Student Activism in the Era of Toxic Politics: Banning to Blacklisting

 

Current Events Reporter Isa Betoret García is a second year War Studies and History student attended the recent meeting with the Queen on March 19th. The same day, at least 10 KCL students had their student IDs blocked from entrance into any campus with the explanation that they were considered ‘security threats’.

[Featured Image: Queen Elizabeth II and Kate Middleton surrounded by others on the 8th floor cafe in Bush House.]

On Tuesday 19th of March there was a historic event at King’s College London. Her Majesty The Queen and HRH The Duchess of Cambridge were invited to the official opening of Bush House. But while a select group of students were invited to shake hands with The Queen, a different group was banned from entering campus.

Members of the KCL Action Palestine Society, KCL Justice for Cleaners, and KCL Intersectional Feminist Society confirmed that members of their committees had their ID cards deactivated for the duration of the Royal visit.

This ban from campus was not only for Bush House, where the royals were, but “all libraries, campuses, and cafés” according to a joint statement released by the KCL Action Palestine Society and KCL Justice for Cleaners campaign, and it “prevented students from attending exams, work shifts, classes and assessed presentations”. The statement continued: “Despite KCL regularly referring to itself as an institution of progressive values, in reality they would rather wall-off the campus to all those who dare challenge violence and injustice promoted by the University.”

The statement claimed that the people most disproportionally affected by the deactivation were women of colour. A NUS (National Union of Students) staff member called the move ‘racial profiling’, and many on twitter have agreed with the allegations.

A protest was organised. The event statement read: “It is no coincidence that this happened in Israeli Apartheid Week, where students have been actively opposing university complicity in violence. This is another step towards KCL’s complicity in violence and militerisation [sic], as well as the oppression of freedoms, predominantly towards Muslim women of colour,” further fueling the allegations of racial profiling.

KCL first twitted: “We had an event today which demanded the highest level of security and we had to minimise movement through buildings for security reasons. At times some of our buildings were not accessible.”

Students on twitter were quick to point out that only some students were restricted from entering the buildings. There have also been accusations of ‘political profiling’, as it was left-wing groups who were banned from entering campus. Others have alleged that the move was not a KCL initiative, but a request made by the Met Police. Many feared the names of students were given to the police. Reporters at Gal-Dem reached out to the Metropolitan Police, but were told: “they do not discuss matters of security with regards to Royal visits.”

Initially, much of the information students received came from KCL security guards, not the university itself. But students were determined to get a response from the institution, and were eventually told that they had been advised by the Metropolitan Police to reduce access to Bush House, and that should have been the only building out of bounds. The head of security refused to answer any further questions on how the list of banned students was composed.

Assistant Director of Campus Operations Richard Kent was also pressed for answers. He explained that the students were identified through CCTV as those having taken part in protests over the past two years.

A student has reached out to King’s College London under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for answers to many of the questions that remain regarding KCL’s intentions, and the college has stated it’s intent to answer the request.

In a statement released on March 22nd King’s indicated that they have commissioned an independent review to asses the mismanagement of the building access on Tuesday, but made no mention of the particular students being targeted.

Many have been left concerned that the university has composed a ‘black list’ of students, and that those names have been given to the police, which could have many consequences in the future.

The move to ban students from campus is wide open for critique, particularly when there are clear indications that there was political targeting, that it affected the students’ studies, and that it was not carried out as ‘intended’. But it is important not to get stuck at the surface analysis; this event posses a fascinating chance to reflect on the nature of student politics over the past years, and the road it has led us down.

Politics have become increasingly polarized over the years. There is little acceptance of dissenting opinions within a particular group, no space for reconciliation, constant anger, a constant vilification of the other side, and a lack of proper discourse. This has also become the common picture in student politics.

