By Ben James and Alastair Reid
Students clashed with police yesterday (March 25) as university protesters staged their largest demonstration to date about outsourcing.
Around 1,000 gathered at the University of Sussex’s Falmer campus before balaclava-clad activists stormed the main administration building and looted and set fire to some of the contents.
Police in riot gear tried to keep protesters at bay but had to withdraw after becoming overwhelmed and outnumbered. Reinforcements were called but senior officers decided not to use them.
The demonstration was called to protest against privatisation at the university and across the country as a whole.
The University of Sussex has become a focal point for the anti-privatisation movement following the six-week-long occupation of the university’s Bramber House building.
Students are protesting against the outsourcing of 235 campus jobs to private contractors.
A spokesman for the occupiers said students from across the country had travelled by coach to take part in the “important and momentous” day.
He said: “Students from across the country stand alongside academics, university staff and others in a mass display of solidarity and express anger at the management of Sussex University.”
'Shocking and appalling'
John Duffy, registrar and secretary of the university, called the violent nature of the protest “shocking and appalling” and labelled student organisers “irresponsible”.
The day had begun peacefully with speakers in the campus’s Library Square.
Among those talking were North Ayrshire and Arran MP Katy Clark and Alfie Meadows, who suffered serious injuries in the 2010 student protests.
Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas also had a statement read on her behalf.
Following the rallying calls, the protesters began marching around the campus’s scattered buildings, lighting flares and fireworks and carrying banners.
At Sussex House security staff had boarded up windows and organised for police to stand on the other side of the glass doors.
Within minutes the mood of the march turned ugly and activists in balaclavas began to smash the glass with placards and sticks.
Dozens of police officers moved in to try to disperse the crowd but after a line of protesters met them face on and coins began to be hurled, they withdrew to put on riot gear.
Videos by Nicholas Webb
They then stood and watched as around 100 protesters smashed their way into Sussex House, set up barricades with furniture and began looting.
One masked activist who had sprayed “Occupy” in yellow paint in the stairwell of the building, said: “It was originally going to be a peaceful student protest. As per standard it escalates a little bit.”
A small group grabbed a pile of admin folders and set fire to them outside the entrance as they tried to hold off police.
The students withdrew to their original occupation point at Bramber House where some smashed through a second section of the top floor to take control of more of the building.
Meanwhile, just 100 metres from Sussex House, a female student was lying unconscious at the bottom of concrete steps.
Onlookers said that she had collapsed and was known to have a heart condition. She was speaking to paramedics as she was loaded into the ambulance.
Mr Duffy said: “We cannot tolerate today’s violent behaviour. There is no excuse.”
A police spokeswoman said that no arrests were made and that there were no injuries.
Last night police chiefs defended their handling of the protest.
Instead of calling in reinforcements or clearing the protesters with police dogs or batons, officers stood and watched as activists broke into Sussex House.
A force spokeswoman said: “Officers acted in the way they did because at no point was there a threat to life or injury.
“The protesters were just intent on getting in that building and occupying it. For us to use batons on people would have been disproportionate.
“If for example they had been causing harm to others, we perhaps would have acted differently.
“For example, with March for England, they were setting fire to bins which had potential to cause harm to others.
“But this was criminal damage with no intent to cause harm to others.
“All these decisions have to made in the heat of the moment and nobody was injured which is a good outcome.
“We would like to think that the university understand our reasons.”
See the latest news headlines from The Argus:
- Teenager raped on seafront
- Car crashes into tree – emergency services on the scene
- After effects of Hurricane Gonzalo set to sweep through Sussex
- Cyclist left with head injuries after crash with bus
- Train bosses ordered to keep the noise down