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Why Warwick students are protesting university rape culture and racism

The UK institution is under fire after a vile group chat conversation was unearthed

Today, hundreds of people made up of students, alumni, and staff will join the Reclaim Our University demo to protest Warwick University’s lax attitudes to rape culture and racism on campus. The march is taking place as the university secretly reduced the punishments for a number of boys who exchanged shocking messages in a Facebook group chat. The comments made about fellow students were disturbingly graphic. “Rape the whole flat (of girls) to teach them all a lesson,” one message reads. It was reacted to with a heart eye emoji. “Even the pakis?” asks one of the boys whose nickname has been changed to Grenfell to poke fun at the tower inferno that killed multiple working class families. “Do I have to?”

There has been warranted uproar over the case as the university initially announced there would be bans for all of the men involved ranging from ten years to life. The on-campus newspaper learned the punishment had been lowered after an appeal and two of them would actually be back within a year, prompting an argument between the appalled who cried #ShameOnYouWarwick and those who felt the chat was just a bad joke. But, there’s nothing funny about rape or racism. Today, Warwick announced that neither of the men will return in September and told Dazed that it was “committed to ensuring the safety of our community. However, students are still unhappy with the university response. “The two men are not returning, but I think that is through their own choice rather than the university's disciplinary process,” James Holland, one of the organisers of today’s protest, told the BBC.

Regardless of whether these men return to campus or not, Warwick university has made it pretty clear that they do not take a firm stance on rape culture and don’t put the safety of their students first. “We’ve been in touch with a handful of the victims named in the chat and they’ve mostly been scared into anonymity because of the threat of lawsuits. They don't want any repercussions,” Elliot Mulligan, the editor of the uni newspaper who originally uncovered the story, The Boar, tells Dazed over the phone. This threat is probably grounded in reality. All the publications that published the names of all of the boys have since mysteriously amended the article to delete at least one of the names, suggesting that there is a concerted effort behind the scenes to pressure publications and minimise this story. Still, that hasn’t stopped students discussing it among themselves. “Everyone's talking about it. You walk down the corridor, you walk past four or five different groups and they'll all be talking about it. The majority of the opinion is for the women talked about in the chat. There are the odd voices, as always, saying ‘Oh, but it's only jokes. It’s only jokes, it’s only banter’. But they are very much the minority.”

Nicole Wilson was friends with one of the boys from the chat. “I remember throwing up after sitting there for an hour reading through it. My best friend was the ringleader in it and completely broke my heart,” she tells Dazed. When the word got out about the messages the boys began threatening people to keep their mouths closed, and her friend put pressure on her to maintain silence. “He sent me a message stating how it was important I didn't show the screenshots to anyone else because they would have ‘serious consequences’ for them, and that essentially I should move on and continue having a friendship with them in spite of the threats.” She’s now studying abroad but will return in September at the same time the other boys have been greenlighted to re-enroll. “I'm not even allowed to know who they are, which makes me feel so sick and anxious. the university has to do better, especially now the whole country is looking towards them.”

It’s important to note that this group chat not only contained threats of sexual assault, but gleeful messages glorifying Hitler, “hating coons” and “niggers” and reeling off a range of racial slurs. Britain’s universities have been hit with several scandals in the last year of dreadful racism. Rufaro Chisango was subjected to racist chants while locked in her halls of residence bedroom. She posted video evidence online of boys shouting “we hate the blacks” on the other side of her door. The Student Room surveyed more than 1,000 students and found some incredibly damning results. More than half of students at UK universities have witnessed racism during their studies, while almost a third have personally experienced racism on campus – and one in 10 have encountered racist incidents on a daily basis. Last year, the Muslim Students Survey published findings gathered from over 500 students over the last academic year. It also found that a third of Muslim students have experienced abuse or crime at their place of study in the UK.

There is also a well-documented crisis of sexual assault on campuses, with a shocking 62 per cent of students experiencing sexual violence while learning at a British institution. But, university rape culture and racism don’t exist in a vacuum. These things are indicative of our society as a whole. We have a government that puts rape victims on trial in the same way one of the victims in the Warwick case felt like she was interrogated by the university’s press director. The current cabinet is racist in everything from its immigration policy, its policing, and the lacklustre approach to inequality. But, students pay to go to universities and in doing so the institution has a duty to protect them and appropriately punish offences. These are the same avenues politicians pass through to get to the position where they can maintain these toxic mindsets. By taking a stand at such a crucial time in young people’s lives universities can show that this behaviour is not OK.

That’s why students are still marching today. “This uni's rape culture is still disgusting, its disciplinary process is broken,” organisers wrote on the Warwick For Free Education event page. “We demand far better than conciliatory measures to hush us up.”