Over recent years, it may be observed that the baseline for UK student protest has shifted. Rallies, occupations, teach-ins, and other similar forms of non-violent demonstration have become commonplace at campuses around the country, news of which travels far and fast thanks to social media. I use ‘commonplace’ cautiously; it would be a great shame to see this kind of direct action, which in my opinion has such potential to get noticed and taken seriously, take up residence as ‘the new normal’ in the collective consciousness of not only the university population, but the public at large, without it having had some lasting positive and traceable effect.
When university management continues to ignore sustained attempts from its students to engage in dialogue, non-violent direct action arguably serves as the means through which to at least make our physical presence known; with our bodies in place, our voices soon follow suit. Nevertheless, when Warwick For Free Education attempted such a conversation on the frontlines, they were met with the most resounding rebuttal in recent memory, creating a watershed moment after which we as students were no longer able to say with certainty whose best interests their own university had at heart.
The events that took place on December 3rd undoubtedly stand alone as an appalling example of police brutality against students, and an outright dismissal of our right to peaceful protest. Moreover, it is apparent that they have contributed towards creating an intensely repressive culture towards all student protest in a university setting. On Global Divestment Day in February, for example, Fossil Free Warwick’s pre-arranged delivery of a petition letter of staff signatures calling for divestment received an unprecedented level of security presence, both on the approach to University House and in and around the building itself. In the end, as was expected, the amount of people to actually enter the building could be counted on one hand, and the amount of time they spent inside was more or less equal to the amount of time it has taken you to read up to this point.
In examining these events a pattern emerges: it is becoming harder and more intimidating for students to express dissent of any kind. As University House’s security team have made apparent, even the most peaceful, nonintrusive and inoffensive forms of political engagement – see: delivering a petition – are now perceived as threats.
Students are routinely finding themselves excluded from conversations they deserve to be a part of and are actively trying to initiate. This is not a model of a democratic university, i.e. one that engages with the student body and listens to its concerns. The vision of free education upheld by Warwick For Free Education and its nationwide equivalents encompasses the ideals of not only lowering the economic barriers that surround higher education, but creating an accessible, inclusive and intersectional arena for conversation, with genuine democratic exchange amongst all strata of its members.
This repressive atmosphere becomes all the more frustrating when it comes to the veritable no-brainer campaign of fossil fuel divestment. In pushing for the university to withdraw its funding from the planet-imperilling fossil fuel industry, we aim to send the message that we – as an institution, as a democracy, as a collective – do not wish to be associated with companies that have a hand in, and will profit from, the continued destruction of our environment and future; a future which, as young people, many of us poised to graduate, seems ever more immediate. The urgency with which we as a species must be reacting to climate change is undermined; our survival depends on us not stalling to take action, which is exactly what the university has been doing since October 2013 when the Fossil Free Warwick campaign first began.
Fossil Free Warwick has navigated every democratic channel and jumped every bureaucratic hoop laid out for us in the campaign to convince the university to pursue a fossil fuel free investment plan, yet still find ourselves sidelined and waylaid at every tributary. We are giving the university a clear means through which to address the ever-worsening problem of environmental collapse, with very little effort on their part besides listening to and acting upon our clearly laid-out and not-at-all-unreasonable requests, yet still are faced with obstacles at every turn. Going fossil free is the least the university could do, yet their sustained reluctance betrays an inherent and wilful disinclination to take the voices of their students on board, even regarding this most pressing of current issues. On both a local and global level, this is an unacceptable reaction.
We are not asking for much. We are asking for our voices to be heard, to be involved in the democratic processes that keep the university running and that impact us all. And if they can’t hear us, we’ll shout a little louder. The more we are ignored, the louder our voices will become. Sooner or later they will have to listen.