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Eyewitness Account: Warwick At War

Once the CS gas had settled, Free Education moved quickly to mobilise the student body and capitalize on a consensus of outrage. The Youtube video had been widely shared, and a Facebook event ‘End police against students #CopsOffCampus’ was signed up to by 1,500 people. Dec. 4. 2014 was the Arab Spring all over again, just with a better sound system, less gunfire, and more chance of it all getting rained off.

One of my housemates agreed to attend the rally, on the condition that we went via Tescos on the way to pick up lunch. I got myself a bag of popcorn find out here. We both joked about witnessing the end of civilization, here among the predominantly middle-class, Mac Book wielding, nightclub-going Warwick population. My other housemates said they had better things to do on a Thursday afternoon.

We arrived to find what the national press called hundreds, but I would guesstimate ~1000 students huddled in the cold chanting ‘cops off campus!’ on repeat. A few police officers were dotted around the fringes, with blue florescent jackets marked with ‘Police Liaison Officer’. Clearly the bright yellow ones that had featured heavily on Youtube were deemed too likely to inspire a revolt.

Our SU president Cat Turhan, the only serious candidate at the last election, made an agreeable speech denouncing police violence. The crowd cheered. Next there was a more confused speech made by a student denouncing Trans-phobia. Important, but not really relevant here. Further speeches were made by Warwick Anti-Racism Society, that tried to tenuously link the Free Education scuffle to the Ferguson race riots in the USA.

Member of staff Emma Mason showed up and read out Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, intending it to be an uplifting bridge back to the massive student protests of 1968. One displeased member of Warwick Anti-Racism later grabbed the mic to state that the word ‘negro’, which Ginsberg had used to describe the dusk, was offensive. One speaker called for the abolition of the police in its entirety; the crowed politely nodded along. The word ‘revolution’ got thrown about a lot. I awaited an appearance from the Judean People’s Front as it all descended into Monty Python levels of absurdity.

The word ‘revolution’ got thrown about a lot.

The three arrested students from the night before had their evocative statements read aloud, in a sneaky loop-hole that avoided the terms of their bails. I was moved by accounts of the injuries they had sustained; it was clear that under all the anti-establishment hysteria, there was an underlying wrong that needed to be righted.

My companion and I left to return home at this point, disappointed that nothing had been set on fire. As we wandered back we encountered six police vans lining the road out of campus, filled to the brim with officers. As far as I understand they were never deployed. I dread to think of the taxpayer’s bill.

Conveniently, this action occurred as the sun went down and the cold set in.

What happened after we left was really the juicy bit. The protest turned tail and marched on the Rootes Building, where our Vice Chancellor was supposedly dining some guests. After a brief confrontation with an understandably reserved security team, the crowd marched into the building and took up a position on the first floor. Initially an occupation of around 200 students took place. Conveniently, this action occurred as the sun went down and the cold set in.

Over the night a fringe group marched back to Senate House, the original site of confrontation. The mob were filmed aggressively chanting as they bashed down locked doors. The student population suddenly realised that in any conflict there are two sides to the story. As a historian, I’d like to claim here that I saw this all along.

The Facebook comments were great. Disgruntled postgraduates (Who had been booted from their nearby offices all day for safety concerns.) denounced the action, calling for the cops to be placed back onto campus. One protester pointed out the significant difference between a broken door and a broken face. The absurdity of it all was summarised eloquently by one individual with ‘#DoorsOffCampus’.

By the morning only around 15 remained in the Rootes building occupation. The next day a solidarity rally to support the occupiers was called. Apparently only 50 people showed up. They’ve sent their demands, and intend to hold out until the university agrees to enter negotiations. Good luck to them, though I suspect the appealing call of Christmas will hit them first.

What I got out of this protest was a perspective on both the strength and frailty of student political activism, further evidence that the Student Union is not nearly equipped to challenge university management, and a socialist party leaflet from a shifty looking man with a bushy grey beard.

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