December 3rd: 3 years on

Today marks exactly 3 years since Warwick For Free Education (WFFE) activists were violently attacked by police during a sit-in for free education in Warwick’s Senate House building. This attack, facilitated and overseen by our own university, sent shockwaves across the sector.

On a local level, Warwick students held a historic 1000-strong “Cops Off Campus” demo the next day, which led to an 8-day long occupation. Beyond Warwick, there was a wave of solidarity protests and occupations across the country, an outpouring of condemnation from the student and academic communities, as well as media coverage at national and even international levels.

The events of December 3rd 2014 mark a critical chapter in the ongoing story of attacks on the freedom to protest on our campuses. But they also mark a painful yet formative moment in the history of WFFE, which served as a catalyst for 3 further years of bold, vibrant and effective grassroots free education activism.

And it is essential that we remember and commemorate this history. From the events of December 3rd 2014, we can extract numerous key lessons – about repression and state violence, about democracy and power within our institutions, about solidarity and community – which drive our activism forward and inform our ongoing fight for an education system which is free, liberated, democratic and accessible to all.

When university managements, backed up by the state, deploy violence and repression against student activists (as has been seen on several campuses in recent years), they hope that it will quell dissent, terrify people into disengaging with struggle, and crush movements into the ground. At Warwick, we have not let that happen. Over the last 3 years, we have seen some incredible campaigns, actions and victories which are a testament to the strength, hard work and determination of grassroots activists here. And going forward, we will continue to fight the insidious marketisation of our education system and the complicity of our own institution in that agenda.

Exactly one year ago yesterday, WFFE activists initiated an occupation of the Slate – Warwick’s brand new £5.3 million corporate conference facility – demanding the withdrawal of the uni from the Teaching Excellence Framework, better rights for hourly paid teachers, the removal of the protest injunction and an apology for the events of December 3rd 2014. This occupation won some key concessions, notably the lifting of the draconian protest injunction put in place after the 2014 occupation, as well as an apology from the university for their handling of the events of December 3rd. This marked a huge victory for so many of us who were directly and deeply affected by these events, as well as for the protection of the right to protest for all students at Warwick both now and in the future.

The pain and trauma of December 3rd 2014 will always stay with those involved, but so will our resolve to fight against the injustice and oppression which exists within our education system. Though university management wish to brush what happened 3 years ago under the carpet, we will not stop remembering our history.

It is the history of WFFE.

It is the history of activism at Warwick.

It is the history of the student movement.

As always, the struggle continues.

WFFE’s First Year: A Brief History

[NOTE: this article was originally written in late 2015, but was never uploaded. We have dug it up and posted it for posterity. For a history of WFFE’s second and third years, see here and here]

Warwick For Free Education (WFFE) was formed in the first few weeks of last academic year. The left on campus was fragmented, and it was recognised that we needed a broad coalition to bring together everyone we could behind a common project.

We began with a public founding meeting. A spectrum of left-wing activists – from social democrats to anarchists – came together on one simple platform: to support the upcoming national demo for free education (which would take place on November 19th 2014) and  build the biggest Warwick contingent possible.

Immediately we went about organising a huge awareness raising campaign. We had a stall running outside the library two days a week, always had posters up around campus, organised a photo petition with 100s of student involved, and went into halls one or two nights a week to distribute leaflets. We stood for seats on the SU council on an explicit free education platform and, overwhelmingly, won. Over the course of a month we went through 4000 leaflets – enough to have flyered 20% of Warwick’s student population.  We also organised a banner drop off the top of a prominent management building to raise awareness. We held a free education forum to discuss education issues, and had a free education house party.

As the SU began to sell tickets for coaches it was clear the work was paying off. We had sold 80, filling two coaches, and would be meeting more Warwick students at the assembly point in London.  From a standing start, in just over a month, relentless ground work had produced a campus left. We would rely on the atmosphere generated by this campaign a lot over the coming year.

The demo itself was a great success. 10,000 students took the streets, and much of the Warwick contingent was introduced to the student movement for the first time. Many had their first taste of direct action when they took parliament square and led the Met on a merry run around Victoria.

When we got back, we immediately held follow up meetings and planned for the follow up day of action on December 3. It was decided we would attempt to occupy conference facilities on December 2, and we called a demo for December 3 to function as a ‘support the occupation’ demo the next day.

The initial occupation failed. A core of 20 activists had planned everything, and went in at 10pm, when they thought the building would be empty – only to find some kitchen staff in late. These kitchen staff attacked students, broke down barriers, and prevented the occupation from being secure, so the students left.

We were left with no plan for what to do the day after. Following some discussion people decided that another banner drop and a low-key sit-in at a central management building was the most we could organise on short notice. And so, at about 3pm on December 3, the rally outside Senate House began. What followed was to define the 2014-15 academic year at Warwick .

