We security guards won’t be taking the US approach to encampments

Our responsibility is to keep everyone safe and avoid the situation escalating into aggravated trespass or threats of violence, says George Bass

May 22, 2024
`montage of a security guard looking at tents elonging to pro-Palestinian protesters camping outside Manchester University to illustrate We security guards won’t be taking the US approach to encampments
Source: Getty Images montage

The first encampment I ran into in my job as a UK campus security guard wasn’t political: it was a lone tent belonging to a rough sleeper who had bedded down at the back of one of the university car parks.

I followed entry protocol by announcing my presence, waiting for a response and then unzipping the front entrance. There was nothing inside except a blanket.

This was at the beginning of the first lockdown, when the government had pledged to shelter the homeless, so I ripped a page out of my notebook and left a message: “Please remove tent within 24 hours. Temporary accommodation can be arranged at Travelodge via council.”

I’m not sure any student would exchange a blanket in a pro-Palestine encampment for a night in a Travelodge: any armchair pundits who claim the demonstrations springing up on campuses across the UK and the world will never last because students can’t handle living in rough conditions have clearly never seen one of their bedrooms after a house party. But if an encampment appears on our campus, too, I’ll approach the occupants in the same conciliatory manner.

I certainly hope we in the UK get nowhere near some of the horrific scenes that have been seen in the US as police and campus security have cleared encampments with what often looks like excessive force, arresting 2,500 people, mostly students, in the process.

We as campus security guards certainly wouldn’t plan on arresting or dragging anyone away if an encampment sprung up on our car park: that would be for the police to do if they issue a section 35 dispersal order and the protesters ignore it. Our responsibility as frontline security staff would be to make first contact with the protesters, keep everyone safe and make sure that any cases of civil trespass don’t escalate into aggravated trespass or threats of violence. We also have to ensure that article 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998 is upheld, affirming people’s right to “peaceful assembly”.

“Peaceful” is the key word, though. In an ideal world, any occupiers will behave as peacefully as the climate strike activists I had to guard a few years ago. They formed a large group and laid down on the tarmac in silence. From a security perspective, it was easy to handle, like doing the doors at an ambient gig.

But I suspect a pro-Palestine gig would be a lot rowdier, requiring us to walk a moral tightrope and, potentially, call on the physical intervention training that we receive as licensed door staff.

One way we kept things on an even keel recently was by lowering a national flag – one that had been raised in solidarity with a country impacted by a military invasion – and replacing it with one which just read “Peace”. We did this as we don’t want overseas students who are citizens of the occupying country to feel that we’re threatening or condemning them. I know how I would feel if I walked on to a site where everyone was wearing Southend United strips, and it isn’t pleasant.

I’m worried about some of the volatile undergrads who, as my Prevent module outlined to me, can be swept up by ideology that they don’t fully understand. On the other hand, even mundane and ludicrous grievances can inflame certain personalities. We recently had to confront a student who was getting violent because the university wouldn’t give him a free house, for instance.

His behaviour was a reminder of why impassioned individuals should always be approached with caution and respectful language. Officials at Columbia University were perhaps thinking differently, though, when they brought in Republican speaker Mike Johnson, who didn’t hold back in telling the gathering to “stop wasting their parents’ money”.

Personally, I can’t helping thinking that UK students calling on their universities to divest from companies working with the Israeli Defence Force have a point when they say they pay £9,250 a year in tuition fees and just want to know what that money is funding. And I hope anyone who wants to pick an argument with them has done their homework. It’s been interesting to watch clips of those student protesters who don’t clam up when they’re being interviewed. Their articulacy makes me wonder how badly I’ll come across if a member of the debating society really wants an argument about aggravated trespass. I don’t want to be crucified on social media.

Sometimes, before a shift, I get selfish and wish that any protests could be done the same way a lot of lectures seem to get done today: digitally. My job pays minimum wage, so it can be tough to find the motivation to deal with extra conflict on top of fights, fire alarms, lock-outs, woundings and arguments about parking permits.

Those moments are when I focus on my training again and recall how it’s down to my shift-mates and me to protect people and remain “courteous under even extreme provocation” in all conditions. So I’ll keep calm and scrupulously neutral. I’ll remind those on both sides of the demonstration that no, I can’t wear their badge, or flag, or anything else that stops me from quickly reaching the first aid kit in my protective vest.

And I’ll give them the same advice as I do to people throwing a 3am corridor party: keep it friendly or we’ll all be at the police station until breakfast time giving statements.

George Bass is a security guard at a UK university.

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Reader's comments (1)

Great to hear at least one person is being sensible about student protests. Governments and university administrations take note. I'd rather vote for George Bass than any of you.