Taimour Lay looks at the recent wave of university occupations across Britain in protest at the Israeli attack on Gaza
When students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London shut down an on-campus MoD exhibition on January 13, the one-day occupation was seen as both a qualified success and a missed opportunity. But with the atrocities committed in Gaza creating a sense of outrage and urgency among thousands of people, what SOAS activists failed to carry through, other students resolved to achieve.
Two days later the LSE’s Old Theatre was under occupation and a day later Essex University followed. The major ground and air offensive, Operation Cast Lead, ‘ended’ on January 18 but from January 20-22, the second wave of occupations in solidarity with Gaza had begun in earnest: Kings College London, Birmingham, Sussex, Warwick, the London College of Communication, Manchester Met, Oxford, Leeds and Cambridge were all under occupation, communicating formally and informally, sharing tactics, drawing up broadly similar demands and settling in for the long haul. The immediate context of Israeli military aggression had broadened into a critique of the education system’s financial links with Israel and the increasing commercialisation of all aspects of university life. Success in one place emboldened the rest; clampdowns by the authorities generated a discontent that may keep growing.
By the last weekend of January – and just as the mainstream media were picking up on the phenomenon – Sheffield Hallam, Nottingham, Bradford, the University of East London and Queen Mary’s had joined in. And still it hadn’t stopped: on February 4 students at Manchester took the Simon Building at the heart of the campus and, one month on, at the time of going to pres, show no sign of leaving. In mid-February, students in Cardiff and Edinburgh were only just beginning. In total, 28 institutions had become part of a protest movement the scale of which few had anticipated.
But does the spate of occupations represent a genuine change in the basis for organising among Britain’s 2.5m students? What sorts of coalitions were built and how central was the organisational power of the SWP? What were the conditions in which some occupations succeeded and others failed? What was their political content? And how can a renewal of student politics be channelled into class struggle?
28 occupations – one model?
The occupations were characterised by their focus on demands for university condemnation of the Israeli aggression against civilians and educational institutions, calls for divestment from arms companies, and scholarships for Palestinian students. These three categories were met by universities in different ways: most were willing to make an anodyne statement expressing “regret” for the loss of civilian life (“on both sides”, most were swift to add), but the degree to which activists were able to extract genuine concessions on ethical investment and scholarships was dependent on attitudes towards negotiation and duration of occupation.
The model for occupation followed by the majority was not just coincidentally similar. It reflects the existing levels of activism at each institution: the typical make-up appears to have been a core of perhaps 40-50 people comprising independent socialists, SWP Students, greens, anarchists, and members of Palestinian and Islamic societies, bolstered by dozens -and in some cases, hundreds – more students prepared to engage politically in response to the shocking levels of civilian casualties in Palestine, combined with a longer-term frustration with expensive, bureauractic university authorities and an equally undemocratic and unresponsive NUS. That such a core group was able, in many cases, to maintain a strong hand in negotiations with the Universities was precisely because they were operating at the forefront of significant, and increasingly vocal, support from the student population as a whole.
The LSE occupation and others fitted this mould. Most activists recognise the role played by SWPers – but, while admitting to occasional tensions over political direction, deny that splits ever threatened the unity of the group. In Sheffield Hallam, for example, one anarchist activist spoke positively about the cooperation between the Anarchist Federation, StWC/SWP, Hands Off the People of Iran, Amnesty and the Islamic Society.
The response of university authorities varied widely: from a willingness to negotiate and respect the occupation space to early and heavy-handed attempts to end political mobilisations before they could gather strength. The most striking example of direct assault on protesters came at Nottingham University on Sunday February 1, day six of an occupation that had attracted some of the highest numbers in the second wave of mobilisations. An unusually large group of up to 100 people were sleeping overnight in a politics department lecture theatre, with 450-400 regularly attending events during the day.
Hicham Yezza says the university management had planned their attack carefully. “They waited until the Sunday evening when lots of people had gone home to shower and get supplies. We just didn’t expect them to make a move, especially as it was snowing so heavily. But at least a dozen West Midlands police and another 20 private security guards came in and dragged people into the snow. There were injuries: I saw the scars and marks on protesters’ bodies.”
Nottingham authorities are now pursuing disciplinary proceedings against those they believe were key organisers. “The university is trying to intimidate people. Letters have been sent out saying that they are under investigation and if people ‘come to their attention’ for any other issue in the meantime, they are going to get hit very hard.”
