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Campus arrests; student solidarity: what happened at Birmingham University and why it helped forge a movement

14 students were arrested and many more contained for a number of hours at a protest at Birmingham University this week. One of those involved tells his side of the story.

Max Crema
31 January 2014

“At the sign, rush into the clock tower” whispered the activists who had crept up on my right. Before I had a chance to ask what she meant, hundreds of grinning students were rushing forward and linking arms around the clocktower. The students, most of whom were too young to have taken part in the 2010 demonstrations, defiantly took their positions and looked around eagerly.

(Image: Lou Macnamara)

This demonstration was taking place on the main campus of the University of Birmingham, and if the students were eager to assert their right to protest on campus, then that was understandable. Over the past few months, students across the country have repeatedly faced injunctions, suspensions, disciplinary actions, gagging clauses, arrests, and police brutality in their fight against a 13% pay cut for their staff and draconian measures intended to stifle campus democracy. In Birmingham alone, five students are currently being hauled through a disciplinary process for peacefully protesting on campus, having been identified as ‘ringleaders’ by the University.

Earlier in the day, Birmingham had played host to hundreds of activists from universities and colleges across the country. Recognising the common themes in the work we carry out on our campuses, we’d come together to further our understanding of how these struggles related. Together, we hoped to raise a common set of demands - a manifesto of what we stood for rather than what we were against. Rejecting all tropes, this conference was one of passion and excitement with intelligent points made and conceded with equal grace; the document which emerged outlines a bold re-envisioning of education and its publication will serve as a rallying cry for future students.

Make no mistake, a rallying cry is what we need. Our vision of education is one which is free, fair, and funded; where academics and students decide what to research and study based on academic merit and not the interest of private business; where staff are treated with respect, paid fairly, and have meaningful control over where they work. In short, our vision of education is anathema to the government and to University management and as such won’t be won except through struggle - as this demonstration went on to prove.

Following the seizure of the clocktower - and the subsequent supersized banner drop - a lively demonstration began weaving its way across campus, doing its best to startle any potential students attending the University’s Open Day, with most participants carefully making sure that scarves or balaclavas concealed their identity. What seemed to be to be a melodramatic level of concern over privacy was swiftly justified, with almost every window of the buildings we passed containing a smug faced security guard with a camera attempting to catch the faces of the protesters on film.

Undeterred, students attempted several times to gain access to the central University administration hub to hold a sit-in protest but were each time pushed back by the University’s seemingly endless private army of security guards, who were none too shy with using force to keep students out of University buildings.

(Image: Lou Macnamara)

Eventually, via a conveniently unguarded back door, we found our way into the Birmingham University Great Hall (where this hilariously bad recruitment video was filmed at a cost which the University have refused to disclose -) and promptly sang some songs of our own.

(Image: Lou Macnamara)

Unbeknownst to the students drying out inside, police and security began moving in on the the courtyard the students had entered through. When we left the Great Hall we were greeted by a row of police and security blocking the stairs out of the courtyard, leaving us split with the majority trapped in a courtyard surrounded by buildings on three sides, and a 12 foot drop on the other. Making sexist jokes and pushing younger activists around, the University security forces made it clear that those trapped within the courtyard would not be allowed to leave.

In contrast to the cartoon villain style behaviour of the University’s security force the Police simply ignored the protesters, apart from preventing them leaving, while they waited for reinforcements. While later police statements have denied that protesters were kettled, I’m unsure what else you call a police line holding in protesters against their will for over four hours.

kettle.jpg

(Image: Lou Macnamara)

During this time students were trapped, exposed to the wind, and denied access to food, water, and a toilet while 50 police and a number of dogs were rustled up to begin processing them. Without being informed of why they were being held and under what legislation, the protesters began growing nervous and cold. As the hours stretched on, prolonged exposure to pouring rain, freezing wind, and stress took their toll. One student fell and was found on the floor in extreme pain. Shockingly, the police refused to allow an ambulance to be called and the student has since been hospitalised.

Slowly police began leading students, one at a time, down the stairs where they were given the choice of giving the police their details (and undoubtedly ending up on a database for the rest of their life) or facing immediate arrest. The practice of only releasing people from kettles if they hand their details over to the police has been ruled as illegal by the High Court, but that seems not to have bothered the police on this occasion.

In total, 14 students were arrested on this demonstration, most of whom were held for over 30 hours in jail before being released without charge on bail conditions which read more like authoritarian house arrest orders, while two are being taken to court. Two Birmingham students have been suspended from their studies, banned from campus, and will face disciplinary action. It seems that the crackdown on student dissent is far from over.

As students emerged from police lines on the night, either with their details in a database or their hands in cuffs, they had cause to smile. From organising tea for those emerging shaken from police lines, to organising ladders in an attempt to rescue some of those trapped above them, those who had ended up outside of the kettle hadn’t been idle.

Throughout the night, police repeatedly asked those not in the kettle why they were waiting around, and even fruitlessly tried to chase them away.The incomprehension and outright hostility towards the solidarity demonstration outside the ketting wasn’t coincidental. The purpose of police oppression is to separate people. Physically, this can be as obvious as the physical separation enforced by a kettle but it can also take the form of the suspicion which undercover police breed within groups, the strains which legal action can put on friendships, or the destruction of trust which outright collaboration can have on an institution.

Solidarity lasts beyond the act which creates it. While we began the day as strangers in a conference, the support we showed for each other, both inside and out of the kettle, built connections, networks, and trust which will outlast the demonstration itself. Our unity is our strength. We laughed in the face of the police who tried to divide us and as a result we have grown stronger, just as we did when they arrested 41 people in London two months ago. This movement isn’t going anywhere.

(Image: Lou Macnamara)

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