Cops Off Campus! Why Labour should beware ‘workers in uniform’

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By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrads and Education Workers Co-Rep

It’s been a dramatic few days in Cambridge. On Friday 25 May 2018, bailiffs forcefully evicted students occupying the Greenwich House administrative building of the University, mere hours after the University won a court order against the protestors. The week-long occupation, co-ordinated by Cambridge Zero Carbon Society, demanded that the University commit to full divestment from fossil fuels by 2022. For their repressive deed, the University employed Constant & Co, an enforcement agency previously used to carry out the horrific Dale Farm traveller site eviction in 2011.

The eviction of the occupiers has met widespread outcry. In addition to statements from such Cambridge student bodies as the CUSU BME Campaign and the Graduate Union, three open letters are being circulated. One is a condemnation of the eviction and of the University’s failure to divest, signed by Cambridge students, staff and alumni; one is for Cambridge alumni pledging to boycott donations to the University; one is for Cambridge academics to reject the unsatisfactory report of the University’s Divestment Working Group. Importantly, a rally has been called for 30 May at 5PM under the joint slogans of ‘Divest Now!’ and ‘Cops Off Campus!’.

The events of Friday have uncomfortable echoes with previous uses of police, courts, bailiffs, and other elements of the state’s legal machinery to repress campus activism. On 11 December 2013, NCAFC called a national day of action for ‘Cops Off Campus’, with 3,000 people demonstrating at the now-abolished University of London Union (ULU) in Malet Street and many others participating in direct actions across the country. This was in response to 41 arrests the week before, including those made when police stormed a 100-strong student occupation of Senate House, where the University of London is headquartered. The same week saw five Sussex University students suspended for participating in an occupation, and managers at Sheffield and Birmingham going to court to suppress campus activism.

In 2014, a demonstration at Birmingham ended in kettling and mass arrests. That year also saw the brutal eviction of a sit-in at Warwick, with CS spray used and tasers aimed at students after management called the police on them. The courts granted injunctions to both institutions in order to restrain the students from future protesting, as occurred the following year at the University of Arts London (UAL). More recently, government surveillance under the Prevent Strategy – especially of students from Muslim backgrounds – has entered the spotlight for its suppression of students’ rights to organise and express their opinions freely on campus, and for its contribution to the hostile environment that foreign nationals experience.

All this places the Labour Party’s recent positioning on policing and security in a disconcerting light. Since the General Election and the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, Labour have been keen to present themselves as the party of ‘law and order’. They regularly attack the Tories for their substantial police cuts, and pledge to increase the numbers of police officers, border guards, and prison officers. The youth and student demographics base much of the Corbyn surge, yet such vows as that to put 10,000 more ‘bobbies on the beat’ are very much at odds with these demographics’ acute experience of police brutality and other state repression.

The juxtaposition becomes especially striking in light of the ‘Grime 4 Corbyn’ movement’s role in generating support for Labour amongst young people, particularly those from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Although it was eventually scrapped in November 2017, for years the Metropolitan Police’s infamous ‘Form 696’ risk assessment required nightclub owners to describe the style of music they played and the ethnicity of its target audience, leading to discriminatory measures against events featuring predominantly black genres.

It is understandable why calling for ‘more cops’ is the knee-jerk reaction to rising violent crime and terrorist incidents. Nevertheless, it is strongly doubtful whether even the best intentioned increase in police numbers and prison sentences actually makes vulnerable communities safer, especially given the high rates of reconviction observable across the country and the lack of discernible effect that mass ‘stop and search’ has on reducing crime.

More to the point, we as socialists should not lose sight of the police’s repressive purpose as an enforcer of bourgeois state authority. The mass arrests and serious injuries inflicted upon striking miners at Orgreave in 1984, and the subsequent police cover-up, are no aberration: they are the logical culmination of an institution designed to defend the capitalist status quo. As Farrell Dobbs acutely put it in Teamster Rebellion (1972), his iconic account of the 1934 Minneapolis general strike:

‘Under capitalism the main police function is to break strikes and to repress other forms of protest against the policies of the ruling class. Any civic usefulness other forms of police activity may have, like controlling traffic and summoning ambulances, is strictly incidental to the primary repressive function. Personal inclinations of individual cops do not alter this basic role of the police. All must comply with ruling-class dictates. As a result, police repression becomes one of the most naked forms through which capitalism subordinates human rights to the demands of private property. If the cops sometimes falter in their antisocial tasks, it is simply because they—like the guns they use—are subject to rust when not engaged in the deadly function for which they are primarily trained.’

I therefore urge students’ unions and local trade union branches to pass motions in solidarity with victimised activists. Like this one passed by Leeds UCU in 2014, such motions should affirm freedom of speech and freedom of assembly on campus, and explicitly connect the institutional curtailing of these freedoms to the marketisation of education. Moreover, both kinds of union should demand that police not be allowed on campus without their permission. If we are fighting for ‘free, democratic education’, then students and workers must be able to organise on campus without fear of violent state repression.

Likewise, if Labour truly is committed to upholding education as a public good, and providing a political voice for the student and labour movements, then it should seriously reconsider its uncritical characterisation of the police as simply another line of work in the public sector. No to ‘workers in uniform’! Cops off campus!