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Sussex University rent strike
via Instagram/@sussexrentersunion

Students condemn ‘disgusting’ police violence amid Sussex Uni rent strikes

Strikers have criticised Sussex University security after footage of police manhandling students was shared on social media

During the coronavirus pandemic, UK students have organised historic university rent strikes, accusing profit-driven universities of misleading them into returning to campus, only to be treated as “cash cows”. The strikers have also criticised the lack of mental health support and other resources, such as adequate food packages, granted during mandatory quarantines and disorganised lockdowns.

“Many students are angry, upset and frustrated at the University’s lack of willingness to tackle poor accommodation, the mental health crisis, security on campus and other issues affecting us,” says Liam, a student at the University of Sussex, where more than 630 students have signed up to strike. “Daily, we see more people sign up to the rent strike with many citing the University’s failures.”

Since the strike at Sussex University began, students not living on campus over lockdown have been offered a rebate, though that rebate has been denied to students that have returned to campus and “have to live in accommodation plagued with mould, leaks and infestations”.

Those on campus have also had to deal with regular police patrols, which have been on the increase since Christmas, says Liam. “Many students we have spoken to report being made to feel uncomfortable, intimidated, and anxious by the increased presence. No one should be made to feel like this in their own home.”

Students at several other UK campuses accused universities of granting police access to halls of residence to check for coronavirus breaches earlier this month, claiming that officers often enter unannounced, and sometimes in the middle of the night. Sussex Uni Rent Strike has previously advised students on how to interact with police and make a record of encounters.

Earlier this week, however, shocking photos and footage emerged of the police using unnecessary force against students striking at Sussex University’s Falmer campus. One video, shared March 26, shows a young woman being forcefully held against the side of a police car. “Explain immediately why your security staff are involved in disgusting use of force against your students,” says Sussex Uni Rent Strike, in a caption to the post. “First you bring them back to unsafe campus for rent. Then you ignore their serious financial/welfare concerns. Now this.”

In a separate post, the group shares a picture from another student, seemingly showing officers holding a student against a wall by his neck. “Officers enter wrong flat and physically assault/choke student when he asks officer to provide their ID number,” the post reads.

In a statement on the footage shared with Dazed, a Sussex University spokesperson says: “We are very concerned about this incident, both in terms of the young woman concerned and the effect on good community relations. Yesterday, we immediately shared the video with Sussex Police to discuss our serious concerns as a matter of urgency and we remain in close contact.”

“It is important that Sussex Police are reviewing this, alongside additional footage of the incident, and it will be important to understand the full circumstances. The welfare of all our students is our utmost priority and we are committed to this.”

The spokesperson also denies claims, tweeted by Sussex Uni Rent Strike, that the university “invited” police onto campus, saying: “The police will decide whether to attend campus when they receive a report of unlawful activity and to protect the campus community too.”

A statement from Sussex Police, meanwhile, claims that police were called by university security staff following reports of a gathering of around 60 people, “in breach of the current coronavirus legislation”, at student accommodation in Falmer, at 1.30am on March 25. Though the majority of the crowd dispersed, a 19-year-old man was reportedly arrested on suspicion of assault, and a 20-year-old woman was arrested for breaching COVID regulations.

The woman was further arrested on suspicion of a drug offence, and escaped a police vehicle before being re-apprehended. Following a discussion with officers, in which they explained she would receive a fine and ot be taken into custody, she apparently agreed to give her details and was de-arrested.

The university strike group, however, has called the police statement “disgusting”, criticising the fact that it leads with a coronavirus breach, rather than an admission of police overstepping boundaries. The statement “sets a very scary tone,” the group adds, accusing Sussex police of “gaslighting” the public and hiding the facts. 

The group also draws parallels to the Home Office’s police, crime, sentencing and courts bill that threatens to increase authorities’ powers to restrict demonstrations, and has sparked protests up and down the country. “Rather than reaching shared ideals through political education,” it says, “this government and police force will shut down and stymie any and every dissent.”

Following the incident on March 25, the Sussex Students’ Union has staged a virtual workshop on emergency know-your-rights training. The organisation has also been told that an internal investigation is set to take place with the Sussex police officer involved.