Henry Parkyn-Smith and Naomi Thompson recount the experience of the recent occupation at the University of Sheffield on N30, and argue for continued protest on campus.
November the 30th in Sheffield was, as in many other cities across the UK, huge and lively. We started the day outside the University of Sheffield with the student feeder march, led both by students and the UCU, to join the estimated 7,000 public sector workers and supporters outside City Hall, who we greeted with chants of 'students and workers, unite and fight' and who greeted us with a large round of applause. After a brilliant rally and march around the town, from an impromptu student caucus, the decision was taken to occupy the University of Sheffield Arts Tower, containing the HR department.
The initiative to occupy was not only inspired by the brilliant day, but in principle to show solidarity with public sector workers and against the government’s cuts agenda. Around 80 students entered the building. Security staff showed no sign of resistance, and in fact cheerily encouraged us to 'go ahead'. The staff working at the tower were of course themselves public sector workers, who will be directly affected by the cuts. Perhaps this can explain the support shown for us occupying the building.
After much lively debate, with a wide range of organisations, opinions and ideas represented, a list of demands was drawn up:
· We demand the implementation of a living wage for all university staff, including support staff and bank workers, of at least £7.20 per hour in accordance with the Living Wage Campaign.
· We demand that the Universities make all rooms fully accessible.
· We demand that Sheffield Vice Chancellors take a pay cut before other staff who are already on low pay rates.
· We demand that the Universities publish a report on how the cuts will be implemented and what their effect will be on each department.
· Give Teaching Assistants a contract and end the casualisation of academic labour.
· We demand a No Confidence vote in David Willets and the Education White Paper be brought to University Senate.
· We demand that student unions become more active in campaigns to defend the right to education, bearing in mind the overwhelming mandate for this expressed at last month’s student union elections. The SU letter, demand it to be more forceful.
· We demand an anti-sexism policy across campuses and that this policy be enforced.
· We demand a written undertaking that the Universities will stop all involvement with arms companies such as BAE systems within the next five years.
· We demand that the University does not victimise anyone involved in the occupation or any other anti-cuts activism.
After two days of peaceful occupation, accompanied by lively discussion, the occupation became an important forum and base for activism. This was achieved despite attempts to isolate the occupation from the University, such as canceling all lectures in that area of the building, and blaming it on the occupation and later serving an injunction on Friday, 2nd December.
The original draft not only contained the expected terms of eviction, along with a deadline, but something much more sinister: the banning of all political protest on University grounds for 12 months. This was later revised in court on 5 December, to only apply to political demonstration within any building owned by the University for the next year. This not only represents an attack on the tactic of occupation, a historic weapon in the arsenal of students, but also on the rights of assembly, protest and free speech.
The injunction was based on the false trumped up charges of violent and aggressive behaviour, forced entry and hacking a computer system. The first two accusations were clearly not the case as we were effectively allowed to occupy by staff, the third completely laughable, as no one in the room neither had the expertise, nor did we have the need as the computers were logged into using a student’s password.
The result of the University of Sheffield occupation not only has implications for us activists here in Sheffield, but also presents a worrying precedent for future occupations and student activism across the country. Just as new squatting laws could make occupations illegal, it presents a frightening possibility for the management of Universities around the UK to attack students’ right to occupy.
Political action always exposes contradictions and power structures in society, and makes these often plain to see for those involved. The relationship between rank and file students and NUS officers was clearly shown. Whilst some officers of University of Sheffield union were brilliant at supporting the occupation and engaging with it, many careerists were keen to bend to union bureaucracy and the pressure of University management, and do their best to undermine the efforts of occupiers to appeal against the injunctions.
At the current stage in the legal process, to appeal would have been extremely costly and so require the support of the Union and their lawyers. Even if we had been able to convince them to aid us, it would have been impossible as, unbelievable as it may sound, the union uses the same law firm that brought the injunction on behalf of the University, and so use of their lawyers would not be allowed due to a 'conflict of interest'.
So, after five days, the occupation was forced to come to an end. And, reluctantly, the students voted to leave rather than being evicted. Unperturbed, we decided to carry on campaigning on the principles of the demands of the occupation as well as against the attack on freedom of protest.
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