The University of Birmingham has sunk to new lows this year in attacking the right to protest. 14 students were arrested because of information given to the police by the university, however all of these criminal investigations were dropped or collapsed due to a lack of evidence. Despite the incalculable harm they have caused to protesters this year through their repressive tactics, they are continuing to pursue five students, Chames Zaimeche, Alice Swift, Kelly Rogers, Simon Furse, and Hattie Craig, through the university’s own internal disciplinary proceedings. The evidence presented to the hearings is shaky, speculative, or irrelevant, and some key evidence is even based on overt racism and ableism.
These hearings can decide to expel students from the university, but the university acts as judge jury and prosecution in the procedure, conviction is done on the balance of probabilities rather than beyond reasonable doubt, and the standards of evidence collection and presentation would be illegal in a real trial. The offences under the university’s disciplinary code are so wide that all students break them from time to time, and it allows the university to politically target those they don’t like. Students are not allowed to have any representation in the hearings, and are only allowed to bring a ‘friend’, who is not allowed to speak but only to advise.
The disciplinaries all relate to an occupation that took place in November 2013, around a set of ten demands. The university chose to respond to the occupation by preventing any access in or out, they then applied for an injunction and an application of costs against two students for up to £25,000. An almost identical injunction that was taken out two years earlier, was condemned by Amnesty International as showing contempt for human rights. The university then used their injunction to break up the occupation using police and bailiffs in an early morning raid. Hundreds of students took part in the occupation and yet just three are being disciplined for direct involvement in it, while two more a being disciplined for events that allegedly took place outside the occupation.
A photo from the occupation
The rest of the article talks individually about each of the students being disciplined, the incredible amounts of punitive repression they have already received from the university and the severe problems with the cases against them. All quotes are from the investigating officer’s report into the students unless otherwise indicated.
Chames is being disciplined for: “8.2.1 (c) violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, intimidating or offensive behaviour or language”. This is an offence that is so wide that almost any student is guilty of it at some point in their time at university. It allows the university to politically discipline anyone they like, on the basis of their conduct. This is particularly the case with protests which can always be said to be disorderly, intimidating, or offensive.
Chames’ offence is broken down as behaving in an intimidating and disorderly manner towards Brendan Casey (left), a senior manager of the university and the person who filed the papers for the injunction to evict the occupation. Chames accused by Mr Casey of asking him questions at a volume that “was ‘not loud’, but was ‘sneering in approach’”, circling “him in a way that was disorientating”, and sniggering. The university is effectively disciplining him because senior managers don’t like being questioned, a clear violation of his right to free speech.
When Mr Casey was asked for further clarification about the allegations he stated that Chames’ behaviour was disorderly “in that it was loud, persistent, lacking in spatial awareness and took place in a wholly inappropriate environment”. This is not only contradictory but is also extremely problematic given the fact that Chames is dyspraxic.
Chames is half Algerian and has lived in the UK all his life. Mr Casey describes him as “taller than himself, slimmer, with a sallow complexion and dark hair, but no discernible accent”, another witness describes him as “‘goth-looking’ with dark hair, pale skin”. Both witnesses have identified him on the basis of racial characteristics, and Mr Casey even repeats the racist trope of expecting Chames to have an accent despite the fact he is from the UK. The university clearly thinks that asking questions of a senior manager is a disciplinary offence, but that racism and ableism from a senior manager is so little of a problem that they can base a disciplinary hearing on it.
Alice is also being disciplined for violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, intimidating or offensive behaviour or language. This is broken down as two counts of behaving in a “disorderly manner” and one of behaving in an “intimidating manner”. The first disorderly allegation is based on the fact that Alice was at a demonstration and was described by a security guard as “the most vocal and possibly the ring leader of that group of protesters at that time”. The other two are based on the testimony of a staff member who describes that Alice was “shouting and smugly laughing”. This is the whole of the allegations against Alice.
