By Liam T of Scottish Socialist Youth – http://ssy.org.uk/.
Tuesday 22nd March was a day that will be remembered for sensational events at Glasgow University. Dozens of Police and security guards swooped on the Free Hetherington, in an attempt to clear students out of their 50-day occupation of the disused Research Club building. Following eviction, protesters went on to occupy the luxurious Senate building. Astonishingly, this resulted in a late-night capitulation from management, with an invitation for us to return to the Hetherington in exchange for vacating the Senate.
The day began with an unexpected visit from campus security, who told occupiers to leave immediately. When this was refused, the cops were called in. Simultaneously, solidarity appeals went out via text message, facebook and twitter, with around 700 Hetherington supporters rushing to the scene. In an operation widely denounced as “excessive” and “heavy-handed”, over 80 police officers, equipped with 18 cars, a dog-handling unit and a helicopter (…yes, really!) were drafted in to back up zealous uni guards in the operation.
What followed was an illegal forced eviction of a peaceful sit-in, resulting in a number of instances of injury and arrest of non-violent protesters. Several people ended up with dislocations and sprains of shoulders and wrists. I am bruised all over my chest, shoulder and neck after being knelt on and assaulted by two members of the security team. One woman was pushed into a wall, causing concussion, then arrested and charged.
Undeterred by this show of force, hundreds of activists responded by marching to the university’s iconic main building, before occupying a number of rooms in the Senate. This space is absolutely vital to the uni administration, so the new occupation represented a significant escalation. As a result of our determination and audacity, we had gone from being down and defeated to being in a position of huge strength, all in the space of a few hectic minutes. The Herald sensationalised about “angry students” who “ran rampage…laying siege to the institution…[in] scenes of anarchy unprecedented in its 560-year history”. They were exaggerating, but not that much.
The next few hours saw the students getting back to normal occupation routine, in extraordinary circumstances. There were political discussions, organising meetings, a folk gig. The Senior Management Group (SMG) visited for a grilling, which was novel since they hadn’t spoken to us for 7 weeks. Refusing to condemn the day’s violence or to admit any wrongdoing, they made us an offer we could refuse – leave the Senate and you can get a meeting with uni principal Anton Muscatelli. After a vote, their offer was politely declined.
The plushness of our new pad was remarkable. It was all chandeliers, wood-panelled walls, ancient mahogany furniture, massive portraits of old principals (including the villainous Sir Muir Russell) and one of those TVs that emerges from a cabinet when you press a special button. It seems unnecessary to have such grandeur in an institution supposedly dedicated to learning. This made me think – no wonder our leaders are so out-of-touch, if they spend their lives in rooms such as this. Susan Stewart, the Director of Corporate Communications, seemed to be on the point of a nervous breakdown when a load of folk were moving their obviously-expensive chairs from one room to another.
Back home at the Free HRC
Thanks is due to American singer David Rovics, who was in Glasgow to play a benefit gig for Gaza. He popped in to lift our spirits with a range of brilliant songs. Highlights were songs about the Tunisian Revolution, the St Patrick’s Battalion of Irish-American mutineers, and the hilarious piss-take “I’m A Bigger Anarchist Than You”. He moved out onto the balcony, to belt out the Internationale for comrades unable to gain entry. We also learned a song which can get you gaoled in America, as it describes torching a Walmart. I will never forget chanting “burn it down” into the night sky while looking across the city. No wonder security wanted us out.
And so they gave us back the Hetherington! The building at 13 University Gardens was gifted to the university in the 1950s to be used as a student social space, but closed last year, amid accusations of mismanagement and allegations that senior university officials had allowed it to close as part of their £20million cuts package. Aware of the special regard many people held the old club in, and keen to establish an anti-cuts hub for Glasgow, a diverse alliance – students, workers and unemployed — reclaimed the disused but not-yet-derelict building on 1st February, giving it new life as a non-commercial centre for education and discussion. Several well-ken’t faces have visited, including Liz Lochead, Mark Steel and Tom Leonard. It has attracted solidarity from across the world.
Looking to the future, we have an opportunity to shape a radical space of our own. Uni management have invited us to carry on as we were, apparently backtracking on plans to redevelop the place into offices and labs. There has been an assurance that there will never be a repeat of scenes of mass numbers of police interfering with our business. And so we invite everyone to make use of the Free Hetherington for politics, culture and free cups of tea.
Plenty remains to campaign on. The SMG’s austerity program will be resisted. Staff are openly in revolt, calling for the resignation of Muscatelli and the rest of senior management. We are with the workers on that. Student president-elect Stuart Richie has attracted ire for suggesting that police should have used teargas and that the Free Hetherington should be burned down. Calls are now ringing out for his path to office to be blocked. Of course, bad behaviour from posh right-wing students is nothing new – a few weeks ago pissed-up members of the elitist GUU ran naked into the building, harassing other students and setting off the fire alarm. We’ve been informed Private Eye is storing the pictoral evidence, to be published when the intruders become powerful bankers/politicians/company directors. SSP co-spokesperson Frances Curran was quoted in news outlets demanding information on the cost of the operation, and employees have called for an independent inquiry.
Our support must go to those students who are now facing criminal charges. The concussed individual was visited by Strathclyde’s finest the following morning, who cuffed her after watching her dress, before realising they’d made a mistake and were looking for someone else. Two others who had been arrested on the day, then de-arrested by a senior cop, were re-arrested the following morning. The movement must support these individuals and call for the vindictive and unjustified charges to be dropped.
Returning to the Free Hetherington on Tuesday night, everyone was elated after a great victory, and ready to get back on with the task of resisting the cuts everywhere. We can move forward, secure in this great asset.