Friday, 2 January 2015

Occupation Memoir

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I attended a low-rated former polytechnic university.

The University decided that the best way to deal with budget constraints was a blanket 10% reduction of academic budget, across all departments. This was done without consultation of staff or students, decided at executive level and delivered as a fait accompli.
Students, understandably unhappy with this, staged an occupation of the main campus building.
I was one of those students.

At a meeting to discuss the cuts, as well as more prosaic matters, I made a dick of myself talking to a senior member of University staff. I used the word contempt, and she looked utterly baffled. When she asked by whom had I been treated with contempt, I realised, much to my chagrin, that I didn’t really know. I had only the vaguest idea of what was going on.
This was my introduction to student politics. I felt like I was doing it right, I was pissed off and ready to do something about it, for the first time in my life. But many people around me knew so much better, so I tried to stick with them. I did have a laugh hanging about with those friends who didn’t discuss these things in detail; we just all felt the same, we were generally lefty, young and pissed off and were seizing the day to get involved. Each for our own reasons. But that the student lifestyle should involve some protest, some direct action and some radical politics was a given.
There was also a general distaste for hippies, sloganeering, all the people that hated each other but called everyone “comrade” and the traditional Left in general.

We had laughed at the NUS candidates, dismissing this as a way into the hierarchy of the Labour Party, a group universally reviled for the introduction of tuition fees, among other crimes. My first year at university was the first intake required to pay fees. Since then, they have gone up 900% - a hike entirely predictable at the time, and one of the reasons many of us were so opposed. The “thin end of the wedge” argument was not the best argument against fees, but it was – and remains – the most obviously vindicated one.

(I also blamed “New Labour” for my casually disinterested cynicism, which wasn’t entirely fair. But when we consider what they definitely were responsible for, we might as well add it to the bottom of the charge sheet. Surely this was the most flagrantly cynical movement in British political history – no small charge, given the competition – a party hierarchy that based its election strategy on studiously ignoring around 90% of the population, in favour of courting Rupert Murdoch’s approval, at a time when the incumbents wouldn’t have been elected milk monitors – ie, when it wasn’t even fucking necessary. They got elected when I was sixteen, and I just couldn’t understand why people who were older than me – and should have known better – were excited about it. The excitement at being rid of the Tories after eighteen years was understandable, but what had it been replaced with? It’s difficult to discuss without getting bitter and angry, not that you would have noticed.)

So, we had some meetings, and decided by overwhelming majority that the best thing to do was to march in and take shit over. This was why I was here; I’d been pissed off at the state of the world for years, but as a teenager I had mostly just moaned about it in (what I thought was) a middle-aged, resigned fashion. Now I was a young man and I was ready to Do Something.
At one meeting, a Surveying student pointed out that, even buying into the idea of education as a commodity, the 10% budget slash made no sense: their course was profitable, over-subscribed, and students on the course had jobs in Surveying ready to go into when they finished. If there was a commercial imperative here, surely at least the profitable courses would be spared?

At the last of these meetings, most of us turned up with sleeping bags. There was a senior lecturer there (sans sleeping bag), whose attitude was as gung-ho as any of the most impressionable, idealistic students. I’d seen him with the samba band at a couple of demonstrations, but had never spoken to him. He seemed battle-hardened, impatient with the debating and voting on the question of what we were doing here and whether we should go ahead. He was all for swift, decisive action. I didn’t see him again for the whole occupation.

Marching into a lecture hall full of people on a Thursday evening to tell everyone to join us or get out was an odd experience. I wasn’t sure how to handle it. My friend Simon seemed a bit more confident, but when questioned, seemed, like me, at a bit of a loss as to how to explain it all to people who hadn’t even been in our meeting, the lazy fuckers.
After trying to argue it out, we had to Go And Get Claire. How humiliating. She came in and used a stern voice and everyone (some reluctantly) did what she said. We were supposed to be anti-hierarchical and running things by consensus, but we were new to it and at the first difficulty we Went And Got A Manager. Doubly embarrassing, and wounding to the old male pride, we had to go and get a woman to accomplish a task two young men should have found straightforward. Thinking about this later, I imagined myself to be an ally, totally contemptuous of traditional gender roles. Which, in retrospect, was the most self-serving spin possible.
Not that Claire was a manager, of course – she readily agreed to help us, recognising (probably) how na├»ve and out of our depth we were with some of this stuff (like telling our peers, and some people older than us to join us or get out, for example.) So, in the end, it was a case of sharing skills. If anyone needed a sarcastic, smart-arse comment or a pedantic correction of their spelling and grammar, I was ready and able to help with that.

Anyway, with the support of the lecturer (who was pretty game for the whole thing – maybe he wanted to go home early, or maybe he didn’t fancy having his wages cut), we got that room under control. None of the students there decided to join us, but they all left without much fuss. Soon enough, we were in charge of the building. I wondered if this was how it felt to storm the Winter Palace, or The Bastille. Probably not, but we were in.
We moved into the big hall and set up. We allocated tasks and volunteered for various jobs. I thought, as a Media student, I would be best off dealing with the press. While others were cooking and securing the doors, I was writing the press release for our action. At my suggestion, we guessed at our group’s numbers and doubled our guess, without spending a long time soul-searching about the validity of this lie, or how seriously it may or may not be taken by The Outside World. Truth is the first casualty in any war. And we didn’t start this war, but it was ON.
The Morning Star devoted the next day’s front page to our humble action, relying heavily on my/our press release. They also doubled the numbers we had given, so perhaps that is the journalistic standard…
So there we were, according to the Left Wing Press, a 300-strong band of determined, radical students committed to reversing education cuts through direct action. There was some truth to that, although the day-to-day reality was less exciting, and as such a really instructive look at politics in general, and grass-roots radical politics in particular.
At the executive level, it seems that the Art Of The Possible is really The Art Of What You Can Get Away With. At grass-roots level, it’s The Art Of What Can Be Achieved With The Minimum Amount Of Disagreement, or, more succinctly: consensus. It’s difficult, messy and takes time, like anything that aspires to equality.
I addressed the group with our progress report, reading out the press release. “Around 150 students – yeah, we lied [laughs] – stormed [laughs] the campus.”

