Dozens of Oxford students alongside staff members, local councillors and Brookes and Ruskin students gathered last night in Wadham to establish a new Oxford-wide activist organisation.
The meeting, which ran over two hours, was split into two broad halves- one focussing on discussing specific previous and existing campaigns and the other debating what a new group might look like. The fact that this is happening now is not an accident. It would be somewhat pushing it to say that there had been a renaissance in activism since the start of this academic year in Oxford, but it is certainly true that the world of protests and movements has been markedly more invigorated. Hundreds of students blockaded the Exam Schools on 31st October in support of the staff strike over pay. This is one of the many issues that has not gone away. Employers’ association UCEA are not budging from pushing for another pay cut, despite five years of consecutive reductions, a huge surplus in the higher education sector and soaring salaries for Vice-Chancellors. Two more strikes are therefore announced for the coming weeks, which is one of the issues the new group will organise around. References were made in the meeting to the ‘inspirational’ Tres Cosas campaign in London, which has involved a radical staff union alongside a student movement pushing for sick pay, paid holidays and the living wage for mistreated contract staff at London universities.
This was not just a meeting about strikes; there was a general recognition that many of the causes and struggles people find themselves involved in are interlinked. This was a process which seemed to happen almost organically at the end of last term. When police and university managements attacked and repressed student occupations at Sussex and London among other campuses, it was in response to the most visible demonstrations of active solidarity between low-paid staff and students in some time. Even outside of term time, around 40 Oxford students joined the ‘Cops off Campus’ demonstration in London. Into that process were brought feminist activists who reminded people that the same police repressing students were those with a reputation for mishandling and/or ignoring reports of sexual violence. The London demonstration finished at the Mark Duggan inquest, raising a wider critique of police unaccountability and violence not just against student occupations but in our wider communities, often in a racialised way. After the Border Agency raids at local Oxford businesses, and the ongoing campaign against the Campsfield immigration detention centre, this dimension is something that we are no strangers to here.
The meeting at Wadham discussed among other things feminism and anti-racism, local cuts to children’s services, environmental activism such as the new campaign for Oxford to divest from fossil fuels and the sell-off of the student loan book (our student union now backs a planned national week of action in defence of our student loan terms.) It decided collectively to push for a maximal turnout at the demonstration against the County Council’s planned 38% cut to its Housing Related Support budget which would be likely to, if passed, force the closure of homelessness services in a city with Britain’s fourth highest rate of homelessness. For those interested, this demonstration is at 12.45pm at County Hall on Tuesday 28th January.
The establishment of the new Oxford Activist Network represents a growing willingness to challenge the current state of affairs. This is unsurprising- with a higher education sector being consistently and mercilessly slashed, sold and meddled with, there is a great deal for students to be angry about. Other initiatives like an Oxford-wide tenants’ union to challenge soaring rents and living costs are also in the works.
James Elliott, a Teddy Hall first year who attended the Activist Network’s inaugural meeting said that ‘What Oxford needs right now is to bring together the disparate anti-cuts, strike support, disabled people’s rights and housing campaigns into a broad coalition. I think last night could have been the first meeting of that organisation.’ Another attendee described the event as ‘a packed room with the mood to fight.’ The Oxford Activist Network appears an open, democratic, social and enjoyable forum for people to get involved with taking action against injustice. They will meet again next Thursday at 8pm to discuss how the new organisation will work in practice and what it will campaign on (people can sign up to the mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org for updates.) It is a process well worth being a part of.