The grievances of students are understandable, and their points valid. But we lack a coherent and respectful discourse, a space for all ideas to be heard, and we even have little patience for such ideas when students want action. This lack of discourse has only succeeded in leaving these grievances unaddressed, whether to agree or disagree. As such, people get pushed more and more to the extremes, refusing to give an inch, because they have grown in an environment where compromise is weakness. Compromise is unacceptable. Our political language becomes more aggressive, and we are even more unwilling to listen to us who attack us, so instead we attack in kind.

Instead of students having a place to express their disagreement, they have become the enemy, often times by their own design. The groups targeted on March 19th are groups that have positioned themselves in aggressive opposition to the KCL Institution. In their own statement the societies said: “The students affected by this are all core organisers of campaigns that have established themselves as effective, successful and resistant to university apathy and reaction.” This has been particularly even in recent debates, particularly those concerning Freedom of Speech, Deplatforming, and Decolonise KCL, among others.

Is it that shocking given this history that we now find ourselves in this position? This has been fertile ground for growing resentment and hatred, lack of compassion, where students are now perceived as ‘threats’, and treated in a highly questionable manner.

The legitimately angry groups were quick to call out the University for their blacklisting. And even though students have demanded answers of the University, many have already drawn their own conclusions about the events. The accusation of ‘racial profiling’ and the ‘securitisation of students’ first appeared on twitter, and they have been picked up by every other article written about the event. These may very well be true, but there has been no debate over if, they have simply been taken as fact.

But terms cannot be taken out of context for their impact.

Simply put, the act of securitisation refers to the act by which a subject is turned into a matter of “security”, usually by the state, or in this case institution. This means that the object that has been securitised becomes a threat, be it real or perceived, and it depends entirely on the acceptance of the audience. It is not enough for an object to be named a threat for securitisation to take place. The university has been compliant in what may become a securitisation phenomenon when an audience validates it, but it remains to be seen if this was a purposeful action.

The audience that will accept or disavow the perceived threat of the left-wing groups is not the institution, but those students who have posed themselves against the left-wing groups at King’s. The impact will be to our own, already toxic, political environment. This will likely make our student politics climate worse, as those in opposition to targeted groups will likely see the ban as justification, and the groups will clap back just as aggressively. If students become ‘securitised’ it will not be solely because of the actions of the institution, wrong as they might have been, but because of the polarised nature of our politics.

A polarization we are all complicit in.

The efforts of students are concentrated in attacking those who have wronged them, but we all need to look beyond the surface questions. KCL needs to answer exactly what threat did the students pose, and if there was any believable or relevant precedent that led them to believe banning them from all KCL properties was the appropriate solution to this ‘threat’, and why. Particularly because not all banned students, by their own accounts, belonged to ‘controversial’ groups. What was the criterion used? Was it fear of protesting because of their past actions? And if so, what does that say about KCL’s agenda on Freedom of Speech that they have fiercely protected even with students have been against certain speakers? What does this say about KCL alienating their own students even further?

If the students in question have in fact positioned themselves so aggressively against the institution, is it truly that surprising that after months of attacks by the students, the University would at one point see them as a threat? These students groups have consistently used external protesting as their way to push for change, instead of trying to work within the system, as others chose to do. Was it an inevitability that eventually the University would oblige and classify them as outsiders? Should they have? Are they being forced to reconsider their approach to politics? And is this right? Should there be a difference in how King’s treats their activists depending on their approaches?

Some will argue that KCL was justified in assuming certain students to be more likely than others to protest in light of their past actions, some will agree with the deactivation of IDs. Others will see the act as disgusting, and a reflection of KCL’s lack of true progressive values. These sides will likely not talk to each other to try to reconcile what the other is saying with their version of events. There will be no questions asked, only facts given.

There seems to be no room for compromise in our era of politics. Discourse has broken down, and many may see violence as the next natural alternative to make their voices heard in the vacuum that is left.

 

 

Works Cited:

Buzan, Barry. Wæver, Ole. de Wilde, Jaap. (1998). Security: A New Framework for Analysis. (Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publications). ISBN 978-1-55587-603-6.

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