UK: Police use tear gas to repress student sit-in at Warwick University

By Joe Mount
8 December 2014

Unprecedented police violence was used to break up a sit-in at the University of Warwick last Wednesday.

The Warwick protest was organised as part of day of action by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Protests and demonstrations were held at campuses across the country against high tuition fees and spending cuts to the higher education system.

At Warwick, around 25 students occupied an administration building to discuss the political issues involved in the struggle for free education.

Police entered the room where the students were and broke up the sit-in using CS gas and brute force. Students were “punched, pushed on to the floor, dragged, grabbed by the throat and rammed into a wall and kneed in the face,” according to protest organisers Warwick Free Education.

Police CS-sprayed a number of students’ faces. One student was sprayed as he helped up another who was knocked to the floor. Police were recorded shouting, “Back off or you’ll get CSed.”

Photographs of the victims released following the attack revealed the harmful effect of the spray.

Police threatened the protesters with Tasers, waving the activated weapon in the air. West Midlands Police tweeted: “During the disorder a Taser was drawn and an audible and visible warning was issued to prevent further incidents. The Taser was not fired.”

Although the weapon did not touch any of the students, an officer fired the Taser into the air as a warning to the students, as confirmed by human rights charity Amnesty International.

Student Helena Dunnett-Orridge said, “There had been a demo for a free education, then people went into Senate House, sat in reception and had a discussion about the protest. Police came in and we all linked arms. They started pushing and attacking people, completely unprovoked. We couldn’t say anything because we were being pushed.

“They pushed people to the ground and grabbed a girl by the throat using her scarf. They also used CS spray in my friend’s face and had Tasers. They started physically pushing and carrying people out. They dragged me out with them.”

Another student said, “We weren’t blocking any doors, we were being very peaceful. Security started to circle around us and then police turned up. Security told us it was for a separate incident. But then police stepped in. They threw at least two people to the floor and used pepper spray.”

Another said, “When the police came in we decided to all link arms. They came straight for us. They tore people apart. I’m pretty shaken up now. They CS gassed a few people, waving Tasers around. Just very, very violent. The police response was in no way reflective of the protest.”

The police attempted to prevent students from filming their brutality. Postgraduate student Lawrence Green said, “They stood on my phone and I think that was to prevent me from filming and to damage any film I already had.”

Despite the police violence some students were able to film the police attack, with a police officer clearly seen readying a Taser.

The use of a Taser, a potentially deadly electric shock weapon, to threaten protesters violates official police rules of conduct.

Amnesty International immediately condemned police use of CS gas and Tasers. “Videos of the incident and accounts from several eyewitnesses raise serious concerns about whether the police acted heavy-handedly and seriously endangered people at the scene,” said Oliver Sprague, Arms Control Director at Amnesty International UK.

One of the students suffering the effects of CS gas

“Eyewitnesses report that CS gas was used in a relatively confined space against peaceful protesters posing no threat,” he added, “while one police officer is clearly seen discharging a Taser into the air for a prolonged period—an action that could have caused serious injury if gas had been ignited.

“A Taser is only supposed to be used by police as a ‘distance-control’ weapon when confronting dangerous individuals. It should never be used as a crowd-control device.”

Amnesty International has repeatedly criticised the West Midlands police for its over-reliance on Tasers. The weapon has been adopted by police forces across the country as part of a wider beefing up of the powers of state repression in preparation for social upheavals.

On Friday, West Midlands Police launched an internal investigation into the “appropriateness of actions” following the events on the Warwick campus. Warwick university management and police claim that the students attacked campus security, prompting police intervention. Three students, two aged 24 and one 19 years, were arrested on charges of assault and obstruction but were released on bail without charge.

Vice Chancellor Nigel Thrift said, “Yesterday’s protest uncharacteristically saw an unprovoked assault on one of our security team that gave us no alternative but to ask the police to attend the scene to investigate that alleged assault.”

The protest organisers denied this as slander. Warwick for Free Education said, “Security did not inform protesters of the incident, request co-operation or request that any individual be identified. Nor did police. They were silent until they began shoving and grabbing people.”

The aggression captured on video refutes the lies of the police and university administration. No evidence has been produced and no charges have been brought against the three arrested students.

The Warwick student protests were part of a day of anti-cuts demonstrations. Rallies took place in 20 cities across the country, including London, Manchester, Sheffield and Sussex. In London, students occupied the headquarters of Universities UK, the organisation of university bosses.

The unrest follows the largest student march in four years in central London last month, which was also violently dispersed by police who made four arrests. Further protests erupted in response to the police brutality at Warwick, including at London, Manchester and Leeds universities. Hundreds assembled at the Warwick campus to express their anger.

Further anti-fees demonstrations took place in various cities on Saturday.

The crackdown in Warwick is the first time police have used CS gas to repress student protesters. This is part of a broader trend. In the last year alone, police brutality provoked a national wave of “Cops off campus” protests and Birmingham students were illegally detained and searched after an anti-austerity protest.

The ruling class is deploying state force in an attempt to stamp out opposition among young people to austerity and the growth of social inequality. Since the onset of mass austerity in the UK in 2008, police brutality against young people has become ever more ferocious.

Mass student protests in 2010 were met with police horse charges. In 2011, following riots in London and other cities, many youth were put before kangaroo courts dispensing summary justice.

The brutal response to the Warwick students reveals the nervousness of the ruling elite in the face of any form of dissent, as they move to impose attacks on the working class and youth that will dwarf those made since 2008. Wednesday’s student protests took place on the same day that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government announced its latest budget plans. Chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement cut state spending to levels unseen since the 1930s.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned of austerity measures “on a colossal scale.” This includes an 11 percent cut to education spending, with new loans of up to £10,000 for postgraduate students, thousands of job losses, and 1,000 fewer university places.

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