Have UCL banned free speech too?

The #Copsoffcampus march and an unexpected interchange with UCL security services
Will Clark

Cops off campus. Students too?

Attached to the 4th December Court Injunction that bans occupational protest in and around Senate House, University of London, is an ancient and official-looking map of the site. It is colourless, except for a threatening red line running around an arbitrary perimeter, drawn by some long arms and ‘law’.

The threat is simple: prison or fines for those who dare cross the line and shout about it. But that didn’t stop thousands turning out yesterday for the ‘Cops off Campus’ march, a demonstration to show that it will take much more than these disproportionate legal penalties to silence student voices.

At 2pm the excitement began; a relaxed but determined crowd started to form outside University of London Union on Malet Street. Different pockets of people listened to impromptu speeches on pop-up platforms, gathered round a rowdy band of drummers or watched as a troupe of clowns did some weird stuff in a wheely bin.

Police violence was the hot topic on everyone’s lips, as we wondered whether the fun festival vibes would somehow turn nasty. There seemed to be an acceptance that this was a possibility, and one beyond our control, as helpers distributed little cards with legal advice in the event of arrest printed on them.

Before long, a real mass of thousands had assembled and started to make its way down towards the Senate House building. Following the route of the red line, the crowd snaked onto Montague Place and then Russell Square, where two protestors were struggling with a banner halfway up a tree.

At around 3.30pm we finally moved across the red line and came to a halt in front of the School of Oriental and African Studies which sits in the shadow of the Senate House tower. Placards and chants punctured the freezing, early-evening air. There were calls for the right to protest, for students and workers to unite and fight, for justice at the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan, and for the police to f*** off. The latter was perhaps more of a general point, given that we hadn’t seen any police all afternoon.

We heard that some had moved on to march into central London, but my friends and I stayed on campus until things began to tail off, then made our way back to UCL. We wondered whether the lack of police presence signalled that they were on the back foot after allegations of violence last week.

We also discussed the position of the university management. This protest movement isn’t going away, so surely they won’t be able to sustain their reactionary court order that seeks to limit the democratic freedoms that they ought to protect, will they? All the action we had taken part in had been overwhelmingly positive. We were looking forward to keeping up the pressure and really hopeful for a repeal of the ban in the near-future.

Any optimism in the air, however, was quickly vacuumed away when security guards told me I was not allowed to bring my placard onto the UCL campus. All materials connected with the day’s protest had been banned and security at the gates had been doubled. Feeling exasperated, we made our way to the security office and asked if we could speak with the person responsible for the ban. The woman we spoke to refused to let us know where this figure of authority was, or when they would return. She asked in frustration ‘Why are you questioning our security!?’.

For now we’ve had to settle with sending an email to the UCL security manager. Where did the authority for this decision come from, and when was it taken? How long is it supposed to continue for? And, most importantly, on what grounds can you justify the banning of anything that proves the students actually give a shit and won’t let bosses get away with undemocratic and unfair policies?

What’s next? No posters in the union? Shut down the yoga society because it’s got a couple of radicals stretching away in the corner? We’ve yet to receive a response. Watch this space.