The news that a Defend Education Birmingham activist is being treated as a domestic terrorist does not, despite its extremity, come as a surprise. The unnamed student was arrested unlawfully in January 2014, held for 30-40 hours in police custody, and suspended from his course. Not content to leave matters there, the West Midlands Police have now turned to harassing his relatives over concerns of ‘domestic extremism’ and ‘young people supporting terrorists’. The letter sent to the activist’s family reeks of Orwellian paternalism, promising that ‘[y]our son is not in any trouble’ and that the Prevent initiative ‘is about supporting individuals [...] not about criminalising them.’ Given that Prevent actively gathers intelligence on the politics, sexual activity, and mental health of innocent people, Cambridge Defend Education may be forgiven for suggesting that education activists are doing just fine without such invasive ‘support’.
This is not an anomaly – we’ve all heard stories like this before. November of last year brought the similarly surprising revelation that Cambridgeshire police had tried to persuade a local activist to inform on political organisations, including ‘student-union type stuff’ and Cambridge Defend Education. Justifying his interest in the names and numbers of students involved in national demonstrations, the officer noted that
it gives the officer or whoever’s looking after it on that side of things, as in at the protest, an idea of how many people are going to attend [...] so they can put measures in place to keep them off the road and things. It’s not because we want to target people and round them all up and arrest them.
We are fortunate that the Cambridgeshire police, much like their West Mercian relatives, are so interested in facilitating political engagement and safeguarding our wellbeing. We can only assume that their continuing attempts to recruit informants are the result of deepening pastoral sensibilities. We wonder what they imagine a world without police spying would look like. Fortunately, Cambridgeshire county’s Police Commissioner is on hand to provide the answer, noting in November 2013 that ‘[y]ou and I know that there is always that sort of [spying] activity taking place. One dreads to think that something could happen in Cambridge like it did in Woolwich. [...] And you know it has to go on.’ Apparently, the watchful eye of the state is all that keeps student activists from slaughtering soldiers in the streets. This is more than the ‘criminalisation of protest’, more than the abuse of ever-increasing surveillance powers. Under the hazy label of ‘extremism’ – of which even the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit accepts there is “no legal definition” – we are becoming targets of the state, enemy combatants in the ‘war on terror’.
The state does not negotiate with terrorists. Instead it disproportionately punishes minor infractions, targets and detains central figures, and arms itself against perceived threats. It does not negotiate with us, and so our demands go unheeded. It enables Metropolitan police chiefs to note that ‘austerity measures are likely to lead to further protest’ without contesting the legitimacy of austerity itself. Part of contesting this neoliberal orthodoxy demands we secure a space for progressive thought and radical dissent in our universities. The state and university administrations increasingly turn to batons, handcuffs, and spies in response. The jackboot of the police everywhere supports the state’s attempt to corrupt this element of higher education and to turn universities into places of conformity; conformity to a programme of marketisation, of fees, cuts and outsourcing, which is changing the character and function of higher education for the worse. Those who resist are treated as terrorists, radicals against whom the most authoritarian and invasive tactics are deemed legitimate. We are all domestic extremists.
These are dangerous methods of suppressing legitimate student dissent; of attacking a student movement which is fighting for free, fair and democratic education. Let’s be realistic – these demands are only ‘extreme’ to the grey monotony of neoliberal practice. This fresh act of police intimidation is a further threat to the progressive environment which must be fostered at university. As long as our protests are met with arrests and our demands with batons, the police are not welcome in conversation nor on our campuses. They can take their ‘extremism’ with them.