The Commune is looking to produce a pamphlet about, and for, student occupations. In our view, there are lessons to be learned, not only from the recent wave of occupations in November – December 2010, but from recent occupations at SOAS, Middlesex, Sussex, against the devastation of Gaza in Winter 2008-9, and many more besides.
We want the pamphlet to be based around contributions from occupiers recounting their experiences, and drawing some conclusions from them. We therefore want to invite anyone with such experiences to get in touch with us and contribute something – be it a few paragraphs or a few pages. Not all occupiers should have to begin at the beginning: there is a wealth of experience which future occupiers can learn from; it should not all be lost every three years as each generation of activists passes on.
Our starting point
We do have a preliminary idea of some of the things that, we believe, need to be said, and of the questions we’d like people to touch on in their contributions. To a certain extent, it’s necessary for us to start with a perspective, even if it gets modified along the way. Based upon our experience, we believe:
- That occupations ought not to be seen as platforms for lobbying, or even primarily as means to make demands on the university as such (unless the power to make significant change really is in the gift of the institution as such). The primary significance of occupations is a) as transformative spaces and as b) direct action – real challenges to existing social authority. That does not mean we should not support an occupation which, for example, demands that a university issue a letter of condemnation against Israel for its latest war. Rather, we should point out, that such a letter is not really what we want; nor does it reflect the real logicof what we are doing (see also point 5).
- Neither occupations, nor even the student movement, can win very much on their own. This sharply raises the question of how to spread, and generalise, the struggle. It also conditions what the occupation is seen to be for, as above.
- There has been, so far, a general fear and unwillingness to confront threats and injunctions from management, which has been broken in only a few cases, notably and successfully at Sussex in 2010. Whilst understandable, this fear needs to be dispelled. Often it is based on wildly exaggerated views of the likely consequences of defiance. Such exaggerated views are often fostered by “left” activists who believe it is their job to make compromises on others’ behalf; and by misunderstandings of the law – both of which we should seek to counteract. Such fears often operate in conjunction with stepping back from significant demands, as part of an impulse to claim victory, when in fact there is none; which again links to the second point – the false sense that occupations ought to be seen as a means to win sectional demands, which they often can’t. Many times in the past few years, we ought to have said “better to be dragged out for something we believe in, than walk out for something we don’t”.
- Questions of “representation” to the authorities (particularly the university) can often be problematic, particularly when it draws in Student Union officials who are not fully supportive of the occupation as a militant tactic. Such representative roles impart great power to those who hold them.
- Occupations should not be afraid to be disruptive; and should, in general, not make a point of allowing spaces to be used as they would otherwise have done, or of occupying spaces which are not vital to the functioning of the university. This perspective is informed by the belief that the university is not a purely autonomous institution, but a part of the state and capital, whose functioning depends upon such institutions.
- Occupations need to be organised in such a way as to maximise broad participation, inclusivity, and not privilege the voices of the established left. They ought not to echo, in their organisation, the pedagogy of the academic establishment. Nonetheless, because of the first and second points, above, we want occupations to be seen as spaces in which political ideas are discussed in ways, and that includes, on topics, which meet the interests and needs of occupiers – and this, itself, means an avoidance of quick recourse to top-table speakers from the established left.
No doubt, some of these formulations are imprecise, and reflect, perhaps by omission, the limited experience of people who have compiled this proposal – which nonetheless includes 7 different occupations. None of them were issues in each and every occupation, but most of them appeared more than once. This is why we need others to amend or supplement the above theses by way of their own experience.
We hope that each contribution will address these ideas as part of what they recount. There is no need to address them all, just what seems to have be worth reporting. Here are some questions to think about, based upon the perspectives set out above.
- How did you organise establishing the occupation?
- What was perceived to be the objective of the occupation? How did this effect where it was, how it was organised and what it did?
- What steps, if any, were taken, or could have been taken, to spread the struggle?
- How were representation and negotiation handled?
- How did the decision to leave the occupation happen, and why?
- Did everyone feel included? Was it open and democratic?
- Were “politics” discussed in the occupation? How did it happen?
We also hope to include a section giving some sort of general legal guidance on dealing with injunctions and threats from the authorities. We plan to include, as an appendix, a leaked document of legal advice by the solicitors Martineau to the Association of Heads of University Administration on dealing with student occupations – so occupiers can have some idea of what management may be thinking. We are open to suggestions!
If you may be able to help with this or have any comments, please contact a member of The Commune personally or firstname.lastname@example.org