After the banner drop, students entered Senate House. We sat in a circle and talked about free education, and tried to use the space to imagine what a free university would be like. 

West Midlands police were called to the sit-in. They attacked the students there with CS gas, threatened people with Tasers, and arrested three. Videos went online almost immediately and were widely shared. National news coverage began, and we retreated to our SU to deal with the shock and effects of the CS gas. Students at Birmingham arrived almost immediately to help with arrestee support and a #copsoffcampus demonstration was called for the next day. Management totally bungled the situation, offering only a statement which blamed protesters for the violence they faced.

The next morning we promoted the demo on campus furiously, and at 4pm roughly 1000 students from Warwick and around the country had gathered. The rally lasted for just over an hour, before students marched to Senate house, attempted to gain entry by breaking down a door – then, when they discovered senate house was full of cops, they returned and occupied the Rootes Building.

This occupation, initiated by 200 students, issued demands early the next day. Another demo was held, and this rushed in a more students. Term ended, and the occupation came under siege. It would last for another 8 days, before an injunction naming Callum Cant and Hattie Craig and threatening them with unlimited legal costs would force the occupiers to leave. Before we left, we attempted a negotiation with management – this could be, at best, described as an utter farce. We secretly recorded it for later release. [NOTE: For the most comprehensive account of what happened on Dec. 3, 2014 and beyond, see this investigative article here, or watch this excellent short documentary about the occupation.]

After the Christmas break, WFFE returned to action. We began with a large public meeting to regenerate a broad level of involvement. In this meeting, we decided that – in line with what students nationally were organising – we would plan a satirical pay day party for our newly knighted VC on January 15: the day he earned as much in the new year as the lowest paid worker at the University would earn in all of 2015. This was a success, and over the course of the year it became increasingly obvious how all of campus came to despise management. Sir Nigel Thrift became the punch line of every joke. In the term 2 All-Student Meeting, our campaign for the Students’ Union to pass a motion of no confidence in Nigel Thrift won with 61% of the vote.

We followed this by organising a local demonstration for Free Education in Coventry. Over the next couple of months we hosted the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) Women feminist speaker tour, and sent a Warwick contingent to the Oxford antifascist mobilisation to oppose Marine Le Pen, who had been invited to speak. We continued organising in solidarity with our three arrest comrades who had been charged following the December 2014 events. We hosted a regional meeting to promote a Free Education collaboration in the Midlands, sent a contingent to the NCAFC Women and Non-Binary occupation in London. And at the end of term two, staff pressure resulted in us getting the chance to argue our case at the protest summit set up to discuss Dec 3 and its resulting antagonisms, where we had the rare opportunity to present our arguments directly to the VC and other senior managers. The audience, consisting of both staff and students, spoke overwhelmingly in favour of our cause, and were critical of management’s behaviour.  At the end of the summit we organised a return to Senate House, for a sit-in at the exact spot where we had been attacked on December 3. This time the police left us alone. We found out the next day that Nigel Thrift had been recorded calling us yobsOver Easter we built for and attended the second NCAFC national demonstration of the academic year in Birmingham.

Term three was marked by the campaign against TeachHigher: a scheme which the University were intending to introduce to worsen the conditions of hourly paid staff. We began by mobilising students to attend the public UCU meetings about the proposed introduction of TeachHigher and show their support. We were generally active in the anti-TeachHigher campaign in an attempt to build solidarity with staff, launching departmental petitions and planning, with staff, a demonstration for the largest open day of the year in June. As a result of this pressure TeachHigher was cancelled – a considerable victory for the UCU branch and the campus left generally.

Towards the tail end of term three we won several more positions on the SU council. On the open day we distributed thousands of seditious leaflets informing future students about what had happened at Warwick that year. Organised Warwick contingents also attended the demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of the Tory election victory. We co-organised a local Leamington anti-austerity meeting, with the aim of exploring future possibilities for organising locally.

Throughout this process we tried to stick to the principles that brought us initial success: building a broad, democratic campaign that met regularly and was always active on campus. We placed particular importance on handing out leaflets and building popular engagement. Every conversation, every leaflet, every poster built a campus atmosphere that was more and more left-wing, more combative, and more committed to the issues.

The victories late in the year – notably TeachHigher and fossil fuel divestment – both resulted from management being unable to hold a tough line in such an inhospitable climate. In order to not provoke another big fight, and further energise the student population, they were forced to cave in to certain student demands.

Over the course of this year WFFE went from 30 people at a public meeting to an experienced core of activists surrounded by a wider base of support amongst students, holding positions in the Students’ Union, with sympathetic Sabbs, and very close links to the hourly paid working group within the UCU branch.

We kept people up to date with our campaigns and were constantly spreading our arguments via this blog, which serves as as a collective depository of what we have done and how our campaign and organisation has grown.