Written by the 5 students suspended by the University of Birmingham:
We are 5 of the 13 students who were arrested on Wednesday 29th January. University of Birmingham. We have all been suspended and are threatened with expulsion.
Almost two weeks on from our ordeal, the Guild has yet to issue any statement in support of the suspended or arrested students, or any condemnation of the University. The President of the Guild of Students has positioned herself in opposition to us; bolstering the scape-goat narratives of the University, and ultimately neglecting her responsibility to work in the interests of students, and for a better education for all.
She has received condemnations from student unions and Sabbatical Officers across the country; a condemnation echoed by us.
It is a story that’s been well-told over since the 29th, but useful context nonetheless; especially in the face of unchecked vitriol and accusations of guilt.
We were arrested for refusing to give our details, irrespective of it being our legal right to do so. Despite the student protestors opting to leave the sit-in of the Great Hall of their own free will, they were kettled for four hours in the dark, cold and rain – blocked from exiting by a police line, even in cases of panic attacks, serious anxiety, and illness. The police were only allowing people to leave if they gave their full details and allowed themselves to be filmed. We knew this was unlawful – threat of detention should not be used as an incentive to forfeit our rights – and so we refused. Upon arriving at the police station it was explained to me that because I had refused to give my details, I appeared guilty and so they had deemed it ‘necessary’ to arrest me; a ‘logic’ that flies in the face of innocent-until-proven-guilty, a premise of justice that even young children know. They arrested me and my fellow arrestees without any evidence against us: likewise, a perplexing thought in an allegedly fair judicial system. 10 of the 13 have not been charged and 4 of the 5 the suspendees have not been charged. Most importantly, we are all innocent, and that is how we shall remain unless proven otherwise.
27 hours ensued within which we were strip-searched, degraded, and subjected to serious anxiety, stemming from a total absence of a sense of time, a lack of understanding of what was happening, and separation from our fellow arrestees, who we are still unable to see because of bail conditions that are harsh beyond precedent, separating housemates, friends, girlfriend and boyfriends.
Upon our release from custody we was told, separately by our custody sergeants – in deliberately ambiguous and frightening terms – that we would not be returning to University. We have been suspended. Again, this is in spite of there being no case against us and a marked absence of evidence. We have been suspended because we chose to not give our details, because we chose to not forfeit our legal rights.
The President of the Guild of Students, Poppy Wilkinson, has chosen to position herself firmly in opposition to the student protesters unlawfully and unfairly arrested.
With exception of the Vice-President Education and Vice-President Democracy and Resources, who were waiting outside police stations for the arrestees and have helped with the solidarity campaign since, the only action on behalf of the Guild during this whole debacle has been to issue statements of condemnation. The President chose to issue her own ‘personal’ statement – invoking condemnation of its own from over 100 student union officers from around the country; a list that continues to grow.
The Guild and Poppy are both yet to release any statements that condemn the violence on behalf of the University and the private security they hired in for the day, despite numerous accounts by students (and video and photographic evidence) of punching, kicking, hair-pulling and tackling. They are also yet to issue any condemnations of the unlawful arrests and mistreatment at the hands of the police of the many students who were kettled and the 13 students arrested. These students are instead relying on the good-will of barristers, solicitors, student activists and – most shamefully – student unions elsewhere around the country.
All the Guild and Poppy have done is condemn the student protestors, who went out in defense of their education, when all other options seemed pointless.
The University have chosen to string up 5 students as examples. We have been banned from university premises. Senior managers have sent emails round the departments telling students and staff to report on us if we are seen on campus, treating us like wanted criminals. The effectiveness of this tactic is evident; there is a tangible backlash currently being directed at the suspended students. It is a clear-cut case of divide and rule.
Poppy and the Guild have only bolstered this scape-goat narrative, and the results are there for all to see. The thread immediately below her statement reads as a vitriolic list of accusations and condemnations; despite our innocence, our unlawful arrests, and illegitimate suspensions.
We hold Poppy and the Guild of Students personally responsible for the messages of condemnation and hatred that we are receiving. We believe that she is helping the University to divide us, and using her Presidency to compound a problematic political narrative. She has failed us, all the students kettled, and all student protestors around the country.
De-politicising the political
Through her words and actions the President has actively de-politicised a series of events that are, at their very core, political.Throughout her statement she refers to the ‘Sabbatical Officers’ as a homogeneous group; distressed, waiting outside, making (feeble) attempts to help. She never once mentions that one of her colleagues, Hattie, the VPE – albeit the Officer that she has personally rubber-stamped a disciplinary investigation against for a previous, peaceful occupation – was inside the kettle, standing side-by-side with her fellow student protestors. By doing so the President is intending to paint the Guild as objective; implying that there can only be one response of ‘representative’ Officers – her response. She is ignoring the fact that vast numbers of students (majority or not), and even people inside the institution over which she resides disagree with her (statements condemning the Guild have now been issued by the VPDR, VPE, HSO and CAO). She is making her decision appear pragmatic, rather than political.
She writes of how ‘in her opinion’ the demonstration on Wednesday exceeded the ‘parameters of peaceful and legitimate protest’. She is implicitly referring to Guild policy that prohibits the Guild from condemning direct action by students, and to the many Guild policies that outline the demands and premise to the demonstration on Wednesday to be legitimate and in the interest of students. We should note then that she decided to ignore these policies with no reference to Guild Council (happening the next day), or to any other even moderately democratic body; not even, to the rest of the Guild Officer Group. She used her Executive power to overturn policy and set a dangerous precedent, simply because she thought ‘in her opinion’ that she should or could. It has also come to light that the other Sabbatical Officers were not present when this statement was drafted and released; she chose to use her authority as President to make a unilateral decision.
The Guild has consistently failed to address or campaign for the crisis were are currently facing at the University of Birmingham and more broadly across the Higher Education system. Never do they make vacuous and unsubstantiated declarations of ‘majority opinion’ with regard to ever-rising fees, year-on-year pay cuts to staff, or repression of dissent – although I doubt they could find me a student who would want to pay £16k a year for their degree. Not once have they spoken out against the University publicly. The only crises they ever address are the ones they perceive to see in the student movement; in the students who aren’t silenced by apathy, but driven by a sense of necessity to – at the very least – do something. They never condemn the crisis staring them straight in the face: of overpaid management, undemocratic universities, and a neoliberal agenda that is hollowing out our institution and others.
The students at the demonstration on Wednesday were there to put a voice to the opposition to this crisis. By their silence the Guild and Poppy have compounded the idea that the demonstration was simply a mob, rioters, unchecked aggression; rather than a political act. The rights and wrongs of every piece of graffiti, of one smoke-bomb, of each damaged door, don’t come into it: Poppy and the Guild have only ever been the voice of the establishment; de-politicising the political and dis-empowering students.
The President, Poppy Wilkinson does not represent us; and we do not believe she represents the interests of students at the University of Birmingham.
She represents the spineless, manipulable nature of the Guild; rubber-stamping a decision by the University to punish Hattie, the VPE, for the occupation of Senate Chambers through both University and Guild disciplinaries.
She represents self-centred careerism; choosing to toe a line set by Guild bureaucrats, rather than fight a battle that could actually change something.
She represents conservative politics; a failure to do anything about the crisis facing Higher Education, instead pandering to apathy and knee-jerk backlash.
She represents the establishment; bolstering the University’s divide and rule tactics and, ultimately, failing students.
Happily, we are seeing the tide turn in favour of the suspended students as activists, fellow students, MPs, and others join in the campaign against the suspensions. We are still waiting for the Guild’s explicit and political support.