Last Wednesday (4 December) a peaceful occupation of Senate House in protest against outsourcing and privatisation at the University of London was broken up by force by university security and police. Security pulled and pushed students to the ground and dragged them out of the building, where around 100 police were waiting, holding off a crowd that had gathered in support of those inside. An officer punched a student in the face. Some were violently bundled to the ground and arrested. Protesters blocked the street as the police tried to drive those they’d arrested away. A woman was thrown to the ground screaming and her friends told they’d be arrested if they tried to help her.
A protest against the police presence on campus had already been planned for the next day. Wednesday night’s events made it much bigger. A crowd of around 200 gathered outside the student union building at 2 p.m., and began to march to Senate House. It’s less than 200 metres’ walk, but students said they felt they were going from a friendly space to a hostile one, where the police could operate with the consent and often encouragement of the university. Some protesters carried homemade shields fashioned from perspex and polystyrene and painted like book covers (Nineteen Eighty-Four and Q featured prominently).
The protest ended up at the top of Gower Street, where the police pushed a few people over and punched someone who was lying on the ground. A man had his crutches kicked out from under him (he was later arrested). By the time around forty people were kettled near Euston Square station, there was blood on the pavement.
I was there to take photographs for Vice magazine – I’m a student but also a fully accredited member of the NUJ with a press card – but I was bundled into the kettle, along with at least one student who had just been walking past on his way home from a seminar. Hardly any of us have been charged; most of us are on bail until March.
Yesterday thousands of students, some from as far as Edinburgh, assembled to march again on Senate House. The anger at the police and the university was intense. At Senate House they broke down the iron gates and surged into the courtyard. They used bins as battering rams against the doors of the building and started a fire in one of the bins. But the police didn’t show up. The protesters went down to the Royal Courts of Justice. Police vans followed but the officers didn’t engage. When bins and bags of rubbish were thrown at a van and someone climbed up onto its windscreen, it turned round and drove off. Another van had paint bombs thrown at it. The protesters walked in their thousands down to Victoria, around Hyde Park and back to ULU. No one was arrested.
Back at ULU there were discussions of the police tactics. Why hadn’t they come onto campus? Had the students won? It seemed the police had realised that physically assaulting protesters gave fuel to the movement. The numbers spoke for themselves. The occupation of Senate House had about 100 people involved; they next day’s protest double that; yesterday’s, several thousand.
The rallying call of ‘cops off campus’ proved far more successful in mobilising large numbers of students than any issue since the 2010 marches against fee increases. Having apparently succeeded in getting cops off their campus they’re discussing what to do next. Many are concerned about what the police do off campus, too, and see the connections between their experiences of law enforcement and the actions of the police in wider British society. Students are planning to attend the events marking the end of the inquest into the shooting of Mark Duggan. There will be a candlelight vigil outside Tottenham Police Station on the day that the verdict is returned, probably next week.