Wednesday 3 November 2014 was declared a 'nationwide day of action', seeing campuses from across the country taking part in demonstrations calling for the government to scrap tuition fees in favour of universal free education. Protest group Warwick For Free Education, of the University of Warwick in Coventry, staged a peaceful sit-in of the Senate House building on their campus. Three students were arrested after trouble broke out with the police, with original footage later uploaded on YouTube showing police pulling a woman protestor using her scarf, using CS spray on another protestor and threatening to use a Taser against demonstrators.
Warwick Students' Union issued a statement 'condemning the disproportionate use of force by police on protestors at [the] Free Education demonstration' whilst Amnesty International UK also published a press release outlining concerns over CS gas and Taser use at the protest. Nigel Thrift, the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University, later confirmed that the University had called the police on protestors.
In response to the violent clampdown on the protest, over 500 people converged outside the Senate House building on Thursday afternoon to demonstrate against police brutality, and in solidarity with those arrested and injured. The demonstration included statements from those who had been arrested and could not attend due to restrictions placed upon them as bail conditions, as well as students from the University of Warwick, a staff member from the University, a representative from Defend the Right to Protest (DtRtP) and a member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). I also gave a speech on behalf of the National Union of Students (NUS) Black Students' Campaign (BSC).
To a student from the University of Birmingham such as myself, news of occupations and peaceful sit-ins turning ugly due to police intervention are unfortunately nothing new. Violent repression of peaceful dissent seems to be a feature characteristic of more and more campuses across the country. However as Hattie Craig, student at the University of Birmingham and national executive council member of NCAFC, stressed to the crowds at Thursday's protest, the use of CS spray on students and the threat of tasering is unprecedented at any university. Amnesty's statement affirmed that "West Midlands police already use Tasers more than any other police force in England and Wales and [they are] increasingly concerned that its officers are misusing the weapon...[and are] becoming increasingly trigger-happy with Tasers."
After leaving the demonstration and heading to Warwick Students' Union building, I learnt that protesters had occupied the Chancellor's Suite of the university's Rootes Building Conference Centre, where the Vice Chancellor's dinner was due to be held later that night. The building was locked off by security and police liaison officers were also inside the room.
I want to be horrified about the accounts of police brutality that have occurred on British campuses - Warwick and also Sheffield University, where security guards chained fire exits locking in free education protestors at campus outlet Inox Dine - but truthfully I'm not at all surprised.
Police violence isn't just something consigned to the United States or Palestine, it is very much a part of the British experience as well. The threat of police brutality is especially pertinent if you are Black. Police statistics show that those of African and Caribbean descent are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and if you're of South-Asian descent, you're twice as likely to be stopped and searched as a white person.
People are rightfully angry at the American justice system which has refused to indict the police officers responsible for the recent murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner - but is the British system really any better? There have been more than 1,000 documented deaths in UK police custody since 1969, yet not a single successful prosecution of any police officer. This is in spite of the fact that since 1990, there have been 9 unlawful killing verdicts returned by juries at inquests into deaths involving the police and 1 unlawful killing verdict recorded by a public inquiry.
Similar to the US, British police and media are guilty of portraying Black victims as criminals who are to blame for their own deaths. In the case of Mark Duggan, he was a 'gangster' and a 'core member of one of the most violent gangs in Europe' who 'shot first'. In 2005, we were told that Jean Charles de Menezes was a 'twitchy suspect' who wearing a 'bulky jacket' and 'jumped up from his seat with his hands in a position suggesting he was about to detonate a bomb'.
A small peaceful campus sit-in at Warwick University saw the police respond in an extreme and disproportionate manner, however police kettles and violence are common occurrences when direct action is taken by Black people in defence of their freedoms. At the University of Birmingham, Black students are the first to be profiled by security, the first to be arrested when events take an ugly turn and the last voices to be heard in the media. Muslim students are the ones being spied on by universities who have been told to report on students who might be a "threat" and are "vulnerable to radicalisation", in the form of the PREVENT initiative. As the initiative looks to become statutory obligation with the government's new Counter-terrorism and Security Bill, comparisons can aptly be made to the racist and pervasive surveillance by the NYPD, NSA and FBI of Muslim Americans and the militarised Islamophobia of the US state.
Yes, institutional racism at the hands of the police is nothing new, nor is police violence. Nonetheless it is never acceptable - not on our streets, in our communities or on our campuses. That is why we must challenge it in any form in which it presents itself: institutional racism, police brutality, stop and search and the British government's PREVENT strategy.
There should not be selective rage against the police when a small number of students at a Russell Group university experience police heavy-handedness, but sustained anger directed whenever a young boy of African or Caribbean descent is stopped by a police officer in the streets of London or Birmingham due to the colour of his skin.
There needs to be consistent indignation when police officers detain and question 'suspicious looking' people at airports either because their name has 'Muhammad' in it, they have a beard or because they are wearing a turban.
There needs to be collective rage when a young man is murdered in Tottenham and has his character assassinated to justify police actions.
There needs to be real solidarity with every single individual, and every single family who has been affected by police brutality, in the UK and across the world.
The NUS Black Students' Campaign has been at the forefront of campaigns against stop and search and deaths in police custody, and has worked alongside organisations such as the London Black Revolutionaries and Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) in organising the demonstration against the murder of Michael Brown. On 10th of December 2014, we will be taking to the streets again against the senseless murder of Eric Garner at the hands of a white police officer, who has not been charged for his actions.
For more information on the NUS Black Students' Campaign, please visit: http://www.nus.org.uk/en/who-we-are/how-we-work/black-students/