Why Protest? Why Not?

Published

Thomas Coles
Part of the Hetherington Retrospective feature.
The occupation was not an isolated event, it tied itself into a huge series of ongoing debates about the people we are, the society we live in, and world politics. While the occupation took place revolutions occurred in the Middle East, Murdoch was disgraced, riots hit London, and somehow, distressingly, the debate on our economy and the balance of our society changed from ‘how do we reign in the bankers?’ to ‘how do we punish the poor’. It was a busy time for everyone.

The occupation was divisive? Good. If the criteria for getting involved in debate is working together towards a common goal, then where is the debate? Refusing to challenge each other is hardly in the spirit of academic education, especially if the destination has been decided already. What are our common goals? If they are increased financial growth at the expense of public good and social benefits, I am not part of that consensus.

Saying that, personally, I never believed that to be against the occupation meant you were for the cuts. Occupying the Hetherington was not the only way of registering disquiet and disgust against what was then and what still is being done to the University of Glasgow. Many people campaigned, alongside occupiers, but not alongside the occupation. They did not support the tactic of occupation, or the manner in which it played out at the Free Hetherington. But it was never ‘support the occupation or shut up’. Without the work of other students, staff, politicians, members of the community, the reversals that senior management were forced into making would not have happened. If you are against austerity for the many to support opulence for the few, or under pressure from management who get more for making you work harder for less, then we would support you.

I believe that the occupation was, on balance, successful. Far more successful than I had imagined, but perhaps less than it could have been; many things will be learned from it. Some worry it shadowed the issues; I think it drew more attention to them. Some of the things we failed at, for example, tackling gendered and other privileges, were some of those we were most committed to. There is room for debate, now. Personally, it felt like there was little visible dissent on campus before hand.

Violence vs. other Violences

On the issue of the occupation’s ‘violence’: slur and innuendo is part of the political game. It is recorded fact that more violence was committed against the occupiers than by them. Aaron Porter was never physically touched, though he was confronted and intimidated: but two members of the occupation were punched, kicked and hospitalized by self-selecting defenders of… who knows? We had predicted this sort of thing might happen (plenty of people involved in the occupation had been on anti-EDL marches, or Gay rights marches back to the 70s) but the hypocrisy is always a surprise. More violence occurs in the queue to the student unions than ever did in or about the Free Hetherington. When some damage occurred our neighbours (teaching staff) forgave us, but the Secretary of Court sent an emailed litany of our supposed sins to every single student and staff member on campus without checking his facts. That’s his play to make, and he made it well. It damaged the occupation.
But what is the real difference between the violence of people, and the ‘enforcement’ of police?

Why being in the SRC will never change anything (though Management might give you a job)

More worrying than those who hated the occupation on ideological grounds were the many elected student leaders, Aaron Porter one of them, who when tasked with defending student interests have done the bare minimum possible to campaign against the market-focused changes to the education system. It may be that they have not the courage to risk stepping out of the ‘legitimate channels of decision making’ like the SRC – routes that are weighted in favour of University Management, who hold the purse and the power. It may be that they support the measures, or are in privileged positions meaning they cannot see the harm in them, so they lobby, and consult, and talk behind closed doors. Result: those intent on turning education into another feature of the business cycle get their way.

Early in the occupation we warned that if students and staff, the Unions and the SRC do not stand together then they will pick us off one by one. The Hetherington Research Club was the first to go, because it was the smallest and weakest. Now Anton Muscatelli is trying to take 50% of the GUU’s building from it. It is notable that Charles Kennedy, by stating that he wants to “… find a positive way forward, one which guarantees a viable GUU into the future alongside improved sporting facilities…” signals his desire to continue a form of consensus politics, favouring management decisions, over standing up for students. When you refuse to rule anything out you retain the option of the unpalatable. The University views student democractic structures, at best, as a useful method of mediating their message and gaining inaction from the student body. At worst, it views them as an irrelevance and ignores them. Democracy, debate and real power in the hands of non-managers is inefficient, slow, costly, and unfortunately essential for an inclusive society.

