The past few months have seen the biggest upsurge in student activism since the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s, with mass occupations of university buildings – from administrative rooms to 1,000-seater lecture halls – sweeping the country, from SOAS to Sussex, then to Glasgow and Cardiff.
More than 25 universities have seen occupations this year. Some lasted only a few hours, but the longest, at Manchester, saw students occupy for more than a month.
The issue is the same everywhere: Gaza. The occupations emerged after the outraged street protests in response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza, and occupiers’ lists of demands follow similar patterns: ending university involvement with arms companies; scholarships for Palestinian students; boycotts of Israeli goods; support for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.
The occupations echo recent student uprisings in Ireland, France, Italy and Greece. Could student activism in Britain soon mirror those revolts? There is certainly a level of agitation not seen for many years on UK campuses. Mainstream press outlets, including the Guardian and Independent, have been quick to speculate over the ‘real’ reasons for the occupations. Old stereotypes hold sway: kids with nothing to lose, rallying against ‘the system’ (again).
A more complex picture emerges from speaking to students at the University of Manchester occupation. There is agreement that, as the specificity of the demands implies, Gaza is the immediate issue: the occupation will cease with an acceptable reply from the university. But in a broader sense, Gaza is ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ – the university management has defended its arms trade investments despite years of protest, but students are no longer willing to stand for that. Last year’s large yet brief anti-commercialisation occupation at Manchester, under the banner ‘Reclaim the Uni’, prompted concrete action from the vice-chancellor. The same is hoped for here.
The engineering building classroom is home to a roving body of between 10 and 30 occupiers, and we debate why we are here. Have the protests, in some subliminal way, been inspired by Obama? One of the students, Nick, disagrees, citing the public’s loss of faith in governmental action on the crises we face as forcing people to look beyond for answers. ‘Universities are our immediate environment – we know they’re connected to more than “education”. There’s a lot of money and power at stake here, but small movements can have a big impact on their own doorstep.’ Adil draws parallels: ‘I went to sit-ins in 2003 over the Iraq war, and I extend that feeling to the uni’s investments in arms.’ For Vicky, meanwhile, the recession has undermined faith in authority: ‘It has forced us to reassess our values. We’re thinking about what’s really important.’
So maybe it’s the recession. Or the co-option of universities by business. Perhaps it is Gaza, or by extension, war. Asking ‘why’ tells half the story. ‘How’ is equally important, and more eagerly discussed.
As the Manchester occupation blog is updated with photos, information and links to other occupations, messages of solidarity received are stuck up on the walls of the room: Sheila Rowbotham, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, and the students union at Melbourne University (who had their own run-ins with vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert until he left to take up the post at Manchester) all appear, as well as a message of support from the Islamic University of Gaza.
New communication channels have broadened involvement not just internationally, but also locally. Jenny received an email about the occupation: ‘I talked about it with my friends and realised that having an opinion isn’t action – it doesn’t get you anywhere. So I came here.’
For Joey, occupying is in itself inspiring: ‘There’s room for expressions of politics. It’s a creative and educational space, with real grass-roots decision-making going on.’ Public meetings are held in the space every day, and the diversity of the protesters’ backing has helped to maintain an open-minded atmosphere. Adil explains that ‘male and female Muslims here are willing to sleep in the same space; everyone is sharing food and ideas. Everyone is involved – there is real participation.’ Ibrahim takes it further: ‘This is a microcosm of how the world could be: intellectual, communal, sincere.’
The absence of students’ unions in recent occupations is distinct from the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s. I’m flatly told the NUS is in the pocket of government. NUS presidents have been in the Labour Party (one way or another) since 1982. NUS president Wes Streeting has not only refused to support the occupations, but condemned them for ‘disrupting teaching and learning’. More students remain outside the occupations than in, and a mass movement still has far to go. However, debates in the occupation reveal a consciousness denied by mainstream commentators, and optimism for future student movements.
Mariam describes ‘a fever catching on. Before I just went on marches for Stop the War. I’d do this [occupy] for other things now, for a free education, for human rights. This has charged me.’ No one mentions the wave of student unrest sweeping Europe last year, but perhaps that’s because we’re already swept up in it.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill