It’s been a turbulent week for Warwick University. A peaceful sit-in organised by ‘Warwick for Free Education’ turned ugly when West Midlands police beat, CS sprayed and threatened to taser students – the first time, incidentally, that CS spray has ever been used on students. The footage was shocking: I was sitting in the library as Facebook erupted with jaw-dropping videos that gave me goosebumps. Within hours, the Guardian and BBC were covering it and students, (in true fashion) mobilised quickly. A protest was planned for the next day. On a cold Thursday afternoon, over 1000 students gathered outside the place of the incident to express solidarity with those who were attacked, injured and arrested (observed by the Beeb, Channel 4…and police – this time soothingly dressed in eggshell blue). Speeches were read and slogans were chanted, culminating with a group of about 100 students occupying part of a university building.
For me, the interesting thing about the whole episode was seeing Warwick politically engaged. Our generation is frequently accused of political apathy and, to an extent, that’s true. Certainly, in all my three years at Warwick I’ve never seen such a diverse group of student united for a common cause. The energy was buoyant and all over campus, people were talking about it – it was heartening and empowering to see so many different students rejecting the brutal police attack. In a (horrific) way, perhaps it took something as barbaric as watching a fellow student get assaulted by a thuggish looking copper to get us to care. That the university issued a disappointing statement effectively blaming the students, was not altogether surprising – Warwick is, after all, more of a business than a public institution, hence the original protest – yet it was comforting to know that we were smart enough to organise and voice our disapproval. Images like Wednesday’s are commonplace in Palestine, where schoolgirls get tear gassed, or Ferguson where the State is crushing the people’s anger with brute force. Seeing Warwick students in a state of fear* should be a wake-up call reminding us that order and civility are fragile: nowhere is immune.
We spend 3 years and £27,000 on getting ‘educated’. Most of us leave to become corporate lawyers and/or bankers. Most of us never seem to see the link between the ideas in the classroom and the events in reality. Well, at Thursday’s protest, we seemed to unanimously decide on how we wanted our university to be. Not a place of police brutality and bullying but of tolerance and creativity. Warwick University needs to realise that if its task is to teach us about justice, freedom, resistance and fairness, we will eventually search for those ideals in our quotidian life and our gaze will inevitably fall on our university. Warwick cannot then be surprised when we vocalise our outrage about its rejection of the very ideals we pay it to teach. That’s not to say that there weren’t problems with the protest (and certain actions that have followed since) and I don’t know whether the list of demands issued by those in occupation will bear fruit; however, this week, Warwick has demonstrated how to turn a hateful situation into a political cause that can rally hundreds. For that, I am proud of its students and their integrity. I doubt we’ll be picking up the Times ‘University of the Year’ award again next year, but if there was a ‘Students of the Year’ award, I’d venture to say we’re looking to place first.
*It should be clearly stated that the plight of Palestinians and other oppressed groups and the terror and trauma they face is much more violent. I in no way try to compare them, but it is worth stressing the universal fear that society faces whenever it’s confronted with (unwarranted) violence from an authority.
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