Four arrested as Strauss-Kahn visits Cambridge Union

Additional reporting by Ben Richardson 10 March 2012

Four people were arrested yesterday, as a peaceful protest against the visit of Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the Cambridge Union Society was accompanied by vandalism and scuffles between police and protesters.

Over 700 students had signed a petition organised by the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) Women’s Campaign calling on the Union Society to disinvite Strauss-Kahn, after he was accused last year of raping a New York hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo. However, the Union upheld the invitation, issuing a strong rebuttal to the Women’s Campaign’s petition yesterday morning, insisting that they had been inviting him “for several years” and saying: “An invitation to the Union does not imply support or endorsement, or indeed disapproval, on the part of the Society or any of the individuals in it. We invite people to speak at the Union regardless of their ideology, background or personal history. We feel Mr Strauss-Kahn is exceptionally well qualified to speak on some of the most prominent international headlines of 2012, namely the global financial crisis and the French Presidential election, and so we believe he will give a pertinent and interesting speech.”

Two people were arrested early yesterday morning just before 6am for painting slogans such as “Women Deserve Better” and “DSK Die” onto the walls of the Union Society building on Bridge Street. They also covered the Union building with hundreds of posters, with messages such as “This House Supports Rape Culture” and “Women’s voices stamped out”, as well as a large banner reading “Only 6% of reported rape ends in conviction: DSK adding to the 94%”. A statement by Cambridgeshire police yesterday evening confirmed: “A 21 year old woman from Cambridge and a 20 year old man from Cambridge, arrested on suspicion of criminal damage this morning in St. John’s Street, remain in custody.” Reports suggest that both arrestees were students at King’s College. The Women’s Campaign was quick to distance itself from the incident, issuing a statement stating, “The CUSU Women’s Campaign has nothing to do with the action taken at the Union in the early hours of this morning”.

Yesterday afternoon, Douglas Wigdor, Nafissatou Diallo’s lawyer in her civil case against Strauss-Kahn, spoke at the Law Faculty at the invitation of the Women’s Campaign, attacking the Union for letting DSK using “a prestigious university to further his political means.” Speaking exclusively to The Cambridge Student in advance of his visit, Wigdor said: “”It is my view that Strauss-Kahn is using the Cambridge Union’s stature as an attempt to rebuild his own reputation and without participating in a free and open debate about the many issues of which he is directly involved concerning the rights of women and the abuse of his power. As he will not be discussing these important subjects, I felt compelled to do so.”

Diallo sent her own personal message of support to the protesting students, saying they had provided her with “further motivation to see justice is done” and that Strauss-Kahn was “held accountable for his actions”.

French writer Tristane Banon, who has accused Strauss-Kahn of attempting to rape her in 2003, also sent a message of support, saying the protest and petition “allowed me to believe a little more in humanity”.

Protesters then gathered outside Great St. Mary’s Church on King’s Parade at 5.30pm and marched through the city centre with chants of “No more violence, no more rape” to Park Street behind the Union Society building. Strauss-Kahn meanwhile was ushered into the Union building through a side entrance on Bridge Street at around 6pm before the majority of the protesters had arrived.

The event received much coverage from both the national and international media, with several French news organisations looking on as around 200 protesters proceeded to hold a peaceful rally on Park Street. Demonstrators held placards reading “DSK not welcome here” and “We are all chambermaids”, as students attending the talk filed past them into the Union chamber through the back entrance. Several student victims of sexual assault spoke movingly about their experiences, with one female student, shivering as she spoke, recounting how she was raped in her room at college by a male student, who was later arrested but subsequently released for lack of evidence. She told the crowd: “It was his word against mine; apparently, saying no repeatedly is not enough.”

Anton Bruder, a 1st-year MML student at King’s, attended the protest holding a placard which read “Let DSK speak! Just because he may be a sex offender doesn’t mean he’s not worth listening to.” On seeing this, another protester, a 3rd-year Medic at Trinity Hall, snatched the placard from Bruder, and tore it into pieces. Another protester began to stamp on the remnants, before the police intervened to calm the situation.

Security was tight at the talk, with the front entrance to the Union on Bridge Street barricaded off, and the back entrance on Park Street manned by several police officers and security guards. Union members could only attend the talk by being assigned a ticket through a randomised online ballot. Entrants were body-searched upon arrival – one attendee, a 1st-year at Murray Edwards, described it as “like being in an airport” – and no mobile phones or recording equipment was allowed into the Union chamber.

