Occupy Sussex is an inspiration to us all

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A barricade at Sussex’s Bramber House (Image: Nathan Akehurst)

Sussex University has become the latest frontline in the battle for British higher education. On one side are those who want our universities at the whims of the market. The project is one of full-spectrum transformation, from the stealth privatisation of courses and campus jobs, cuts to student support that are rolling back the frontiers of accessibility, and now the plan to outsource 235 jobs at Sussex University.  The student body therefore responded with an alacrity borne of necessity, in occupying Bramber House, one of the university’s main buildings. The site is symbolic; housing conference centres and gleaming corporate cafes and shops, a new marketised hub to replace the old library-student union building nexus. It is emblematic of the problem, and now for six weeks it has been under the control of students in an occupation that has garnered international support, including from Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek left coalition Syriza.

When I arrived at the national demonstration yesterday with students from Oxford, Brookes, and Ruskin (more for the convenience of a Group Save ticket than any particular plan for a solidarity bloc), I knew we were walking into a reclaimed space. Banners flew from the tops of buildings across the square, and for a Monday afternoon on a campus just outside Brighton, turnout was impressive and the mood militant. Students had arrived from across the country- Exeter, UCL, Oxford, York, UEL and Manchester are just a few of the array of institutions people had travelled down from. It was not just a matter of supporting Sussex, but that similar privatisation projects are in operation across our universities- some worse than others, but all facing the brave new world of consumerised, stark, unaffordable higher education. Activists need a victory and Sussex was and remains our chance. In the words of Olivia Arigho Stiles, a second-year historian at Somerville, ‘The ongoing battle between the Sussex occupiers and management over plans to privatise services has been a source of inspiration and a reminder of the power and potency of student-worker movements when we unite and organise.  The demonstration at Sussex today expressed the dynamism and forcefulness shown by Sussex students in resisting the encroachment of the private sector on their campus, and as an Oxford student I was proud to march in solidarity.’ Sussex’s student newspaper, the Badger, has published a survey indicating majority student support for the Bramber occupation.

And so we marched, at a quicker pace than I am used to on demonstrations, with a certain energy and vibrancy that cuts through the myth that the ‘student movement is dead’, the demoralisation that has set in among activists and triumphalism among their opponents. ‘I feel optimistic again’, said one Sussex student as the demonstration began after a wave of speeches from figures across the movement. It seemed like only about fifteen minutes later that the standoff outside the management building at Sussex House started, with an increasingly angry demonstration stalled on one side of the glass doors, and university security on the other. A banner was brought up to the doors, the crowd grew angrier, and presently the almost inevitable happened and students reprised their traditional dislike for windows demonstrated at Millbank and beyond. Predictably, smashed windows have become a prominent symbol of the day. And yet, they were a means to an end. Beyond the windows and some burnt files, and furniture moved to create barricades against a riot police counterattack (some heavy brutality occurred at a previous occupation after a series of management lies) damage was minimal. Staff were let out calmly, nothing was stolen- because that would be besides the point.

‘I support the cause but found some of the actions such as burning classified files counterproductive’, says Molly, a History student at Sussex, and some of the protesters would agree with her. ‘I hope another [demo] will be organised soon’, she adds in spite of that. The object of these people is not to cause damage, but if making the university ungovernable is what it takes to reverse privatisation, then many are prepared to. The blind spot on violence seemingly held by so many is once again out in force. It is the attitude that condemns the breaking of a few windows in protest, and yet falls silent at the untold human damage that has already, and will result from the juggernaut of government higher education policy if not reversed. Job losses, course and place cuts and the casualisation of labour are far greater evils than a broken window, as anyone who has experienced them would know. Thus to draw a line between ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protest is both disingenuous and inaccurate. Unbidden, I am reminded of the Pankhurst quotation; “the… broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics.” It is the last recourse against those who have proved to be unaccountable, unrepresentative, and uncaring.

