A Middlesex student looks at the recent student occupation in protest at the closure of the philosophy department
The timing of the Middlesex occupation – during the general election, and so just before major cuts across the country – means that it is particularly important to draw lessons from it. A group of us are in the process of collaboratively writing up our experiences for the benefit of future occupations. However, this has not yet been completed, so what follows is simply a personal and partial account of some of the positives and negatives of the occupation.
The best thing about the occupation – which lasted for twelve days and covered a whole building – was that it proved how much a small number of people can do if they have the energy and the will. Because the occupation was a response to the closure of the philosophy department, most involved were philosophy students, and many were part-time and postgraduates, who hardly knew each other beyond the occasional confused questions in weekly seminars. We started with forty people, although numbers varied because of people’s work and other commitments.
These numbers were boosted considerably every time we held an event, when students from other universities and people from other struggles came to support us. There was unfortunately little involvement from other Middlesex students, largely because the academic year had ended; the occupied campus is an hour away from the main campus; and because Middlesex lacks any recent tradition of protest and so any established ‘activist’ or political groups.
Although the lack of other Middlesex students was a huge disadvantage, the absence of established groups with their own agendas was for the best. The only home-grown politicians we had to contend with were the Middlesex Students’ Union. However, they made it very clear they wanted nothing to do with us: the President denounced the occupation on the first day – she was told to leave – and, in a meeting between management and students, she asked to observe for management! The lack of support from the Students’ Union was a blessing, allowing us to work together without their motions, amendments and other stalling techniques.
This was complemented by a lack of imported politicians – for whatever reason, the SWP and their various splits and counter factions clearly decided the occupation wasn’t worth staying for. So, apart from a few ‘representatives’ at the couple of mass meetings we had, preaching was kept to a minimum, and was completely absent from the meetings in which we decided to escalate, and from the day to day running of the occupation. This meant that people developed ways of working together largely free of structures, and that the expansion took place spontaneously, organically and according to what at any one time seemed possible, rather than as a result of following blueprints. From a day-time occupation of the boardroom to an occupation for the night, from occupation for the night to occupation of the whole building, it was us who made each move.
On the tenth day of the occupation, management begged us to come to a meeting in which they offered us nothing. The next morning, before even waiting for our response to their ‘offer’ – which they rightly guessed would have been refused – we were given a letter from their lawyer, informing us that they were going to the High Court to get an injunction. We received the injunction at 8pm, at which point security prevented more people coming in. With twelve hours before the injunction came into effect, we had a meeting to decide what to do. Luckily, we’d had an event that evening, so there were quite a few people around – forty at least.
While previously we had seemed determined to stay forever, the inclusion of seven individuals’ names on the injunction – apparently found by management on Facebook – really frightened people. We didn’t understand the implications of this, and so many left, feeling that they would otherwise be endangering those who had been named. Although it was decided at the meeting – with encouragement from those named – that people who were able and willing to defy the injunction should, only about fifteen stayed beyond the time that the injunction came into effect.
The next day, due to a breakdown of communication with those outside, the pressure upon those inside, and a feeling that no-one else would come into the occupation even if it were possible, we decided to leave. This ended what had been quite a powerful occupation with a bitter aftertaste. For me, bumping into Tariq Ali giving a speech outside only made that worse, returning to the same old people and the same old politics. The injunction had served its purpose of frightening us into leaving, and temporarily breaking us as a group. However, the fact that it was not enforced showed us – too late – that an injunction does not mean the police will raid the next day, suggesting that we would have been able to stay at least a few days longer if we had wanted to.
The week afterwards we occupied the library for a night, which, although not disruptive, was very important for morale, and meant that in the end we all defied the injunction – for it covered all Middlesex property.
This was followed by the suspension of four students and three staff members, a night camping outside the university’s flagship campus and a disruption of the university’s glossy art show on Brick Lane. Those who were suspended were those people who were both named on the injunction and defied the injunction by going to the library, plus a few extras who had been in the library. These people were identified through CCTV cameras in the library. Looking back, we should have covered these up!
Suspended students are not allowed to enter university property without permission, although this is only for a limited period until the university decides to lift it. In the first hearing, students were made to promise not to occupy again. However, in a subsequent suspension, the university dropped that condition, perhaps worried – rightly – that the student would refuse to make that promise, thus putting them in the difficult position of having to find a harsher punishment – which might dirty their own reputation still further. The subsequent events and the nonsense of the hearings have given us enough confidence that I believe that if the occupation happened again, many more people would stay beyond the injunction, whether or not they were named. No university management, no matter how angry, wants to be shown dragging their students out with police.
Another difficulty with the occupation was the fact that it was in protest against a cut to a particular department, leading to a problematic over-emphasis on the worth of ‘philosophy’ and a link to a campaign which focused on the department’s high research ratings, both of which didn’t help when making links to struggles against cuts in general. Demanding the reinstatement of the philosophy department made it seem that we were simply asking for keeping the status quo, rather than fighting for something more. Focus on our demand could also lead to the conclusion that the occupation was a complete failure: now that the philosophy centre has been moved to Kingston University, management have not only got away with closing a whole department and suspending students and staff but have shipped off most of the troublemakers to another institution.
However, there was much more to this occupation than its demand. As well as developing our own confidence to go further next time, it allowed us to create alliances with other universities and struggles. It also enabled us to make links with staff at Middlesex – we had a meeting in which about forty administrative, academic and service staff made it very clear that they were part of our struggle and hated management as much as we do. Although the staff unions were not officially supportive of the occupation, a substantial group of the staff have organised with us to create a broader ‘Save Middlesex’ campaign, to expand the fight to all students and staff at Middlesex against the further cuts that will be coming in the next year.
Despite its limitations, this occupation serves as an example of how far it is possible to go with only a small group of students, free of political party interference, gradually challenging more and more of what they had previously taken for granted. The inevitable occupations in the coming year, as cuts hit in nationally, can learn lessons from Middlesex, both from how far we went and from how much further we could have gone.