York University students in Toronto faced police batons, black eyes and arrests on the day of George W. Bush’s inauguration, when they held a peaceful rally in defiance of the university’s ban on unauthorized assemblies. Students were protesting York’s corporate ties with the Bush regime.

Students speak out

Only a few demonstrators were in sight when I arrived for the scheduled rally in the middle of York University’s vast Vari Hall rotunda on January 20. The event had been advertised as a “speak-out” to “say no to empire and campus repression.” I had brought a video camera along, but I immediately began to wonder whether it was going to be worth filming what would certainly be a small, tame event.

Fifteen minutes later, the crowd had grown to about 40 people. Undergraduate students from York’s Grassroots Anti-Imperialist Network (GRAIN), the group which had organized the event, distributed ‘zines which highlighted ties between the Bush regime and corporations providing funding to York University — including weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin, and oil companies such as Standard Oil (ESSO) and Imperial Oil. Students took turns speaking into a megaphone about the connections between U.S. imperialism and the university’s corporate donors. The event was scheduled to be fairly short; the plan was to head downtown after the speak-out, to join up with demonstrations at the American consulate.

Cops on campus

Suddenly, half a dozen police officers entered Vari Hall. For a few minutes, the cops stood watching as the rally continued. Then they began to move towards us, making a bee-line for the student with the megaphone. He was knocked down. I saw him lying on the ground with his hands raised protectively around his head, to defend himself from the cops’ fists and batons. I had trouble keeping my video camera focused, my arms were shaking so much. Other students started shouting, and there was lots of pushing, and some people reached out to try to protect the student who was being beaten.

The next thing I knew, my friend Greg — a grad student from the sociology department — was also on the ground, pinned down by the cops. I could see him being hit. We followed as Greg was pulled down the hallway by a few cops, one of whom waved his bayonet in the air. I could hear him calling out, his small frame dwarfed by the burly officers on either side of him, “They called me ‘fag’!”

The police abruptly turned a corner into a hallway. The cops pulled him and three other students into an adjacent empty lecture hall, and more police officers swarmed in, slamming the door shut on the growing crowd.

Behind closed doors

Outside the door, I was panicking. If they’d beaten two students in plain view of dozens of other people, as well as a few cameras, what would they do behind closed doors? We began kicking the door, screaming at the cops to let the students out. Greg later recounted that it was behind the closed doors of the classroom that the beating really escalated. He remembers about 10 cops being present in the room.

After a few minutes of our kicking and shouting, the door flew open. A couple of cops lunged at us. I sprang back into the crowd, out of the reach of the police officers’ grasping hands, but other students were not so lucky. The cops grabbed an undergraduate student, Nick, into the lecture hall, slamming the door shut after them.

Nick got so badly beaten that he had to be hospitalized. When I saw him at the courthouse the following day, his eye socket and face had turned an alarming shade of blue.

Outside the classroom-cum-torture chamber, the crowd was growing. As at the scene of a morbid car accident, passers-by slowed down, curious and horrified, to find out what was unfurling in the hallway. “Why did the police attack the students if they were only speaking?” I heard one woman exclaim. “Why?” But nobody could answer.

Five students were arrested that afternoon. Although tapes from three video-cameras showed that the police charged into the crowd of students, some arrestees are facing charges of assaulting a police officer. One student is being accused of grabbing a cop’s weapon.

Access denied: restricting activism at York

The events of January 20 took place in the context of a trend of targeting political activists and increasing restrictions on the use of university space at York. In 2004, the administration tried to expel a student for using a megaphone at a rally. The university maintains that using megaphones constitutes a violation of its Standards of Student Conduct, which stipulate that students may not “harm” “the proper functioning of the university.” The expulsion decision was overturned by the courts, but the university has continued to target individual activists.

York has been targeting those who attend rallies for which no permit was obtained with disciplinary meetings and intimidating letters. Vari Hall, which was originally designed as a forum for popular assemblies, has been designated as off-bounds for events during weekdays during the school year, and the use of megaphones in it has been prohibited. Meanwhile, the university has imposed reservation fees for space bookings for non-academic purposes. Student groups organizing on-campus talks involving radical speakers have been delivered warnings by the administration that the groups concerned will be obliged to pay security fees of several thousand dollars.

In response to the administration and the police reaction to the January 20 rally, a crowd of over a thousand York students, faculty and staff filled Vari Hall the following day. Faculty and student speakers called on the administration to lobby for the arrested students’ charges to be dropped. The York Federation of Students, the Graduate Students Association and Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees are planning a week of rallies, assemblies and film screenings to denounce campus repression this week at York.