That is what happened at Strathclyde University, that is what happened at Edinburgh. Student presidents were ‘against’ reconfigurations to education, but only so far, and never, ever, in a amorphously defined ‘extreme’ way. Citing ‘extremism’ is a great way of chilling people away from effective action. In the end all management’s cuts and restructuring went through without much more than some boisterous protest and press releases. It happened to Glasgow in the past, with the move to a College system that has dissolved staff committees and democratic structures (they even used to elect their Faculty heads!) But it didn’t happen in Glasgow in 2011, the University backed down, to an extent. This does not prove anything, but is suggests a lot. My advice to elected representatives, student, Rector, MP or MSP, is this: your legitimacy can disappear overnight if you spend more time ‘in partnership’ with management than defending our interests. And if you make that wrong choice, we must reserve the right to exercise our power, that we devolve to you when competent, ourselves.

Organisation vs. The Tyranny of Structurelessness

The occupation was disorganised at times; but it certainly wasn’t boring. It cooked vegan food. There was a lot of politics there, yes, and much of it was left wing. The Scottish Socialist Party was involved, the Labour Party attended events (I myself am a member). But no group was ‘in charge’, some people were there more than others, but everyone got to make decisions. There is a value in this, people must remain engaged for the process to work. When no one is interested you are not left with dead power structures. Because there was no one with formal power we could adapt quickly. There were no elections, each decision was made by a large (but ever-changing) group. There were Liberal Democrats (one even made headlines throwing paint-filled eggs at Nick Clegg), Anarchists, Green Party members, people that don’t belong to any political party. When you have a Principal you never see, throwing the lecturers you work with every day out of work, and he’s a member of the Tory party, you get anti-Tory chants. Not all politicians have your best interests at heart. This is a lesson we need to relearn.

People dislike confrontational politics, and that is fine as far as it goes. However, when you stand up for something, there are others who will stand against you. I spent most of my time in the occupation trying to moderate and limit the political activism of others, sometimes I was proven right, but for the most the bolder we were the better the outcome. I believe the call for a move away from partisan politics will never succeed for one reason: what benefits the rich punishes the poor.

Opposition happens because there are oppositions of interests. ‘Trickle down’ hasn’t worked. While there was (for the last 30 years) a mirage of growth and the quality of life improved for many – never all – but most quickly for the rich, people were kept quiet. Now growth has stalled and the richest in our society are having to reduce the quality of life for the poorest in order to keep the growth in their own wealth going. They have to maintain their position in society. This stripping of our wider social life of all other values in the name of wealth is the result of this, and it is not sustainable.

Choosing to be unreasonable vs. choosing a reason

There is one charge I will admit of the Free Hetherington: that it was unreasonable, that it demanded more than it could possibly hope to achieve. Our demands were a self-conscious place-holder that we knew could never be met: their real role was to say: 1) no more waiting around, 2) politics is important, politics is back on campus, 3) we are not part of your consensus. When people say ‘nothing, you will get nothing’, you must respond with ‘no, everything’, or you will get less than that nothing. I am proud of that aspiration.
Because I am sick of fighting for a new beer, or flavour of coke, in the two student tuck-shops. If students believe they are here being prepared for the ‘real’ world then they need to know: the real world doesn’t start at graduation, this is not a dry run, what you do today matters tomorrow. If you wait for tomorrow, it will be too late. If you go through University only ever taking in, and never giving out, never thinking for yourself, you will become what society wants you to be, not what you need to be. Free education will go, health care will be more expensive. You will have to guarantee you will make it to the very top, because to be anywhere else will be far from pleasant. The Free Hetherington no longer exists, and if you didn’t like it, I won’t disagree with you on principle.

No one is going to ask you ‘are you with us, or against us’, just one essential question: ‘what are you here for?’