When we invited students in to talk about the occupation and the cuts it opposed, we were met with a mix of apathy, confusion and anger. Our fault for asking, I suppose. One student, when complaining that his lectures had been cancelled because of the occupation was asked what he studied. As soon as he said Economics, there was an audible groan which meant “ah, well of course, you’d be against us”, which I felt was as unfair as it was unwelcome. The guy had a point: we shouldn’t be disrupting lessons without a) good reason and b) some kind of consultation with those affected. This was especially important, since one of our gripes was that the university had imposed cuts without consultation or negotiation.

The whole thing was, frankly, jolly good fun, for the most part. We hung around the university, a campus I didn’t know, all night, staying up late, dancing, eating and living together in a big group. (One student had a minidisc player. Yeh. Minidisc. That’s how long ago it was.) It was a low-key, ironic sort of idealism (it was the early 21st century, after all). We had no illusions that what we were doing would, by itself, solve the problems we wanted to address. Obviously the government weren't about to shit themselves because a rag-tag crowd of teenage idealists had holed up in a big hall....but at least we did something. This was particularly important for me personally, because I had been, have been – and still am – mostly criticising and complaining from the sidelines.

People were making semi-ironic references to Paris, 1968, delivered with a self-deprecating smile. I joined in, but didn't know much about the student occupations of that year in France. It was another of the Things I was Supposed To Know About, but actually knew just enough to refer to it. Like all the Books I Was Supposed To Have Read. Ask me about them now, I've heard of them all: Adorno, Baudrillard, Foucault, Gramsci, Sartre. And if someone referenced them I could nod sagely and act like I also knew. I was good at that, did it in lectures all the time...I do it now with films and music my well-informed friends are into.

The Vice-Chancellor evidently felt differently about the whole thing. The story was he wanted the Police to arrest all of us and got laughed out of the local branch, after being told that there was no way the local constabulary could possibly dedicate the necessary amount of officers needed to evict tens of students from their own open campus, considering they had committed no crime and caused very little trouble (other than the minor disruption to some teaching – hardly a criminal offence) – not on a day when the local Premiership football team were at home, with all the Police resources that would require. I never had this story corroborated, but it entirely fit my own reading of events, so I didn’t question it much, at least not out loud.

There was a sign-up sheet for a turn watching the door. My friend Mike and I reluctantly signed up for the 5-7 am shift on the Saturday morning, having not done any up until that point (it was the only one left). We got a couple of hours kip and set an alarm to go down to the main entrance, which had been barricaded at the end of each day.
Arriving to relieve the previous shift, we promptly took a bench each and went to sleep. I woke up at around 7.45, to a Policeman striding past me, his knee at my eye height.
Oh, shiiiiit, I thought, we’ve fucked up here.
Where’s Mike? Was my next thought.
On the bench opposite, was the answer, also just waking up, looking confused and annoyed at being woken. We traded sheepish grins, in an expression that said: “Whoops.”
He went back to sleep.
I got up and started gathering my stuff, a bit confused by the calmness of the situation, and trying to look like I’d been awake for hours and someone else (ie, Mike) was to blame for the coppers getting in. No one really gave us any shit for it – what would we have done? Raise the alarm, maybe, try and get a few bodies behind the door to stop them, for a while…looking around at all the occupiers, we just saw a few knowing “well done, knob-heads” smirks, a few friendly “you twats” grins.

So, we were (sort of) reluctantly shepherded out of the building by security staff, accompanied by a few Police (who were mostly hands-off, just there as back-up in case anyone kicked off (no one did). In fact, they seemed unfailingly polite, like they’d decided either that we were alright sorts really, or that the best way to annoy us and confound our expectations was to be really nice about the whole thing).
The university provided a minibus back to the other campuses, where most of us were based, which seemed odd but was most welcome. (Did that really happen? My memory is quite good, but it was over a decade ago.) I got home and flopped into bed, having enjoyed my foray into politics. The feeling was similar to having been out all night: tired, satisfied, looking forward to a day in bed and with a few stories to tell.

The week after we all cleared out, Security staff were politely asking us if we knew anything about some missing computer stuff. It turned out that a student who had been suspected of having ulterior motives did indeed have them, which was disappointing. Again, Security were quite nice about it, assuring us that they were sure that the rest of us had nothing to do with any theft or damage and that we had looked after the buildings and been respectful and cleared up after ourselves. Our attitude was that the arsehole/s who stole/broke stuff had given us all a bad name, but maybe we were wrong.

I’ve visited a couple of these occupations more recently. Looking back, it’s still hard to say what we achieved. It was a long time ago. Obviously big budget cuts were still made...and education, far from being free, is more costly than ever, and becoming more exclusive and less open, just like we all feared it would.
The meaning of the word has developed in the last decade or so, with occupations becoming a popular way to dissent, in the US, UK, Egypt, Tunisia, Hong Kong and elsewhere, with varying degrees of success.
(Someone did ask, at the time, “Isn’t it ironic that you’re all against the occupation of Palestine and wherever else, but you’re occupying here…?” To which the response was a heart-felt “No, you prick – next question.”)

Occupations are all the rage these days.  But we did it before it was cool, yeah?

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