Monday, 15 March 2010

Ever wondered what it's like to occupy? A student's account ..

"The Vice Chancellor’s office had uncomfortable black leather chairs, a dingy brown carpet and a curious wall design. It was a cramped sort of space, crowded and noisy. Outside, I could hear the police laughing over some joke, one pleasant and humorous blonde woman with spiky hair and a burly brown-haired man I had immediately disliked. He had given me a bit of a shove as soon as he had seen me, then he had threatened the rest of us with random stop and searches. I wondered what it was going to be like spending the next few days and nights here.

I hadn’t known the occupation was going to take place at first and had just got caught up in it. Just a few hours ago we had swarmed a finance meeting with the Vice Chancellor in it. He was a slimy sort of guy, this Professor Geoffrey E Petts. He hadn’t answered any of the questions we had put to him and had claimed he didn’t have a diary to set up a meeting with student involvement. We were going to learn just how slimy he was as the days went by.

I was ravenously hungry like everyone else because we had all skipped lunch. I had also, on this day of all days, forgotten my mobile phone. So I couldn’t call my family to let them know that I wasn’t going to come back home for a little while. I desperately needed to use the bathroom. But I couldn’t. It was a pretty desperate sort of situation. Money was no good here. There was nobody from the outside that could help out.

The problem was, the occupation was uncertain at the moment so we all had to stay put and not get too comfortable. The police were outside, security kept on making a friendly appearance every so often and we had to guard the door – a task which I volunteered myself for. Security and the police were trying to intimidate us by pestering us for access into the room. We’d let them have a check before but had to make clear that this was a student occupation.

After a few tense hours when we were all wondering what the university was going to do, what we were all going to do, a few guys decided to go out and get some supper. This was our first naïve mistake. They never came back. Neither did the food.

Security had decided that anyone that left the occupation wouldn’t be allowed back into the university. We asked them if we could go out to use the bathroom. They said no. They were trying to starve us out and make things as bad as possible for us so that we just left.

We got the phone calls straight away from the people that had gone outside telling us what had happened. This made the whole group nervous and outraged. One of the lecturers outside the door called me over so I opened the door for him. He was a portly man with white hair. He asked me if we were alright and then I explained the situation to him. He shook his head sadly, hardly believing what I was telling him.

Eventually, the food did come. But the other students were not allowed in. One of the security guards had gone against the specific instructions from the university and brought it up to us. Everything was ice cold but we were all famished and thankful for it and to him.

After eating, everybody sat around. We were having constant meetings, deciding what to do, what not to do. Worrying about what had happened and what was going to happen. How we were going to last out in this place now that the university management had cut down our numbers and drastically reduced any kind of freedom we might have otherwise had.

We had arranged ourselves into teams; we had a group of journalists on two laptops which had come in with us. They were busying typing away or on their mobile phones. In fact, quite a few people were on their mobiles, marshalling support from the outside for a protest the next day. We’d also discovered a lucky landline which wasn’t disconnected until the next morning when the university wised up.

By the next morning, the police had disappeared. We also got the bathroom facility – the nicer security guards at first and then an unfriendly woman representative from the Vice Chancellor’s office finally let us have it officially. It was a strange experience to go up the two floors to the men’s bathroom with three or four security guards watching and memorising our facial features for future reference. Some of them were deliberately polite. Some of them were deliberately strict. Some of them just stared blankly into space, bored out of their minds.

We had to keep ourselves going although we were all tired – I doubt anyone got a good night’s sleep – so we started making a protest at the door with plastic bins as drums and plastic bottles as beaters. We chanted the lines from the day before: They say cut back, we say fight back. They made quite a bit of noise. Security and the university management were still bothering us every so often and quite a few groups of students were leaving as they had other commitments.

The Deputy VC came late to the meeting we had arranged the day before and brought us back a really unsatisfactory reply from the Vice Chancellor to our demands. She spoke in that double-speak the Vice Chancellor had perfected.

I was quite bored so I went around the office on a hunt for something to do. I sent out emails to everyone I knew about the occupation, including a journalist for The Guardian that I knew. He put up the news on his Twitter page. One of the media students sent me an email asking us if we could do a television interview while the protest was happening outside.

Next morning, after no sleep again, we beat on our bin drums with our plastic bottles and chanted our slogans at the door. The Deputy VC from the Vice Chancellor’s office came back with some representatives from the Student’s Union.

They wouldn’t accept our conditions and the woman gave us more of her double-speak from the Vice Chancellor. Outside, some of my lecturers were standing around to see what we were up to.

After a final meeting, we left the occupation. We left a note saying that we would come back soon. And then we walked down to UCL to carry the torch of learning to their protest with our banners held up high."

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