Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Richard Murphy says that the appropriate political will and understanding of tax can put an end to offshore avoidance and evasion
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes