student occupations pamphlet: a call for contributions

20 01 2011

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Our questions

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.

  1. How did you organise establishing the occupation?
  2. 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?
  3. What steps, if any, were taken, or could have been taken, to spread the struggle?
  4. How were representation and negotiation handled?
  5. How did the decision to leave the occupation happen, and why?
  6. Did everyone feel included?  Was it open and democratic?
  7. Were “politics” discussed in the occupation?  How did it happen?

Other contents

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!

Invitation

If you may be able to help with this or have any comments, please contact a member of The Commune personally or atuncaptiveminds@gmail.com

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4 responses

20 01 2011
Rob Kirby

Looking forward to the pamphlet! I largely agree with the perspectives above.

The most important thing I took from the experience was the need for self-assertiveness on the part of occupiers. We had two occupations in quick succession; the first was rapidly beaten as people were willing to give concessions and receive assurances from management which they went back on, and the occupiers were forced out; the second was more confrontational and less cooperative with management, and as a consequence much more successful. The most important thing the second occupation did differently was physically taking and keeping control of the entrance of the occupied building. Management repeatedly threatened various consequences, and obtained an injunction, but when it was apparent people wouldn’t back down they shied away from enforcing it.

Re: leaving the occupation, people left en masse to travel down to London for the protest on the day of the vote. I think this was a good decision, and avoided dragging it out too long and exhausting people.

Re: disruption. I suppose it’s a question of what you’re disrupting and why. Our occupation made a point of allowing lectures to go ahead as usual, and produced posters and flyers saying something like “Lectures as normal. We’re not trying to destroy your education – we’re not the government!”. These went down fairly well I think. Agree that future occupations should consider disrupting administration/management however.

20 01 2011
c0mmunard

Thanks Rob. Sheffield? Could you say more about the assurances management gave and how they were broken?

25 01 2011
blah

@c0mmunard
Not Rob, but I was at Sheffield. In the first occupation they told us that they wouldn’t use false fire alarms to get us out (a tactic they had used at the Gaza occupation a few years ago)- which is exactly what they did at noon the next day, disturbing every lecture in that building. That room was a long way away from the entrance and so wasn’t great for securing.

I know a few people who were supportive until it ended up distruptive, or who were turned towards the idea of occupation when they saw how undistruptive the second one was. These people weren’t far lefties of course, but student support is important. A lot of people made the argument that there’s no point fighting fighting for education by messing up lectures.

26 01 2011
c0mmunard

OK, thanks for that. It may be that we need to better distinguish between disruption of academic and financial/administrative functions, at least in cases where student support is shaky.

At Oxford University, however, they have thought of this, and the central administrative building has a system of panic buttons, revolving doors, and screens which can lower to prevent crowds rushing in. I’m not saying it would be impossible to get through it, but it would require quasi-military precision. At SOAS on the other hand, the very-occupiable Director’s office is just above the front entrance, off a corridor which students use all the time…




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