At the Occupation
The stately dome and columns of University College London are dominated by a bedsheet banner proclaiming its occupation and the grey stone is scrawled with coloured chalk: ‘Cut Out Cuts: Don’t Con-Dem Me!’ Inside, the campus has supposedly been put on lockdown. Guards in yellow jackets sit by hastily produced signs announcing ID checks. The students have their own security detail too, only they sit behind a sign saying ‘Welcome!’ and greet you with the devil hand gesture you see at rock festivals. UCL students have been occupying a hall in the main building since 24 November, and are now a focal point for the national student protests. This is day eight.
The occupation began at a ‘What Next?’ meeting on the day of the second student march when a group of UCL students voted to take over the Jeremy Bentham Room (students at SOAS had gone into occupation two days before). A general meeting was then held to draft their demands. The most important, and most often repeated, is that UCL’s management issue a statement ‘condemning all cuts to higher education’. They also want things they might be able to get: for the university to pay UCL cleaners the London living wage, to bring outsourced support staff in-house and to change the composition of the university council to get rid of the majority of corporate, non-UCL members (they’d like a quarter each of management, students, tutors and support staff). Decisions are made by consensus – ‘better than democracy’ a first-year undergraduate explained – at two lengthy daily meetings. Students are divided into working groups according to their talents – IT, media, process (analysis of how the occupation itself is working) – but there’s no leader, everyone insisted. An email account, Facebook page, website and Twitter feed were set up overnight and messages of support started to come in from people like Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky and Billy Bragg; comedians came to tell jokes, bands to play, novelists to read their books, tutors to give seminars. On 29 November, the day before the third march, they sent a delegation to protest outside the Oxford Circus Topshop about Philip Green’s alleged tax evasion. And on the day of the march itself, another delegation was sent to Trafalgar Square, while tweeters back at the occupation offered tea and biscuits to anyone running away from the police.
There are about 200 in all, graduate and undergraduate students: many more humanities students than medics or engineers – the arts teaching grant is the one that’s set to disappear. And there are union representatives and UCL support staff. I didn’t see anyone from the UCL Labour Club: judging from their Facebook page they’re more excited about the Christmas dinner planned for 14 December. The UCL student union has ‘no official position’. No one I spoke to had taken part in student politics before this; few of them had been on previous marches. I asked about the 2003 Stop the War march: ‘I was 11,’ they said: ‘I was 13 or 14.’ Everyone has plenty of reasons for being there: they want Malcolm Grant, the provost, to reverse his enthusiastic position on tuition fees, or to bring his £424,000 salary down in line with Oxford and Cambridge’s vice-chancellors; they want to speak up against the coalition; or to defend the English department from cuts; or to get the security guards the London living wage. There is depth of feeling and attention to detail, along with the inevitable earnestness; reasoned debates take place over coffee – they’d bought a machine since continual café runs had eaten into the kitty – and stale sandwiches donated from a staff meeting. They look cleanish though tired and cold – the heating got turned off on Sunday night and today is Wednesday – but they’ve learned to get round things: a shower and a night at home every few days, a few hours’ work on their essays before bed, a break for a lecture and to pass out flyers. It’s like a ‘really big sleepover’, one student tells me; another says that it’s almost become a way of life. They talk of the dance-off they’d had with the Oxford Radcliffe Camera occupation via Skype, of the ‘fun’ they’re having. They didn’t know each other before and now they’re a community.
There is paper everywhere: flyers on tables and in hands, the list of demands snaking up the wall, photos of the other occupations; marker-penned slogans, or doodles, or quotes from Goethe; a sinister ballpoint-pen portrait of David Cameron and cards written by solicitors Birnberg Peirce explaining that you don’t need to give your name if searched. The walls are a sort of slogan competition, in the manner of a JCR suggestion book or a library toilet wall: which ones will last? In the middle of the room there are chairs set out in the shape of a horseshoe where constant overlapping seminars take place: they pass a microphone round as they are asked if they are nostalgic about 1968, or what new media mean to their movement. I hear words like ‘alert’, ‘critique’, ‘offensive’ and even ‘Marxism’. At the edges of the room students sit around circular tables hunched over their laptops, as if they knew how much they look like the photogenic Harvard students of The Social Network.
The occupation is busiest online. The website, Ucloccupation.com, was created by Sam, an electronic engineering graduate who now works flexitime for a City firm (‘They don’t need to know I’m here’); he became involved after his girlfriend was trampled by a police horse on the second march. The website has a blog, a Twitter feed, a tag cloud, the latest photos from the occupation’s Flickr page, videos they’ve uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo and a Google calendar. (Wednesday night: SOAS ceilidh band. Thursday lunchtime: Raymond Geuss.) The thinking is get it all out there and edit later. This works because, according to Sam, the Met doesn’t know enough about the net to keep up with them: ‘We’re prescient on everything; we’re not worried.’ But I hear paranoia of one sort or another from everyone: the Tory Club are at the door, the police are watching my Twitter, the fire alarm has been going for an hour. They are able to share so much so quickly that when Territorial Support Group Officer 1202 punched a protester in the face on the third march, they soon had video from two angles up on YouTube, a still showing the number on his epaulette on their Flickr page and, by the next morning, the Facebook profile of the person who got punched.