Yezza believes that protesters were making connections between Gaza and political relations and power dynamics more generally. “This [the conduct of the university] was just another example of the senior management refusing to engage with people, to listen to students. They’re obsessed with sponsorship money and private investment. It takes time for a collective mindset to develop in reaction to this.”
The clampdown at Sheffield Hallam that same weekend was no less harsh. Students agreed to end their sit-in when threatened with the use of force and a court order – but the university reneged on the deal, reserving the right “in principle” to suspend ringleaders. Two Student Union activists, who have been outspoken campaigners for governance reform and were involved in the Gaza protests, are now undergoing disciplinary procedures.
Mark Harrison, an independent leftist, was one of the organisers at Manchester Met which went into occupation on February 4. Over 100 students occupied an engineering faculty building and the university post room. A core of 35 activists was supplemented during the day, with at least 20 sleeping overnight. He says that the senior management of the university adopted a no-compromise position from the outset. ”They weren’t letting new people and food in, and they weren’t engaging in negotiations. They flushed us out by the weekend that way.”
But Harrison hopes the occupation has provided momentum for a new kind of politics at the university: “I’m standing in the student elections this year and there’s no way that a left candidate would have been able to before this. People are realising how undemocratic the Student Union is – there’s not even going to be a proper student council next year. This has been a start. Most of us have three years to keep the pressure on.” Activists are doing just that, with protests planned in March to democratise the student union.
Birmingham students are still seething about the response of the authorities when an occupation of one room in the Arts building on January 22 was met by the immediate warning that students were in “breach of the peace” if they did not leave the building. During negotiations the entrance to the room was breached by security guards and police making it impossible to maintain a secure hold on the space. Outside the building the dozens of protesters walked a gauntlet past two police vans and numerous police cars.
When universities reacted with negotiations, activists were in nearly all cases prepared to stay significant periods of time, but this seems to have been driven by a ‘demand’ focused strategy so that spaces were handed back once the authorities had offered face-saving combinations of words. Occupations ranged in durations from just one day (Oxford, Bradford, Birmingham), to two or three days (Manchester Met), one week (LSE, Cambridge, Sussex, Leeds, Nottingham, Queen Mary’s), ten days (KCL, Warwick) to two weeks or more (Strathclyde, Manchester University). At Manchester’s marathon occupation demands have been used, but protesters are placing more emphasis on the inherent value of occupying itself, the creation of an alternative space for activism and discourse.
Victories ‘declared’ and concessions won
While nearly all of the 28 occupations declared ‘victory’ at some stage, some had won more concrete concessions from the authorities than others. In fact, there was a marked trend of occupations apparently ending too early, to the regret of activists unsure that their demands had really been met.
At Oxford, the occupation of the Clarendon building by 80 activists lasted only seven hours, ending after a vague promise on January 28 from the Proctors (a separate authority to the University administration itself) to “raise issues” of investment in arms companies at the University’s Council and “to send a letter” to the Master of Balliol College “drawing his attention to the protesters’ concerns about the proposed title of alecture series inaugurated by (Israeli President) Shimon Peres.”
Juliette Harkin defended the decision to leave. “The demands we made we will continue to work on and campaign for, but it takes time. Yes, there was a hardcore prepared to stay. We did seriously intend to stay. We’d brought in food but the majority decision of those present was to leave.”
Other occupations’ success was a function of limited demands: the agreements for “reviews” of university investment policies and “in-principle” commitments to the establishment of scholarships for Palestinian students - as at the University of the Arts and Leeds, for example – paled in comparison to the detailed and apparently binding concession won elsewhere. Goldsmiths’ occupation of Deptford Town Hall from February 11-13 won four new scholarships a year until 2020, two of which will be reserved for Palestinian students. The letter from Hugh Jones, University registrar, also included a commitment “not to take action against students involved in the occupation”, a guarantee which protesters at other institutions were not as careful to secure before ending their sit-ins.
An Autonomy and Solidarity activist at Goldsmiths commented afterwards that the coalition of protesters had been, on the whole, cohesive and democratic, and not dominated by the SWP: “For us, it is the act of occupying in itself that is revolutionary. This was borne out by the staggering change of perspective that all the occupiers underwent, with ideas and actions that had previously seemed ‘radical’ being (democratically) voted through by larger and larger majorities as time went on; and by Thursday evening, we were debating the different paths to social change and the makeup of a fair society.
