Ever feel anxious, reserved, or lonely? Ever felt a desire for social, political, or moral change? Ever dared to criticise UK foreign policy, or the truthfulness of our politicians and media?
If you can say yes to any of these things, then the new 2014-2015 Counterterrorism Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, allows the police to target you for domestic extremism and radicalisation.
Among other things, it targets ‘non-violent extremism’, including anything which would ‘create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit’. This definition is so wide that it potentially includes anything critical of our government or society. In other words, this law makes us all domestic extremists.
It also places a statutory obligation on your University and its staff to spy on you and report you to the authorities. If they don’t, they can be held in contempt of court and potentially face prison.
Obviously, this applies to practically everyone at university, from conservatives to anarchists. Wouldn’t this render the bill impossible to enforce?
No; precisely the opposite. Making everyone guilty means that the police can legally target whoever they decide to dislike. And we all know who that will be.
The targets will be Muslims, ethnic minorities, and people on the left who are innocent of any crimes. This bill will entrench and encourage the deep institutional racism and Islamophobia of our country’s police. And it will extend police persecution of, and assaults on, student and other activists. It will also further stigmatise students with mental health issues, discouraging them from voicing their sufferings and seeking the help they need.
This is an attack on legitimate student dissent, on a student movement which is fighting for free, fair, and democratic education. Students across the country have been campaigning against austerity, rising tuition fees, and the imposition of the authoritarian, neoliberal university. For this we have been spied on, registered as domestic extremists, and assaulted with batons and pepper-spray on our own campuses.
In the wake of widespread support for the COPS OFF CAMPUS campaign, this government is seeking to turn the entire university into an extension of its repressive policing.
The police don’t need this new law to target people who are guilty or suspected of actual wrongdoing. They can do that already.
It lets them spy on, stalk, and persecute individuals who are innocent of any crime. We’ve already seen this happening under the existing ‘Prevent’ strategy, which the new bill extends and makes mandatory.
In January 2014, for example a Birmingham Defend Education activist was targeted as a domestic extremist. He was unlawfully arrested, held for 30-40 hours in police custody, and suspended from his course.
Not content to leave matters there, the West Midlands Police 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 fear-mongering, 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’.
Sir Peter Fahy, the chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, says that leaving the definition of extremism open to whatever ‘securocrats’ like himself decide, risks ‘a drift to a police state’. We couldn’t agree more. 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 all becoming enemies of the state.
Universities can and should be somewhere we learn to come up with and develop alternative ways of thinking and doing things, where we explore different points-of-view and the arguments for and against them, and where we learn to think and speak for ourselves. This requires practices of critical inquiry; it requires challenging assumptions and orthodoxies; and it requires going to the root of the problems facing our world and society, and finding out what we can do about them.
This new law will crush precisely these freedoms to think differently, to criticise those with power and influence, and to challenge the government and its actions in any way. Nobody has the right to take away your freedom to speak up against violence and injustice! Nobody has the right to threaten Universities or their employees with prison sentences for not snitching on students who dare to think or speak in ways the police and politicians decide to dislike!
Come to think of it, if extremists want to destroy our freedoms and our democracy, why is our government doing it for them?