The university are always very keen to explain that they support the right to protest and free speech, however they believe that shouting is unacceptable and must be subject to punishment. The reason Alice was shouting in the first place was because she saw other student protesters being violently attacked by members of security. The university clearly does not discipline everyone who shouts or ‘smugly’ laughs and so Alice’s disciplinary is clearly political. She is being singled out because she has been identified as a “ring leader” and in order to scare others. Alice is a final year student and has to deal with enough stress without being put through trumped up disciplinary charges. The university sent her a report immediately before the exam period and told her to reply the night before her first exam.
Hattie is the Vice President Education for the Birmingham Guild of Students, elected via a cross campus ballot. She was elected on a manifesto of direct action in support of education issues. She openly took part in the occupation, and the right to occupy is supported by the guild (number 51, action). Despite the fact that Hattie has a democratic mandate to take the action she was doing, and the fact that she is not currently a student, the university are still taking disciplinary action against her.
Hattie is charged with unauthorised use of university property, interference with the duties of staff, and action likely to impair safety. Her investigating officer’s report argues that because she was present in the occupation she therefore bears full responsibility for everything that happened in it. The allegations against her are what the university believes are broken by every single student who occupies. Allegations against the occupation include: using a kettle, sleeping, eating, climbing and locking doors. The university don’t see it as necessary to prove that Hattie was personally involved in any of these things, but the fact that they happened and she was there is seen as proof that she is guilty. This logic means that everyone who took part in the occupation is guilty of everything that the university said happened at it, however only three people are being disciplined for it out of hundreds who were involved.
On the 29th of January the police arrested Kelly, along with thirteen other students, for not giving her name to the police. She was held in a police cell for 30 hours before being let out with unbelievably stringent bail conditions. The arrests were called for by the university but the case was dropped against all of the students due to lack of evidence. Refusing to give your name is a legal right and the police are currently facing a judicial review and civil action because they are believed to have acted unlawfully. As a result of the arrest (that the university had called for) Kelly was suspended by the university for two months. She is a final year student and must now work incredibly hard through the summer to make up the work she has missed.
Kelly has already been punished by the university far more than any university should have the authority to do, and out all proportion with what anyone could say is warranted for an occupation. Despite this the university are continuing to pursue disciplinary action against her that will prevent her from doing her work and cause her even more stress. The university’s investigating officer’s report is over 170 pages, and includes five dvds of accompanying picture and video evidence. The university are preventing any defence being submitted unless Kelly puts in time that she doesn’t have, because she has to do the work that she couldn’t do while she was suspended.
Following the occupation in November a university security guard, called David Turner, made an allegation of assault against Simon. This meant that he was subjected to the extreme stress of criminal proceedings and having to prepare for a trial, that took place on April 10th. The trial was thrown out at the halfway stage because Mr Turner’s evidence was, in the words of the magistrate, ‘manifestly unreliable’ . During the trial the security guard admitted that he was encouraged and helped to submit his allegations by his managers.
Simon was also arrested on the 29th because the police were told by the university’s head of security that he had committed criminal damage. He was then held for 48 hours in the cells, and suspended from the university for two months. Like Kelly he has already been subjected to more punishment by the university than they should ever be allowed to impose, and the fact that they are continuing to discipline him is outrageous in light of his need to catch up on lost work. One of the primary allegations against Simon is that he was seen encouraging students to enter the occupation. This is not a disciplinary offence, and is a clear violation of the right to free speech.
The university has chosen five people to discipline on spurious grounds out of the hundreds who took part in the occupation. Some of the allegations against them are overtly racist and ableist, and all of them could not stand up in an actual court. These protestors and others have been subject to arrests, prolonged detentions, and criminal procedures that were caused by allegations from the university, and all turned out to be completely false. They have been suspended from the university, and then reinstated after their suspensions were widely attacked. The psychological impact of these forms of repression are incalculable, and students are likely to be left with the impact of the university’s attacks for the rest of their lives. The university of Birmingham does not have the moral authority to discipline anyone it has continually shown itself to be willing to lie, and to repress its students in order to try and shield itself from dissent. If anyone should be put on trial it is senior management.