“To win what appears to be a concrete victory in just 29 hours is a clear vindication of direct action. Moreover, the general feeling at the conclusion of the occupation was that direct action had proved itself so effective that our demands were seen as too timid, and that our action had been too brief. Through the smokescreen of student politics and bureaucratic wrangling, some of us caught a glimpse of an emancipatory form of participation: But why settle for a glimpse?”
Another site of significant gains was Strathclyde University, where the occupation of the McCance building by 50 students lasted from February 4 -21. By the end of the second day the university had already agreed to terminate its contract with the water-supplier Eden Springs – an Israeli -owned company operating in the West Bank.
Cardiff students were part of the second wave of occupations in mid-February, almost one month after direct action had begun at SOAS in London. What is remarkable is the length of the occupation (just three days and two nights) in relation to the demands met: Cardiff University agreed to end £209,000 worth of investment in, among others, BAe systems and the infrastructure arm of General Electric.
Sebastian Power was part of a predominately Green Party campaign for divestment at Cardiff. The outrage over Gaza created a momentum which activists used to pressure the university with demands focused almost exclusively on investment in arms companies. Again, the pattern is of a ‘core’ group of 30-40 protesters, with significant mobilisation by the SWP, with larger numbers of independents attending sporadically. Power said that “politics” was carefully framed in order to include as many people as possible but at the expense of broadening the message. “The support for divestment ballooned and that’s when the SWP came in but we made it clear this wasn’t a ‘political campaign’.
“We learnt a lot from the other occupations,” Power said. “We were in touch with a lot of people at other places and so we decided to use a lecture event [on ethical investment] to suggest an occupation.
“Students clearly saw the strength of the argument. We said to them, ‘Your tuition fees are going straight to General Electric!’ We were educating students and acting democratically. The student union is just a bureaucracy that wears you down and where it takes years and years to achieve what we did in just a few days.”
Manchester and beyond – a new kind of student politics
Six weeks on from the first mobilisation of students at SOAS on January 13, the occupation at Manchester University shows no sign of ending. The Simon Building remains an autonomous space for teach-ins, workshops (on direct action politics and non-violent resistance) and rallies. And it’s spreading out rather than looking inwards. A Union EGM attracted 1,100 people. A national demonstration is planned for March 3 to pressure the vice-chancellor, Alan Gilbert, who has threatened the occupiers with permanent exclusion from the University, to enter into substantive negotiations.
Beyond the last occupation, activists across the country are seeking to coordinate at a grassroots level to improve communication and support, synchronise national actions and provide advice to the next wave of occupiers. But now the Gaza crisis has faded from view, will students mobilise as effectively on the cost of fees or the commercialisation of university space? And who will attempting to direct it?
The SWP called a “coordination meeting” in February, the base of which was questioned by some who didn’t believe the students actually involved in the occupations were present. With Workers Power calling for the “radical coordination of student struggles”, Education Not for Sale’s proposal for a new student union network alongside the NUS, and a number of activists not wanting to work within the bureaucracy of the StWC, the political landscape is as fragmented as ever.
February 25th saw around 700 students march through London in protest against top-up fees and demanding free university education for all. A Commune activist present came away disappointed: “The bulk of those attending were either from Trotskyist groups and their peripheries or a bloc of people with anarchist flags. Although most of the speakers at both the start and end of the protest called for student-worker unity, and many of the slogans advocated support for trade union struggles, in fact there were very few workers on the demo, even from the ranks of the UCU or NUT, since there is in reality little integration between workers’ organisations and the student movement, even its left wing. Nor did working-class students from sixth form/FE colleges attend in strong numbers, although some are building a London School Students’ Union.”
But one of the more intriguing developments during the Gaza protest movement came when students at the Byam Shaw School of Art at Central St Martins went into a 10-day occupation demanding the reversal of course cut-backs and their representation by an elected student officer. No mention of Gaza: this was learning the lessons of the past few weeks, engaging in direct action against a chronically unresponsive institution. It suggests a road ahead: the possibility that the next phase of student struggle against top-up fees and privatisation of education – in the context of recession and rising graduate unemployment – will not be dominated by the supine compromises of the NUS, but driven by new coalitions of committed activists, swelled by the mass ranks of the disenchanted, who now realise that the universities – our universities – are there for the taking.