Notes from a student occupation

Tabitha Troughton reports from the occupation at UCL

December 9, 2010
4 min read

Photo: Oscar Webb

Matt’s a maths genius; sweet and helpful, too. He’s never had anything to do with politics, but now he’s occupying the Jeremy Bentham room at University College London, and hasn’t been home for a week. He joined the student march last Tuesday and was walking peacefully at the front when the police horses charged. In the ensuing panic, his girlfriend was knocked down and trampled. “I love her very much, that’s partly why I’m here.”

Paul left school at 16; at 25, he finally got to UCL to study engineering. The friends he left behind him, in Stoke, have mainly joined the army; there are few other jobs around. “One of my mates was discharged because he just started crying. He never leaves the house now. And he’s still crying, he doesn’t even know why.”

Amanda, an English student, is bright, passionate, hoarse with talking. She’s never done anything like this, she’s been scared and cold, and also amazed and proud. Around her, all life is present: students with dreadlocks, students in tweeds and barbours, serious dandies, energetic punks, sporty types, the poor, the rich, the geeks. They’ve just been joined by students at the Slade School of Art, who inhabit a wing of UCL’s main building, and whose banner display proclaiming protest is a work of art in itself. “Our lecturers all put money in to buy us food” says a girl inside. She sways on her feet. “I’m sorry, I’m so tired. No-one’s had any sleep.”

Across the capital, across the country, students are still occupying their universities. Nineteen universities, in fact: from the red bricks of Manchester to the old stones of Edinburgh; from the University of East London to Cambridge. Some, like the students at SOAS, have been issued with court orders, but are preparing for the bailiffs and refusing to be moved. On Friday, UCL and the Slade heard that their joint court case, due that day, had been postponed until the following week, thanks to the strength of their defence. Smudged, exhausted faces were breaking into smiles of relief; people were hugging; euphoria bubbling around the room. “We can make it through to Thursday!”

Today is that Thursday. Parliament is voting on tuition fees, and the UK’s students are planning to march again. Inside UCL messages of support were coming in from students across Europe: in Greece, they’d just marched on the British embassy. “You’re doing this for all of us,” a visitor tells the room, and the students know it. Around the walls, neatly written notes underscore the wider economic issues, from the billions spent on wars to the relative wages of cleaners. Outside in the quad, chalked, washable graffiti pleads for education, for justice. “Save UCL”, someone has added, in capitals. “Education is Life Itself.”

“What motivates students?” a UCL lecturer is asking, on his website. “What keeps them going despite the cold nights, sleep deprivation, and legitimate fear of putting their education in jeopardy?”. To which one could add the legal and financial threats, the fear of violence, the smears in the press, and the viciousness which spatters the comments sections. “They’ve obviously got a lot of time on their hands,” one PhD student suggests. “I don’t support them,” says another. “Although to be fair,” he adds, “mine isn’t a popular point of view. I just don’t see the alternative.”

In the tidy, bustling room behind him, two hundred or so people are planning, studying, organising, agreeing. No-one is a leader; all decisions are taken by consensus and no-one looks left out. A guest arrives to give a talk on Haiti, a man from the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate brings stories of resistance to EDL violence. Representatives from other occupations drop in, lecturers visit to teach, the media appear to report. And in the middle of it all are people standing up for the future, for the general good, for arts and humanities, for the poor, for choices. “Oh, they are very peaceful,” says one of UCL’s private security guards, cheerfully.

Outside it’s getting dark. Snow glints in the almost deserted quad; a long line of glasses, filled with wax, testifies to an earlier candlelit vigil. “You can win this,” a speaker is telling the students, but winning is not the only issue here. Whatever happens next, this is, as the UCL lecturer concludes, quite an extraordinary, human adventure.

Some names have been changed. This article also appears in today’s Morning Star

More info and latest news: blog.ucloccupation.com


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


4