched through campus, past some students who disagreed with them and chanted "Cops On Campus".
With Senate House ruled out, the next best target for occupation was deemed to be the third floor of the Rootes Building – a conference facility, central to Warwick's commercial endeavours. "This isn't good for their main business – conferences and that sort of thing," said Max, a second year Warwick student explaining why the building was being targeted.
People streamed into the building. Over 100 people got inside and upstairs. When they were there, a few students who seemed to know what was going on took charge and suggested everyone sit down and have a chat about what to do next, waving their hands in the air to signify agreement.
In the mean time, people tried to secure the area from security and the police by blocking their path.
Doors were barricaded with chairs and clothes rails.
However some security staff and two cops somehow managed to breached the impenetrable chair fortress.
These cops were police liaison officers (PLOs) – baby-blue bibbed cheerful bobbies who present a friendly face to cop-hating demonstrators. They hovered awkwardly at the side of the room, listening to the decision making progress like parents at a sixth form disco.
Max noted that this represented a change in tactics compared to screaming at people and threatening them with CS gas. "We were a massive group – bigger than yesterday – in that big building, but there were only two liaison officers. Yesterday in a smaller building there were five police cars. That complete inequality proves our point – the force is unprecedented, disproportionate and unacceptable."
Despite the whole point of the protest being to get cops off campus, students agreed to open up a dialogue with the police officers. The cops said that if students told them how long they wanted to stay, be that one hour or as many as 12, they would call off their truncheon wielding colleagues for that amount of time, which was nice of them. However, negotiations broke down when both PLOs admitted to having CS spray on them and refused to leave it outside. To be fair that guy with glasses on the smart phone looks like he's about to kick off at any moment. You never know who you can trust, mate.
Later the PLOs returned, to thank the students for being so well behaved – a backhanded compliment which has got to be one of the most cutting disses you can give any self-respecting student radical.
Left relatively unmolested, the big and disparate group of largely newbie protesters sat in circles talking and working out a list of demands to compile. The demands are now up on Warwick for Free Education blog. Among other things, the protesters want Warwick University to release a statement about the incidents that occurred on Wednesday, in which they declare their total support for Warwick students, and they want an apology from West Midlands Police.
They added, "we wanted to also highlight the conversations that were had when we were inside the occupation. We recognise that the police brutality is situated in a continuous move to privatise our education. Education is a right, not a privilege and the commodification of our education must be stopped. Whilst we are viewed as consumers and not students, the higher education institution will continue to further marginalise and oppress those within and outside the university." As such, they demanded that Warwick Uni's Vice Chancellor stop advocating higher tuition fees.
When the list was done, about half the occupiers left as a group, this time chanting their way out rather than screaming and being dragged by their throats. The rest settled in for the night.
Despite being the students' new best friends, the PLOs and security staff weren't letting anybody bring any food into the occupation so getting food in became a priority for people on the outside. Unfortunately all the windows in the occupied space were high up and small, so it took a very long time for protesters to successfully throw out a banner. A plastic bag of food was tied to the end of this and pulled back in through the window.
At this point, a friendly security guard tried to insist protesters let him take stuff in instead. "Look," he said, despite his colleagues barring the food just minutes earlier, "you can trust me – I'm Warwick security".
When we left, the occupation was going strong, although the people inside hadn't decided how long they planned to stay. They were still there this morning. Students from Sussex University have gone into occupation too. At Sheffield University they've been occupying since Wednesday.
Hattie Craig said she was excited for Saturday, when NCAFC have called on students to march in their own cities. "Hopefully this will have given them somewhat of a boost," she said. So perhaps students do have something to thank the police for, after all.