Cambridge occupiers: “We want our action to be a spark for new wave of student activism”

Josh spoke to Poppy and Khaled from inside the Cambridge Occupation

Early on Tuesday this week around 50 students at Cambridge University seized the “Old Schools” building – the central site of university management decision making – in solidarity with the ongoing UCU dispute. This is the second occupation of this site in two years when this action successfully forced major public concessions from our university management during the 2018 USS strike.

From inside the occupation one thing became immediately clear to me, that this was a very well planned action by a significant number of people. This was the culmination of several late nights over the past week or two, scoping out entry routes, building evacuation, and lock-down tactics for securing the space. The number involved was more than the previous 2018 occupation, and likely resulted in the additional space seized; an entire extra senior management meeting room facing the main lawn of the site. Now hanging out on this lawn is the Cambridge Defend Education banner, almost 10 years to the date that this radical student left group was founded during the mass student movement that erupted in 2010.

I spoke with two students involved in the action, Poppy and Khaled, who told me more about how they pulled this off: “There were multiple groups of us, and we split into 3 main groups. Given the layout of the building this meant that we could secure multiple rooms, and lock-it them down once clear of security. We were ready with tape and rope for door handles, and some people tasked with wedging chairs under doors to barricade us in. The fire alarm going off tripped all the door locks so we could gain entry initially, and from previous occupations we knew this was likely only to leave them unlocked for a short period of time, so we knew we had to act fast once the siren sounded. Despite being so well prepared, I think we were all surprised how well this went!”

Whilst security guards and porters were stationed inside the building, only minor confrontation between students and security occurred, and since taking the building there doesn’t appear to have been any attempts yet by security or management to reclaim it. Despite this, students were prepared with active resistance methods (such as arm-linking between doorways) in the event that this would have been necessary to block security access. This was definitely an important safety consideration and should be thought through by anyone about to embark on actions like this elsewhere.

Once inside, the initial demands of the occupation (pre-written) and a statement were released. These included the immediate recognition of the UCU branch (Cambridge UCU is not recognised as an official union branch); for the university to meet the demands of the striking staff regarding the ‘Four Fights’ and USS Pensions dispute; and for no student victimisation for those involved in the action. The occupation – now renamed Solidarity College Cambridge – has since evolved these demands to include wider calls to support ongoing fights by Unite and Unison members at the university, and quickly established a series of working groups to democratically manage the occupation. These include press, union liaison, security, and importantly one for fun & entertainment (which I am sure Emma Goldman would have saluted; “if I can’t dance, then I don’t want to be part of your revolution”).

Both Poppy and Khaled reflected further on the political aspects of the occupation, and its potential for developing critique beyond the current dispute in the university. “We want to open this space to a broader layer of students and discuss politics. There will be a series of teach-ins that can be used to discuss and analyse struggles not just in Cambridge, but all over the world. One planned session called ‘The World in Revolt’ will give us space to talk about democratic struggles in places such as Egypt and Algeria – but we will also be working out how we can support more local struggles such as those of Unite workers in the city. These events will be open to all students to attend – we want to bring lessons learned from around the world here to develop our existing fight, and work out together how we take these forward.”

Other ideas such as a planned open-mic night, reading groups and musical events are hoped will encourage other students to join. We spoke more about the possibilities for the occupation and what this could mean on both a local and national level.

“We are here because we have seen that we need to grind business as usual to a halt – we need to take action that disrupts the operation of the university and provides material leverage to the strike. Whilst locally in Cambridge we have successfully shifted more emphasis on our management to respond – and we recognise the limitations that such local appeals on management have – at a national level we need to urgently ramp up strike solidarity action. We want our action to be a spark that lights up a new mass wave of student activism, built around the struggles of workers across the UK. We’re welcoming the student left involved in this struggle elsewhere to join us here, build our networks of solidarity that can make this happen, and fight together.

“We are also building towards mass worker-student assemblies – tying together our fights and struggles against austerity and cuts – to push for a broader vision of a society run in our interests, not those of the bosses.

“Many staff cannot take strike action or direct actions given the restrictive anti-trade union laws, and that means student action is even more important. It is also the case that the students here in this occupation are tomorrow’s workers. If we don’t fight now, it’ll be even harder for us when we’re in their position. This really is our duty. We make this final appeal to all students: we will soon inherit this struggle. Students and workers, unite and fight!”

You can keep up to date with Solidarity College Cambridge here: https://www.facebook.com/SolidarityCollegeCambridge and Student Strike Solidarity here: https://www.facebook.com/studentstrikesolidarity/.

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