“WTF is happening?!” – Warwick, the police and the new student movement

by Craig McVegas

5 December 2014

Images of pepper spray and a Taser on a university campus were shocking, but if the new student movement is to dig its heels in it can expect more where that came from.

“What the fuck is happening?!” cried a woman two metres away from me, holding one hand to her mouth while the other tried to keep her camera focused on the police. Within seconds, a generous spray of CS gas was discharged on a group who were filming with their smartphones, trying to capture some sense of the chaos.

If you’ve never been CS gassed, you don’t want to be. It sears the eyes, rendering the victim temporarily blind. More than that, it hangs in the air like a thick cloud you can’t quite escape. It hits the back of your throat, making you gag, and gives you the sort of nausea you might expect from doing poppers on a hangover.

The sit-in at Warwick University on 3 December was a relatively quiet affair. From a freezing rally, we made our way inside an administration hub to hold an impromptu seminar and discussed the possibility of free education and the future of the university community. Cautious not to disturb a nearby study space, students spoke loud enough to hear each other but quiet enough that they wouldn’t disrupt any learning. As student direct actions go, you might say it was ‘modest’.

When blue lights were seen through the glass doors, people were initially confused before security informed one student that the police were there for an unrelated incident. So when the police entered without a word and shoved people to the ground, panic broke out. Many were body-slammed onto the ground. Others had their hair pulled. Camera phones stamped on. Taser drawn on ‘stun drive’. Indiscriminate pepper spraying. One student who was particularly targeted with the spray later had to go to casualty.

So what the fuck is happening? The events at Warwick have been met with a shocked response, but I fear that if the new student movement continues to grow it has to be prepared to face more of the same. While a follow-up #copsoffcampus demonstration on Warwick campus attracted between 500 and 1000 people and was marked by a distinctly ‘hands off’ police approach, it should be anticipated that there will be many more cops on campus to come.

The reason for this is quite straightforward: the market and violence come together, hand in hand. As David Graeber rightly pointed out in a Novara report, “back when universities were considered autonomous institutions which were about knowledge and understanding, it was understood that cops don’t come on campus – these were not places where we’d solve our disputes using violence.” While few universities are likely to admit they are now more in interested in profit than knowledge, a £27bn turnover and an ‘anti-terror’ bill proposing to ban contentious university speakers would appear to tell a different story.

The botched attempt at opening up a free market in higher education designed by former universities minister and committed neoliberal David Willetts therefore necessitates that dissenting voices are either packaged up as a ‘unique selling point’ (cough, Sussex) or wiped out completely as far as possible (cough cough, Birmingham). At universities such as Warwick, which was famously attacked in E. P. Thompson’s Warwick University Ltd for its embrace of ‘commercial goals’ at the expense of students and staff, it should sadly come as little surprise then that it has opted for the nuclear option.

The new student movement is characterised by its proactive focus on free education. ‘Free’ not only in the sense of being against tuition fees, but also in imagining a new way of doing education; breaking down the old elitist barriers, rallying against the overwhelmingly white curriculum and reclaiming the idea of education as a social good. These were precisely the issues being discussed by Warwick protesters moments before police blew the place apart, and they are the issues the free education movement will keep pushing university vice-chancellors on.

But it’s not just a matter of individual managers or universities such as Warwick, but of mentality of the sector as a whole. The Russell Group, comprised of 24 leading research universities, has backed £16k fees for some time. Meanwhile Universities UK, the self-styled ‘voice’ of higher education institutions nationally, has been a defender of the marketization of education, earning a ‘degree in bullshit’ earlier in the year.

If the fight for free education is going to be won, it will come at a price. The new student movement stands opposed to the prevailing logic of the university sector. As students begin to run up against those in power more frequently, they can expect a response accompanied by violent attempts to quash dissent for the protection of profit but in the guise of order. Yesterday’s #copsoffcampus demonstration wasn’t the first, and I’ll bet you an evening with a Taser-toting copper it won’t be the last.

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