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UK: A week of arrests and suspensions

This week has seen a number of shocking incidents involving student protests, as Greg Bianchi and Sean Gibson explore, is democracy in danger?

Five students previously suspended from Sussex University have been readmitted to their studies. This came the week after a concerted campaign to reinstate the students following the universities decision. Meanwhile there have been dozens of arrests at the University of London and an injunction successfully taken out by the institution to prevent further campus protests until June 2014.

The Sussex suspensions came after a long-term occupation of the Bramber House building on campus by protesters who are opposing the privatisation of studies at the university, which they claim could cost 235 jobs.

As reported in The Badger student newspaper at Sussex University, over 400 protesters opposed the move to suspend the students. An online petition was launched with the support of activist Owen Jones and MP Caroline Lucas which had called for the overturning of the decision by the university.

A spokesperson for the university said that the students had been suspended after the students continued their occupation despite it being ‘unlawful’ and creating a nuisance and intimidating atmosphere for students and visitors to the university.

The campaigners have opposed privatisation at the university citing that it could result in job cuts and have also opposed wage cuts among university staff.

Despite this a number of students have begun to complain that the occupiers have gone too far in their methods of protesting and in some cases have been too aggressive. Equally other students claimed that the aims of the protesters had become increasingly confused with alternative campaigns.

However many students have condemned the suspension of the students citing the need to protect the freedom of students to protest.

In a separate development, as reported in the London Student, footage emerged of police using excessive force to remove a number of protesters at the University of London. Police were called to the protest on Wednesday night after students protested against the planned closure of the university.

Last month Michael Chessum, president of the University of London Union (ULU), was arrested by police for organising an illegal protest.

Another protest was held on Thursday evening to oppose the presence of police on campus. As reported in the London Student 36 protesters were arrested by police, this included the editor of the London Student.

Police claim they have received no complaints from protesters about the action taken on Wednesday night.

The past week’s troubles come a month after the revelation that police in Cambridge were seeking to recruit informers within student activist groups, after the publication of a covert video recording by The Guardian.  In the video, the police officer insists that the intelligence would be used to support the police’s management of protests – “so they can put measures in place to keep them off the road and things” – rather than to “target people and round them all up an arrest them”.

Although this might have been a startling alert to what Rachel Wenstone, deputy president of the National Union of Students, called the  “questionable tactics” of the police, the recent conflicts between ULU and the Metropolitan Police suggest that matters have escalated since the recording of that covert video in Cambridgeshire.

The tension there has hardly been eased by the recent comments of Sir Graham Bright, police and crime commissioner for Cambridgeshire, who linked his defence of the police’s undercover student intelligence work with his concern to prevent a Woolwich-esque killing in his own county.

Bright said: “You and I know that there is always that sort of activity taking place. One dreads to think that something could happen in Cambridge like it did in Woolwich.”

The incident to which Bright referred is that of the death of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London – with the trial of two men accused of his murder currently ongoing.

Confrontations this year between students and police have not only been confined to the south of the UK.  In October, two students at the University of Edinburgh were arrested by Royal protection officers. As reported in The Journal two students were apprehended in Old College due to the Chancellor of the University, Princess Anne, being present in a nearby university building.

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