The atmosphere may have been militant, but it was not unpleasant, nor was it out of control. To a soundtrack of cries of ‘cops off campus’, the police were forced back not by violence but sheer weight of numbers, and calls to ‘protect the occupation’ brought a wall of bodies around Sussex House. Eventually afraid of the police response and with an increasing feeling that the building was indefensible, the occupiers withdrew. I found myself at Bramber, transformed after six weeks into a hub of student activism. Yellow squares, armbands and scarves were everywhere- a symbol of the movement, not of some counter-intuitive support for the Liberal Democrats. A kitchen had been opened up, barricades secured the doors of the recently-secured second floor (the occupiers later withdrew so as not to disrupt seminars in Bramber’s teaching rooms), and a plethora of placards and banners decorated the walls. The place was well-kept and looked considerably more comfortable and accessible than the austere conference centre that housed it ever would have. Familiar faces from outside politics were there; I spoke to an old schoolfriend who had been at the occupation for the full six weeks.

What happened next was the interesting part, as a packed general meeting of the occupiers and their supporters, having spent the day protesting what they opposed, began the tortuous process of agreeing on what they were for. The question hung on everyone’s lips as it did after Millbank and the student movement of 2010, ‘where next?’ Some activists booed and hissed at leftish Labour speakers, decrying their association with a party of neoliberalism and cuts. Opinions and sentiments were heated; ‘no more Trots!’ was heard to be chanted at Socialist Party and SWP speakers. ‘The party form is dead’, someone earnestly told me in a heated but friendly debate on the occupied second floor. One anarchist denounced even holding the meeting at all as a waste of time. The left parties on the other hand argued their position and relevance, and a growing confluence of desires for unity was apparent. Some firebrands wanted to use the numbers we had there and then to stage another action, whereas others preferred to deliberate on the declaration of another national protest, to discuss escalation at Sussex and the most effective way to generalise the struggle across our campuses. So Occupy Sussex is not just about what it opposes, but opening a space for discussion about how we change the world. In spite of the reflectiveness and overflow of criticism, there are near-unanimous principles. The student movement must organise, agitate, educate and escalate, linking up with the struggles of workers fighting for better pay and conditions.

The situation is rapidly in motion. Following the example of Birmingham University, Sussex is attempting to get a high court injunction to ban protest on campus until September. Meanwhile ‘the 235’ at Sussex have formed a ‘Pop Up Union’, a do-it-yourself rank and file organisation. For the occupiers, the road ahead seems clear. From their press release, “The decision to call scores of riot police onto campus…is further evidence that management are on the back foot…Police lines were attacking students prior to the occupation of Sussex House. In the past, management have tried to divert successful campaigns focus away from its aims into protecting the rightful actions of victimised staff and students. We will adamantly defend all who joined us today… We will not let management rip apart our community, our education, and the future of universities.” It is a call that speaks to 70% course cuts and racist deportations at London Metropolitan, to the crisis of postgraduate de facto slave labour, to falling university applications and admissions, to courses that will teach our students how to run a privatised NHS, to the soulless onward march of the profit motive into our lecture theatres.

Can the Sussex spirit galvanise other campuses? Here in Oxford we are facing a real-terms cut to student union funding- in spite of the fact that we have a student union paid £1.4m below the Russell Group average, with a block grant the same size as the Vice Chancellor’s salary alone. Along with Brookes, we face rising rents and living costs and the destructive and ill-thought out fee regime. We are not Sussex, but our problems are in some ways inextricable. Matthew Smith, student union president at Oxford’s Ruskin College says Occupy Sussex was “one of the most fantastic things the student movement has done in years, to see the sheer diversity of people coming together…this is under the spectre of cuts and privatisation in Oxford, Sussex and elsewhere and we all need to take it up.” Another Oxford activist adds that ‘there is potential for a movement to spread across the country.’ Subi Wahogo, a campaigner at Oxford Brookes adds that the demonstration was ‘a brilliant show of solidarity’, and when asked about what happened at Sussex House, added that ‘the lives of students and staff should be prioritised over a couple of glass windows.’ The primacy of the political on our campuses has not been so crucial for a very long time. Sussex should be treated as not just an isolated struggle, but a rallying call to students, potential students and anyone with an interest in academia and the right to education and jobs. The occupation has not gathered so much interest and attention solely because students taking over a building for several weeks is newsworthy in and of itself, but because everywhere in the age of austerity, their fight seems and is closer to home than the geographical distance between us and Sussex. Get up. Strike. Occupy. Resist.