In December 2014, students across the UK took part in a national day of action against tuition fees and, quite rightly, the subsequent events that unfolded have far from been consigned to the history books. The day saw students from various universities, including Lancaster, stage demonstrations, walk-outs, and occupations. Most universities dealt with these issues through internal means and disciplinary procedures, but Warwick University was an exception to this where police officers were called in to deal with a student sit-in. Students were tasered, violently pushed, arrested and sprayed with CS gas. Such an unreasonable level of brutality has been rarely seen in UK policing of student activism, but with Teresa May’s latest policies on surveillance and “domestic extremism” it seems plausible that we can expect a heightened level of police powers and presence across our campuses. Though the force used in Warwick was especially extensive, police violence in protest situations is common across the UK, even in Lancaster. During an anti-tuition fee demonstration in 2010, police on the Lancaster University campus arrested and physically assaulted students.
In the wake of the more recent events, members of the NUS, alongside various UK student unions have been campaigning for cops off campus. This policy removes campus-based police presence, thus limiting potential surveillance of student activities and theirr ability to easily block protest. Lancaster University currently holds no such policy. We, in fact, have a manned police post on campus.
Many have argued that, contrary to what the cops off campus movement says, a police presence on campus actually allows them to feel safer. Such voices would claim that the only people who are worried about policing and surveillance are those with radical or dangerous ideas. This, I feel, is an ignorant opinion. Firstly, Lancaster University employs an extensive and dedicated security team, who are more than capable of dealing with issues of safety on campus. Having a single police officer there additionally makes the campus no safer. Furthermore, to argue that it is only radicals who have something to fear is underestimating the surveillance powers our government and police forces already have, and the greater ones they will be alloted under the “snooper’s charter”. The police already have access to our phones, Facebook and emails if they deem you a suspicious individual. Moreover, under May’s latest suggestions, to be classed as a suspicious individual is hardly difficult. Activists of all kinds, as well as those who are vocal with left or right wing views could be branded “domestic extremists”.
Additionally, concerns about policing on campus have been raised by liberation campaigners. Statistically speaking, black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people. This kind of racial profiling also correlates with high rates of police brutality against ethnic minority groups. Members of other liberation groups have also voiced concerns about policing and mistreatment; people with mental illness, trans* individuals, queer individuals, those from working class backgrounds, and sex workers are just some examples of those more likely to have negatives experiences with the police. Having a police presence on a campus can make those who hold one or more of these identities feel unsafe in a place which is supposed to be a home and a place of study or work.
We are living in a culture where surveillance is inescapable. However, if we can limit these surveillance powers in any way, shouldn’t we? By removing police presence from university campuses we make them into safer places for the exchange of political and social ideas. Isn’t having these spaces for discussion one of the reasons people come to university in the first place?