They’re working almost like a news organisation, which is just as well because the mainstream media are no better than they might be. On the day of the third march, BBC rolling news showed snowy scenes instead of the student marchers being punched in the face. Newsnight’s Paul Mason visited the SOAS occupation the following day to accuse them of ‘polite outrage’ and of not being sufficiently like 68ers. Even to Newsnight it’s about fees or protest as a rite of passage: no one is talking about the fundamental reorganisation the proposed withdrawal of the £3.9 billion block grant will cause. The front page of the Evening Standard shouts ‘Vandals’. While it’s impossible to tell what images of the 2010 student protests will last, a frontrunner is the shot from the second march of a chain of girls in school uniform around a vandalised police van: sweet ineffectual schoolchildren and hardened activists. The sort of people occupying UCL – middle-class, articulate, pragmatic, calm – don’t figure.
To know in detail about what’s happening in the student movement, you have to go on Twitter. On the third march, students ran from police who looked as if they were trying to kettle them in the driving snow, and made the police chase them all over London. Laurie Penny, a New Statesman columnist and friend of the UCL occupation, can’t have been running as fast as she said she was, as her tweets came every five minutes or so: she was at the big Topshop, then running down Oxford Street singing ‘You can stick your Big Society up your arse’ to the tune of ‘She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain’, panting at the Royal Courts of Justice, cheering in Trafalgar Square as SOAS students brought tea, then finally home as her phone died and her feet got too cold. Jess, a second-year English student who usually tweets about fashion as @littlemisswilde (‘I don’t understand politics’) has become the UCL occupation’s ‘Twitter guru’. That day, she tweeted the police’s attempts to kettle the protest while keeping up with the rumours that Tom Ford would be the next high-fashion designer to do a diffusion line for H&M. For her, Twitter is a way of ‘expanding the room’: of including Erasmus students, older and disabled people and of keeping in touch with other student occupations; a way of knowing that there were not only 200 people occupying UCL but thousands behind them. (The downside was the number of people who asked her to tell them what shoes, underwear or dress she was wearing.) It’s also a way of targeting twittering politicians like Lynne Featherstone and Ed Miliband or celebrities like Johnny Marr, Armando Iannucci and Lily Allen for money and support.
Late on 30 November the @ucloccupation account seemed to have been hacked: no one liked talking about it but the theory was that the hacker was some sort of internal enemy, as the password had been freely given out. It wasn’t until early the next afternoon that they knew for sure the hacker had been shut out. The news that they were back up – given by a boy in a purple hoodie and Clark Kent glasses – got the loudest cheer from the room all day, louder than the cheer that greeted Bob Crow when he came to remind them that it was only when suffragettes broke windows that the world took notice.
The new media are also a way to become known to the old media: they delightedly tweeted BBC pieces about them and a Guardian video. No one flinched when I told them I was a journalist (apart from someone from the media group, who found me talking to students although I hadn’t made myself known to her). They knew how to make the best of being in London, close to the BBC and on the phone to the Guardian; one student told me it ‘was all quite cynical really’; another that ‘it’s a media war essentially’; another judged how they were doing by the fact that ‘the international media are listening to us intently.’
There are two ends in sight: the parliamentary vote on fees, which is scheduled for Thursday 9 December, and the end of the UCL term on Friday 17 December. Are they prepared to be here over Christmas? Some say they have train tickets booked; others say they’ll stay, get a Christmas tree, organise a Secret Santa. On 2 December the UCL management served the occupation with an injunction (you can see a picture of the actual serving of the papers on their Flickr feed) demanding that they leave; the students will have to defend themselves at London County Court on 7 December. The occupation reacted by organising a flashmob to target the Manchester offices of the legal firm that drew up the injunction, Eversheds LLP, and decided to hold a candlelight vigil for the death of education in the snowy quad, in front of the dome, pillars and banner. Perhaps it is also a vigil for the occupation, which may well be over by the time you read this.
By the entrance to the occupied Jeremy Bentham Room are the remains of an earlier vigil, all melted candles and wilting roses, Diana-like, with slogans among the tea lights: ‘Cedric Diggory Was Murdered,’ ‘Albus Dumbledore Was a GREAT MAN’ and ‘EDUCATION: The Fourth Deathly Hallow’. This is the generation who grew up reading about a turreted boarding school called Hogwarts, where Harry Potter, a suburban boy from Privet Drive, could be taught to defeat Voldemort; and likewise it seemed possible for any suburban girl in Blair’s Britain, if she kept her head down, did her Sats, her GCSEs, her ASs, her A2s, to go to university and so get a good job – or at any rate a job. They’d been told education is all there is, and now it’s been taken away. The UCL occupation has been visited by local schoolchildren, including a contingent of sixth formers from Camden School for Girls; when these nicely brought-up girls wrote to say thank you, they were rather breathless: ‘It was inspiring,’ they said. ‘I want to come to UCL.’