On Wednesday 29 January, 150 students from around the country met at Birmingham University to discuss the next steps in their campaigns against the privatisation of education, outsourcing of university services and selling off of student debt. After the meeting, the students picked up red and black flags, put on masks and marched around the campus. Some unfurled a banner from the top of Old Joe, the university’s clock tower named after Joseph Chamberlain. Others spray painted and chalked slogans onto the red brick walls: ‘Occupy, Strike, Resist'; ‘No more 1984.’ When protesters tried to enter university buildings, security tried to stop them. There was some pushing and shoving. Soon the police arrived. A university spokesperson later said that ‘the university had no choice but to ask the police for assistance in restoring order and protecting students, staff and university property.’
A group of up to 100 protesters were surrounded by police. They were held outside in the rain for nearly three hours. Eventually, police began letting people go, but only on condition they gave their names, addresses and dates of birth on camera. Any who refused were arrested on suspicion of criminal damage, assault and aggravated trespass. The High Court ruled last year that it was illegal for the police to demand protesters’ details as a condition for releasing them from a kettle. West Midlands police 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.’
Of the 13 arrested, some were held in custody for more than 24 hours. One woman I spoke to said that she and another woman had been strip searched, allegedly because one of them was holding a camera memory card in her bra. After a day in the cells, three were charged with violent disorder, an offence which can carry an eight year jail sentence. The others were released on bail. Once again, stringent bail conditions are being used as a weapon against protest. The terms stipulate that the students must not enter any university grounds, must sleep at their home addresses every night and must not congregate in public in groups of more than ten. The three charged were held until Friday when they appeared before magistrates; they were then bailed until a court date in March. The bail conditions for two of them say that they’re not allowed into Birmingham; the third must not engage in protests in the city.
On their release, the five Birmingham students who had been arrested found an email waiting for them from the director of student services. They were temporarily suspended from their courses for allegedly breaching the regulations concerning student conduct; specifically, for ‘violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, intimidating or offensive behaviour… misuse or unauthorised use of University premises’ and ‘action likely to cause injury or impair safety on University premises’. ‘There is no right of appeal against the decision.’ Most of the suspended students have not yet been charged with any crime.
Birmingham University’s students’ union, the Guild, condemned the protesters, saying it was ‘extremely disappointed’ with their actions. The Guild has been silent on the suspensions and arrests, despite outrage from students’ unions around the country.
Fifty people met under Old Joe in the rain on Wednesday 5 February to protest against the suspensions. David Graeber, the LSE anthropologist, told those assembled that the police and university’s response to their protest showed that those in power were fearful; ‘violence is the ultimate anti-intellectual response to protest,’ he said. A UCU member showed up to announce their condemnation of the suspensions and support for those arrested. Speakers said they would return every Wednesday until the students were reinstated.