Just as Strauss-Kahn’s talk began inside the chamber, at around 7.30pm, the speeches at the rally ended, and several protesters surged forward and attempted to climb over the barricades at the back of the Union Society building. Protesters shouted “DSK, go away, justice for Diallo” and “Say hey, say ho, sexual violence got to go”, as police and security guards struggled to contain the situation, with some on the Union side of the barricade seen pushing protesters’ hands off the gates. Several protesters were dragged away from the scene by police, provoking outcry from other demonstrators and shouts of “Who are you protecting?”. Several protesters have claimed that they were “punched” and “hit in the face several times” by police officers during the commotion, but TCS has been unable to verify these claims .

Two people were arrested in the evening, taking the total number of people arrested yesterday to four. According to a statement from Cambridgeshire Police: “Two people have been arrested in Cambridge following the protest in the city this evening. A 19 year old man from Littleport was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer. A 23 year old woman from London was arrested on suspicion of breach of the peace. Both remain in custody at Parkside police station”.

The 19 year old arrested was Miles Curtis Watson, a Cambridgeshire resident but not a student of Cambridge University, whose dramatic arrest, surrounded by eight police officers at one point, sparked outrage and distress among his fellow protesters and prompted chants of “Shame on you” directed at police.

Chants from protesters, and the sound of police sirens, were clearly audible in the Union chamber throughout most of Strauss-Kahn’s speech, which he began with the apology “I understand there is some emotion, which I feel sorry about, and I hope that you will not hold me responsible for the noise”. His speech, and the majority of questions from the audience, focused exclusively on economics – especially the themes of globalisation and the Eurozone crisis. However, one student stood up to ask Strauss-Kahn: “What do you think of the protests outside?”, to which he replied curtly: “You’re a country of freedom. They can do what they want. I think they’re wrong.”

Another student, Will Lawn from King’s College, raised the Diallo sex allegations and asked Strauss-Kahn to “explain the vaginal bruising” which she claims to have suffered. Lawn was immediately forced by a security guard to leave his seat and make his way to the exit, but Strauss-Kahn insisted he stay and repeat his question more clearly. He replied: “I’m not quite sure this is the topic of this evening, but there’s no reason not to answer you.” He continued, “Diallo was lying. That’s it”, and he defended himself saying, “The attorney says what he wants. The reality is that I spent a week in prison after the declaration of a woman that there has been a prosecution, and they haven’t been very nice to me – they did not want to be nice to me, but that’s OK – and after one and a half months, the attorney said “I’m sorry we were wrong”, and it took another month to have the paperwork, and he dismissed the charges. So, what do you want? “

Lawn later told TCS: “Strauss-Kahn should be pressed to speak about this, and that’s why I raised my question. Personally I don’t want this kind of person to come and speak at an institution affiliated with Cambridge University, but if he is allowed to speak, then we have a duty to women to force him to speak about this rape case, using him as an example to show that this is a wider issue that needs to be dealt with.”

At the end of his talk, Strauss-Kahn managed to avoid the protesters outside by making his exit from the Union through the Pitt Club building on Jesus Lane, which houses Pizza Express and the bar Hidden Rooms. Pizza Express staff have described to TCS how Strauss-Kahn “marched” through the restaurant at around 9.30pm, accompanied by “two or three eavies”, and advanced past diners into a waiting police car, which sped off down Jesus Lane.

Speaking to TCS after the event, CUSU Women’s Officer Ruth Graham said: “I am incredibly proud of the platform we created to speak out against sexual violence today, from hearing Ms Diallo and Ms Banon’s testimonies, to giving space for women and men students to speak out about how normalised sexual violence is, and how many have been affected by it. It was profoundly harrowing, but inspirational, to hear students so bravely  sharing experiences of rape and sexual assault with a crowd of people.

“Obviously the CUSU Women’s Campaign planned for a peaceful and non-violent protest, and we were very disappointed to see police dragging students away and arresting them. We don’t have full details of what happened yet but will be making further comment when we know more.”

Laurence Tidy, Michael Yoganayagam, Gwen Jing & Louise Ashwell

Additional reporting by Ben Richardson