On Wednesday the 3rd of December thousands of students across the UK took part in the National Day of Action for Free Education. Around 20 campuses including the University of Manchester participated, organising protests and occupying university buildings as part of a peaceful sit-in campaign.
Warwick University also participated in the day of action with the protest group Warwick for Free Education staging a peaceful sit-in at the Senate House building on Warwick campus. However the protest took a violent turn as police were called to the scene after a member of Warwick campus security reported being assaulted by a protester whilst entering the building.
In a statement to Channel 4 Nigel Thrift, the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University, stated that it had been the university itself that had called the police after the protest group refused to reveal which individual had assaulted the campus security guard. Although the form and extent of the assault is yet to be revealed.
Those protesters on the scene reported that at around 17:10 police, including riot police and police dogs, burst into the building in a coordinated assault with campus security. At the time the Warwick students claimed that they were linking arms discussing free education and what a free university would look like.
Rather than interrogate the students as to who was responsible, video footage instead reveals police officers drawing their tasers, in what West Midlands police described as an audible warning, and then advancing on the students. CS spray was used against at least ten of the participating students, whilst footage also reveals police engaging in activity which appears to show them grabbing at protesters phones to prevent them filming the event.
One video, available on the Channel 4 website, reveals a girl filming the scene when a police officer approaches her and attempts to grab her mobile phone. When she moved away the officer responded by grabbing her scarf and dragging the girl to the floor. One onlooking protester intervened telling the police officer to leave his friend alone, only to be sprayed in the face with CS spray.
The student sprayed with the CS, revealed to be Lawrence Green, a History MA student at Warwick, stated that the police officer had shouted at him, “get back or I’ll use CS spray!” before then immediately using the spray in his eyes. Green further stated, “there wasn’t much time or space for me to move really. Within seconds of the CS spray being pointed at me it was being sprayed in my face.”
One student was later arrested for the assault of the security guard and two others for obstructing the police, although Warwick Students’ Union has revealed that all three have now been bailed. In an official statement Warwick Student Union also commented on the police action at the Free Education protest:
“Warwick Students’ Union absolutely condemns the disproportionate use of force by Police on protesters at yesterday’s Free Education demonstration. While the full facts surrounding the incidents are still being established, the use of CS spray, excessive physical force and the threat of tasering is unprecedented on our campus, and the footage captured by students in attendance last night is deeply disturbing…
“Once again, we stand in solidarity with students who were unnecessarily harmed in this action, and our primary concern is obviously with the welfare of those who were directly affected by yesterday’s events…
“A further demonstration is planned outside Senate House at 3:30pm today, at which Sabbatical Officers will be in attendance. This is intended as a peaceful rally to protest against last night’s actions, and we therefore urge all those attending to exercise good judgement, caution and restraint when participating in what are understandably emotional circumstances for many.”
The Warwick Students’ Union also confirmed that footage caught by protesters is currently being reviewed by West Midlands police to determine if police action was excessive.
Over one thousand students at Warwick attended the further protest on the 4th, which went ahead without incident. Another protest has also been planned to take place on Friday the 5th with students demanding a formal statement from Warwick University supporting those students involved with the initial protest. As well as a formal apology from West Midlands police, the lifting of all bail conditions against the students and an independent investigation by the university over the police action.
In light of the Warwick story students from across the UK also took to protest to demonstrate student solidarity for Warwick. At the University of Manchester students, led by the Union’s Exec team, protested outside of the Students’ Union building as part of the Defend Our Education protest group.
Speaking to The Mancunion on behalf of the Students’ Union Exec Team, Campaigns & Citizenship Officer Conor McGurran said, “The kind of violence seen at the Warwick Occupation is not a first, nor will it be the last. We have seen time and time again police brutality at student protests, most notably in 2010.
“We believe that places of education should be spaces for debate and disagreement and that students and staff should feel comfortable to participate in protests, demonstrations and other direct actions without fear of retribution by tasers, CS gas or any other forms of assault. The West Midlands police fell short of their obligation to protect students and instead attacked them. This is something that we condemn.
“At the protest in Manchester students were chanting ‘Students United Will Never be Defeated’; as the occupation proves, the students fighting for free education will not be beaten into submission. In light of these events, universities across the UK should expect more political action.”
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