‘There were a couple of PCSOs stationed outside the front doors of the [Owens Park] Tower from the afternoon well into the evening. Then we sat and watched as Fallowfield descended into chaos, and students were hounded back into their halls by an overzealous police force, riot vans and all. My heart completely goes out to the many students who would have found this extremely upsetting, I know if I were in your situation I would have found the whole ordeal very difficult, and a strain on my mental health. To have this happen in a University, residential setting makes it even worse. This campus should be a place for young people to safely experience everything University has to offer without fearing policemen or the security hired by the University of Manchester.’Student Occupier writing from Owens Park Tower on 13th November 2020
‘I had my ID card in my hand and they tried to snatch it from me. The next thing I know I was being pinned up against the wall. There was no conversation. They just pinned me up against the wall and said I looked like a drug dealer. Why? Because I am black and wearing a hoodie?… It’s disgusting, I haven’t been able to sleep. I am traumatized by the situation. My parents came from Somalia as refugees and have given up everything for me to be at this institution. I am the first person in my family to go to university, so for me it’s an achievement – but when they hear about things like this happening, my parents are begging me to go back home… I want to be able to live in peace and enter my flat in peace and not be stopped and abused by the people we are paying to protect us.’Zac Adan, First Year student in French and Linguistics at the University of Manchester speaking on 16th November 2020
Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police and the resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter protests this summer, senior leaders at Manchester’s city-based campuses issued public declarations of sympathy and support.
In a statement released on June 2nd, Professor Malcolm Press, Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), insisted that campus leaders stood ‘shoulder to shoulder with people affected by racism and discrimination’ and encouraged students not to ‘be silent’.
‘You, your experiences and ideas matter.’ Professor Nalin Thakkar, Vice President for Social Responsibility at the University of Manchester, similarly acknowledged the ‘problem of racial inequality and discrimination’ and expressed the University’s commitment to ‘prevent systemic racism and act where we see evidence of bias.’ In a conversation with reporters for the student newspaper, The Mancunion, April McMahon, Vice President of Teaching, Learning and Students echoed this sentiment pointing to the University’s efforts to decolonise the curriculum as well as ongoing collaborations with community partners to tackle racism on and off campus. ‘The more we can hear people’s stories and experiences and try and understand them, that’s just vital for us.’
Against this backdrop, the public statements of first year French and Linguistics student Zac Adan and the unnamed student occupier of the Owens Park Tower strike a discordant note. Despite these initial expressions of commitment to anti-racism, University leaders would use the weeks and months that followed to prepare for a full return to campus against the backdrop of a global public health crisis that continues to disproportionately impact Black people and other People of Colour.
Driven by economic interests, and particularly the desire to secure student tuition and rent fees, tens of thousands of students were encouraged to travel from around the world to take up residence in cramped, congregate living facilities located in close proximity to some of Manchester’s most ethnically diverse and working-class communities.
Moreover, policing – the issue at the heart of the summer’s #BlackLivesMatter campaigns – would paradoxically come to serve as the key instrument in the two universities efforts to manage the inherent risks associated with the return to campus.
As had been forewarned by Independent Sage, Sage and the Universities and College Union, COVID-19 case numbers predictably surged in residence halls across the city during September. In response, campus leaders at both MMU and the University of Manchester deployed additional security forces and drew upon new legislative powers enshrined in the Coronavirus Act 2020 to tighten control over students’ lives and mobility.
On September 25th, MMU in tandem with city authorities locked down the Birley and Cambridge residence halls insisting that all students should refrain from leaving their accommodations ‘including for study, part-time work or socialising, unless there is a medical emergency.’ Nearly two thousand students found themselves confined without prior notice to residence halls with access strictly controlled by a growing number of police and private security guards.
When the lockdown began, Megan Tingey, a 19-year-old criminology student, had just completed her 14-day self-isolation period after receiving a positive test for COVID-19. ‘It was quite scary and confusing,’ she explained. ‘A police van turned up and there were police outside the gate, quite a lot of them just walking around looking at everyone… No one’s really told us much and then the police turn up as well with security outside – it’s a really, really difficult situation.’
Only a few miles down Oxford Road at the University of Manchester, students were arriving on campus for freshers’ week. Fearing similar outbreaks in the Fallowfield residence halls, campus leaders issued a stark public statement on September 24th:
‘We have been very clear to students that they must respect social distancing rules and all other restrictions to keep themselves and others safe.
If students do not comply, they will face disciplinary action from the University, which could lead to fines or expulsion, and we will not hesitate to involve the police if necessary. Some students have already been issued with fixed penalty notices by the police.
Additional security officers have been deployed in Fallowfield and further reminders sent. Details of offending students are being recorded and a number of those will now go through our disciplinary process.
Active consideration is also being given to introducing a curfew across all halls. We really want to avoid this but if residents fail to adhere to social distancing rules we will be faced with no alternative.’
Within days of this announcement, COVID-19 rates were spiraling out of control in the Fallowfield halls with hundreds of students forced to self-isolate and classes quickly moved online. Over the coming weeks, the University would make good on its threat to employ disciplinary procedures and police power to control an anxious and increasingly organized student population now engaged in protests and levying a rent strike.
