Together as a University, in conjunction with the wider UK movement against the cuts, we can make our voices heard, and we can stop this government- which acts without a mandate- from making an ideologically driven attack on the public sector and education.
However, I would like to discuss the occupation and explore the issues it sparked partly for my own peace of mind and because I believe the occupation was a positive event, which we can both learn from and gain strength from in the fight against the cuts. The views expressed here are also a culmination of those expressed by wider group of people in a discussion forum held this evening (26/10) regarding the occupation and its successes/failures. Present at the forum were some who had been involved but largely supporters, tutors, university staff and a few who had questions to ask the protesters.
Why a library?
The debate surrounding the occupation will inevitably focus on the disruption it caused to students with serious deadlines wishing to access the library. I understand that the effect of the occupation in preventing people from entering the library (not the protesters wish of course, but an effect of the action) is a fact, which, in many people’s eyes undermines our whole point of being there. The question is a simple one however; does the cause justify the means? I believe it does.
The point of an occupation is to cause disruption. Of course no one wanted to direct this disruption at students, one of the more radical reasons the Rad Cam was chosen as the target for occupation was that it is a centre of learning which should be available to all. Why is there a monopoly on knowledge? Tourists walk past the library every day, unable to come in because they have not passed the test of a judgment that they are worthy of accessing knowledge. Had the library remained open to supporters and those wishing to work it would have enacted a vision of open and free education for all and opened up the debates publicly surrounding the issues of ‘What is education?’ and ‘What is a library?’ which were being had inside. Lecturers had offered to enter the space to discuss issues with the students. Noam Chomsky, who has been in Oxford this week, made a statement of support for the students and would have come to join in discussions.
The decision to occupy a learning space rather than an administrative one also sparks debate about education and who it’s for, why it matters and what education should look like in our country. Unfortunately the Proctors made damn sure that debate was not to be had publicly.
This raises the issue of why the University ‘had’ to close the library. The closing of the Rad Cam library is understandable, however, it is a direct action by the university to prevent peaceful protest; a contradiction to their statement that they support student’s right to protest. Technically this means they should allow anyone to join the protest if they express a wish to. The librarians had also clearly stated that they wished the library to remain functional and would help facilitate that by allowing students to take books from the lower camera to the upper camera for work, while the occupation could continue below. The librarians were at all times friendly and supportive of the protest. They looked on bemused, almost disappointed that we weren’t throwing things as discussions drove on into the night, hours on end of proposals and statements, planning and analyzing together.
The decision to also close the Old Bod is an entirely different matter. This building was in no way effected by the occupation. So why did they close it? It seems obvious that the Proctors made this decision to manipulate the student body and make it much more difficult for students to support the occupation, thereby dividing the protesters into the ‘occupiers’ and the ‘students’. I think the majority of students support the cause of the occupation, and had the library remained functional would have had no problem with the occupation itself. It is worth pointing out that at all the other occupations across the UK (some of which continue) university staff (lecturers etc) and students have been able to come and go from the occupation as they pleased.
The longevity of and possibilities which arise from an occupation, mean that this action speaks volumes more than a protest does. The Proctors internal letter to students and staff, although not a triumph, is an indication that direct action requires the authorities addressed to engage with the students in a way that a demonstration doesn’t. I would like to know on what grounds they base their statement within the internal letter, “In any case, occupations do not offer a constructive contribution to the debate.”
As far as I’m aware, up until this point there has been no debate between the University authority and the student body. Had the Proctors not closed the library, the nature of that contribution would have had significantly more content.
The messages of support and solidarity from elsewhere up the ladder of authority in the university seems to contradict these claims that the occupation offered no constructive contribution to the debate around cuts. My personal tutor and another two subject tutors sent me emails in direct support of the occupation. One of my lecturers was actually in the occupation for the first five hours and helped formulate our list of demands. He was particularly hot on checking our grammar and presentation was correct. He came back the next morning to join the crowd of people outside that waved through the windows and chanted throughout the day.
By any reasonable logic, these discussions, the press coverage of nationwide occupations, the solidarity found between students and staff here in Oxford, the debates which ensue in cyberspace, and the Lib Dem’s most recent statement that some of them wish to abstain on the cuts vote, all of these events caused by the nationwide occupations and protests, are valuable and constructive contributions to the debate, which the Proctors seem to feel they are so well versed in. Their only response to the protest remains vague and lacking in any tangible position on the cuts, “We remain committed to ensuring that whatever funding arrangements may be in place in the future, no- one who deserves a place at Oxford will be denied access because they cannot afford to study here.”
A violent occupation?
