Are student demonstrations treated unfairly?

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Historically, students had a reputation for being a lively, political part of society, who stood up for their beliefs. Recently we’ve been painted as the apathetic, apolitical sector of society, or the amoral generation. Now we’re back as a ‘threat’ to society, political and outspoken again, and our biggest enemy is the police. So says the mainstream media, which has gleefully fed off the recent student protests, arrests and confrontation with police.

Stripped to what seem to be the facts, and simplified for the sake of those who already know the facts, this is what’s been happening: there have been ongoing student protests around the UK over privatisation, staff rights, and the closure of the University of London Union. Some of these demonstrations have led to student arrests, suspensions, and accusations of police brutality, sparking more protests about the right to protest and police brutality.

Let’s have a critical look at what’s going on here. It’s hard to deny that the police have been heavy-handed over the past few years, and not only with students – the ‘lawful’ shooting of the unarmed Mark Duggan springs to mind. In that particular case, the police officer believed the victim to have a gun in his hand, and acted out of fear for his own and his fellow officers’ lives. Closer to home, in the 2010 demonstrations over university fees, one of our own students was arrested and injured by the police.  It later transpired that the policeman who hit the student apologised in person, and explained that he was afraid of the protesters.

Is this fear justified? In the recent demonstrations, students have claimed to have been pushed, punched and kicked by police when they have done nothing to provoke this violence. Some have even claimed to have been walking away from a demonstration when they were attacked. Police officers are human, and aggression is a natural response to fear, but when there is nothing to fear this aggression is not humane. A rowdy group of students, some of whom may be trying to force themselves into a place they are not allowed into, or refusing to leave a room they have occupied might well be intimidating. It’s likely that the violence and arrests have been justified in some cases, as the only way to control an unruly group of people who really are a threat.

On the other hand, many people who were arrested or physically attacked by the police claimed to be acting in a peaceful and co-operative manner. Regardless of whether or not a protestor has been a threat, once they are handcuffed and on the ground, the threat is gone and there is no excuse for further violence from the police. Some aggression may have been acceptable, but the extent of the brutality was not.

Police have been using other tactics to control student groups – tactics that some may call “dirty.” A Cambridge student was asked by the police to spy on his comrades. He recorded the incident and made it public. Authorities also seem to be targeting specific students – the more vocal ones. Of five students who were suspended in Sussex, one claims to have been at home on the day he was allegedly involved in “disruptive and intimidating behaviour.”

All in all, it does seem that students have been treated unfairly by the authorities – not just the police, but university management too. From my own experience of campus activism, it seems like we’re a pretty peaceful lot. In fact, I’d say that the average student probably doesn’t care about much more than the cost of a night out in Sugar, let alone whether or not the person cleaning their accommodation gets sick pay or not (if you’re reading this, then you’re not that kind of student).

Perhaps the real question is why has the media focussed so much more on what happens at student demonstrations than on why students are protesting? So much so that the demonstrations have become about demonstrations. I’ve forgotten why anyone was ever protesting in the first place. Bit of a conspiracy theory here, but maybe that’s what their aim was all along. Forgive my French, but it’s all a bit of a mindfuck.

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