On November 5th, students awoke to find fences erected around the residence halls with only a single exit point manned by university security guards. Students wishing to enter or exit their homes were now subject to ID checks and the swipe cards that enabled them access to other buildings were disabled.
University leaders insisted that the measures had been enacted ‘to help keep our students, our staff and our community safe.’ Many students disagreed. ‘It makes us feel like they don’t trust us, it feels like they’re locking us in our rooms,’ explained George Rogers, a first-year planning and real estate student. Isabella Mearns, a first-year architecture student agreed, ‘We just feel like prisoners at the moment.’ Later that day, students assembled for a mass demonstration that culminated with the fences being torn down.
It was against this backdrop that on November 12th the unnamed student occupier (quoted at the beginning of this post) joined others from the growing UoM Rent Strike, 9k 4 What? and Students before Profit campaigns in entering the Owens Park Tower. In a public statement, the student occupier explained,
‘We have been forced to undertake this drastic action because of the University’s refusal to meet the very reasonable demands of the Rent Strike. We are also concerned about the University’s constant prioritizing of profit before students and staff. We are disappointed that it had to get to this point, but we are prepared to continue this action until the University meets our demands.’
That night, legal observers from Green & Black Cross Manchester reported a significant police presence on campus and what appeared to be ‘a disproportionate use of power’. In a show of force, Greater Manchester Police (GMP) deployed tactical aid units and at least eight riot vans to the neighborhood. GMP officers and security guards overwhelmed the area, using cameras to surveil student activities and instructing those outside for recreational purposes to return to their rooms.
Inside Owens Park Tower, students discovered that their WiFi connection had been disabled by the university. Amidst growing concerns about the impact of isolation on mental health, this further severing of connections was reckless and callous.
Two days later, Zac Adan was stopped by three security guards outside his residence hall. Following the removal of the fences, University leaders had apologized for any worry caused by the policy and assured students that they could ‘continue to come and go freely’. However, they also announced that they would be moving forward with ‘alternative security measures’, including increased security patrols and the ID checks that Adan faced upon his return home. As Adan recounts, the security guards pinned him against the wall and accused him of ‘looking like a drug dealer’. In footage captured at the scene, Adan appealed to those around to bear witness: ‘They’re trying to snatch my card out of me. You see, I take this racial profiling.’ ‘You didn’t go for them,’ he declared to the security guards, ‘you came for me.’ Many of Adan’s fellow students listened and joined an organized march against racial profiling in Fallowfield on November 16.
What is apparent is that University leaders – despite their expressions of sympathy and support – were not really listening to the ‘stories and experiences’ of students in the face of overwhelming police power. It was the University’s own policies that created the context for these traumatizing experiences of overpolicing, surveillance and racial profiling.
Had the university moved beyond vacuous statements, to take seriously the lessons of this summer’s anti-racist protests, then these events would have been entirely foreseeable. In Greater Manchester, and nationally, policing disproportionately harms Black communities. These historical and enduring patterns are evident in data on stop and search, in use of force including Taser, in racial profiling through gangs databases, and at all levels of policing.
These issues are apparent in the context of private security too, and specifically on university campuses where Black students are too often seen as trespassers, or ‘bodies out of place’. What’s particularly jarring is that in addition to the voices of students, there is also a strong evidence base – including from academics working at these very institutions – that highlights these issues.
With all of this in mind, we have to ask why exactly the University of Manchester need to carry out an investigation into the incident of racial profiling? The problems are plain to see, and whilst the investigation will likely see the blame fall solely on individual security staff in order to protect the university, much of the fault lies with the institution! Not only because it has put lives at risk by treating students as cash cows, but because, despite its rhetoric and high-profile hires, and despite the agitation of its students, it has failed to do the necessary work of addressing institutional racism.
Through the whiteness of its curricula and its teaching staff, to the toothlessness of its approaches to ‘equality and diversity’, its inaction on the ‘awarding gap’, and its numerous close links with the police, the university has created the campus conditions that marginalise Black students. Many of these issues were highlighted in a set of demands made by Decolonise UoM back in June. Evidently foreseeing just how vacuous university statements would transpire to be, they said:
‘If the University of Manchester is truly committed to anti-racism and decolonisation, as it claims, we call on the institution to demonstrate a commitment to Black Lives Matter not just through words, but through action.’
We are now seeing the impact of the university’s inaction. However, as student protesters are showing, it will be through organising and resistance that change will come.
This year, the Northern Police Monitoring Project and Kids of Colour launched a campaign to get police out of schools. With support from the National Education Union’s North West Black Members Organizing Forum, the No Police in Schools campaign highlights how penal enforcement is creeping into education, and how this is harmful to students, particularly those from minoritised communities. The recent events on university campuses in Manchester, and elsewhere, coupled with previous campaigns for Cops off Campus, serve as a stark reminder that these are urgent issues for university students too.
By Northern Police Monitoring Project
First published by Northern Police Monitoring Project, 20 November 2020