Lets distinguish between ‘direct action’ and ‘violent action’. It seems ironic, given the claims by the Proctors that the occupation put the rare book collection at risk, that the only damage done to the library was inflicted by the police when they battered down a door. The occupation was at all times peaceful, measured and sober. The dance video has caused a lot of upset. Who ever said peaceful protest has to be quiet? I admit, as do most people who were there, that it was thoughtless and perhaps not good for PR in the long run, but it was not thought of as a ‘statement’ at the time it was put online. More videos of the discussions, workshops and actions taken inside are due to be put online in the near future. Hopefully this will quell sensationalist accusations of our apparent all night ‘rave’. If there was one it must have been very quiet because most people were asleep.
I had no expectations of what would happen when I joined the crowd of around 200 students that rushed into the building on Wednesday. I joined in because I felt direct action was necessary to enact our anger, frustration and defiance against a government (acting without a mandate) planning an ideologically fuelled, scorched-earth attack on education. The majority of the 50 or so people remaining at the end of the 30 hours of occupation did not know each other prior to the occupation, so the claims that it was the ‘socialist workers movement’ or a ‘minority group of anarchists’ is based purely on speculation and the manipulation of events by the Proctors. At the pub gathering after the eviction I found myself in the embarrassing position of having to ask someone’s name who I had shared a toothbrush with, and only on hour before I had tightly held on to as police attempted to pull us apart from each other.
Who is the university?
The librarian’s solidarity with us proved to me that the University is not made up of Proctors and Masters and Wardens, but by the academics and lecturers who continued to send us messages of support throughout the occupation, the students both undergraduate and graduate, the people who clean our colleges, serve our meals and make this university a living breathing space. The outcome of the occupation should be a positive one which says we are the university, we the students, lecturers and tutors, not you the disciplinarian body of Proctors who says I can’t enter this library, and we the university object to the privatization of education and we will fight the attack on education until we win.
A constant argument in support of the cuts is that the country simply can’t afford to pay for education anymore. Does this seem like an honest explanation when the UK spends only 0.7% of its GDP on education and only this week George Osbourne has found further billions to bail out the Irish banks? When the IFS have stated that the deficit will sort itself out by 2015, by which time the government will still not have received a single penny back of the student loans they will have to dish out for fees three times higher than today’s? If anything the proposed increase in fees will incur a further burden on the budget until debts can be repaid by which time the economy is set to be back on its feet.
The proposed 90% funding cut to the humanities is a transparently ideological statement made by the government. By singling out the humanities as lesser subjects they propose a vision of education that sees Universities as a factory for economically viable people whose sole purpose is to support the motivations of an economically driven government policy. As one tutor quite rightly asked, ‘If we don’t think studying Norse mythology, or history or literature is important, if we as a society don’t think we should study the humanities because we value human knowledge and because we think they are beautiful, why do we have institutions like museums at all?’
Rebel- Revolt- Resist
If you’ve made it to the end of this ramble, I applaud you. I will finish up with a quote from a poem sent to the occupation at around 10.00pm on Wednesday evening from a man who described himself as a 60’s protest ‘old timer’. The poem was read aloud to the group during a discussion. As the poem was read students began to join in for the last repeating line of each stanza, raising their fists in the air and holding on to each other.
W H E N (extracts)
When a woman in some foreign land
Is stoned to death by law,
…Is buried to her neck in sand,
Her naked face smashed – raw,
When feminists get jailed, then hung
When they fight for the right to exist,
Speak out – Sing out their silenced song!
Rebel – Revolt – Resist.
When our kids have turned to drugs or crime,
When they find no future here,
When politicians flout the Law
When the few get the greater share,
When those who caused recession’s loss,
Keep their profits – and then – insist:
The poor and weak can pay the cost!
Rebel – Revolt – Resist.
When they keep us down by more expense,
In jobs that do not pay -
When they keep our time so managed
That we’re anxious every day -
When they fill our minds with fear & lies,
With new Laws for Terrorists -
(Keep in mind – that they mean us!)
Rebel – Revolt – Resist.
When we’ve kept our right to demonstrate
But only two by two -
When street-cameras & microphones
Catch all we say and do -
When they tap our phones – emails – our homes?
When nothing gets freely expressed -
It’s time to Act – Give them a Show!
Rebel – Revolt – Resist.
(John William Brown – August 2010)
Please visit occupiedoxford.org to keep up to date with developments
There will be continued meetings for further resistance, which all are welcome to. There will also be forums and events for Oxford Free University to discuss the wider issues in the debate.
On Tuesday a second wave of actions and protests are planned across the UK.