Monday, May 20, 2024

Stay True

 'first, I was drawn to raves more for the idea of community than the music itself. You found a flyer, called a number, copied down the directions. It meant surrendering to a void, a cluster of headlights the signal you were in the right place. I never did drugs, but it still felt magical to be in a room with no center, where the only way of orienting yourself was by following a bass line or synth wash. This was a range of faces you didn't see in daytime: vacant and somber, devoted to the rhythm; smiling and platonic, eager to share; rapturously free. Something was always already happening. People walked in casually, and their gait slowly adapted to the sounds around them, and within minutes they looked as though they were trying to punch and kick their way out of an imaginary sack. It didn't matter how you danced'

Hua Hsu, Stay True: a memoir (2023) - writing about Berkeley, Calfornia in the mid/late 1990s

Saturday, May 11, 2024

My student occupations - University of Kent at Canterbury (1981-84)

My first student occupation took place shortly after arriving at the University of Kent at Canterbury (UKC), and it was a short one. As the the anti-apartheid struggle raged in South Africa, Barclays Bank was a frequent target for protest due to its heavy involvement in the South African economy.   On October 15th 1981, as part of a national 'Boycott Barclays' day of action called by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, a group of students temporarily occupied the small Barclays bank  on the university's campus. According to this report in the student newspaper Incant (November 1981), around 25 people entered the bank at 3:15 pm - shortly before it was due to close - and refused to leave. It seems we stayed there until around 8 pm before leaving to attend a student union meeting, which seems a little half hearted! The bank though was a regular target for graffiti and window breaking over the next few years.

During the rest of that college year the big issue was a rent strike prompted by the high rents charged for university accommodation. The student union set up a large  'rent tent' as the campaign HQ on the lawn in the middle of campus which I recall blowing down on one cold and windy January night.  Later there was a portacabin where the union collected rents and held the money in reserve to be paid to the college when a deal was agreed. I noted in my diary (10th February 1982) 'At dinnertime there an open air mass meeting about the Rent Strike. I spoke in favour of escalating the campaign. A call for occupation was defeated but it was agreed to organise dining hall boycotts' to further hit the university's income.  The rent strike was called off in May 1982 having achieved a real term reduction in rents.  

A picket during the 1981/82 rent strike

In March 1982, 700 students from different Kent colleges marched from the art college up to UKC in a protest against the level of student grants. At the end of the march 'the union provided a soup kitchen and disco' (Incant, March 1982).

Education cuts were the focus of a library sit-in in November 1981, basically staying overnight in the library. A similar event on 8 November 1982  took place during a week of action called by Kent Education Alliance, made of education unions. As well as the  'work in' at UKC there was one at  Christchurch college, the teacher training college in Canterbury.

On 23 February 1983 more than 100 colleges responded to the National Union of Students' call for 24 hour occupations as part of its Grants Cuts Campaign. Senate House (University of London), Queen Mary College and University of Sussex were among those taking part. At UKC  a 'Special Committee' had been set up following a Union General Meeting to plan an occupation despite the opposition of some local student union officials. Around 150 people occupied the Cornwallis building where 'a disco consul was brought in and films set up' before moving in to the Registry (the main admin. building for the university). An editorial in Incant bemoaned that  'The university's belligerent action of preventing access to the Registry made it necessary to cause a small amount of damage to actually effect entry into the building'. I seem to remember a couple of people climbing on to the roof of the Registry and later one person managed to enter the building through an air vent and then open the door for others to enter.  As planned, the occupation only lasted one night.

Incant, March 1983

A more sustained occupation took place a few weeks later led by the Overseas Student Organisation. Overseas students had previously been more or less guaranteed accommodation on campus, but this had been reduced to 48 out of 250 students. Living in the city was not felt to be safe for some black students in particular, with its military barracks and sometimes late night punch ups. The occupation started on 16th March 1984 and lasted for about a week, taking over the college accommodation office and for a little while the Registry again. 

The occupation was pretty life changing for me as I became very close to a couple of anarchists who remained friends for long after. Unable to stomach a return to social reality when the occupation ended we hitch hiked to Amsterdam, where we went to the Melkweg club among other adventures.

The final occupation of my student days came in March 1984. The University had agreed to run a 13 week IT course to Marconi  management recruits which involved them staying in new Park Wood accommodation that had been built for students. With student accommodation in short supply - many had to travel in from Whitstable or Herne Bay - this in itself was controversial. But there was also a broader question of the privatisation of the university with corporate income substituting for government funding. And the fact that  electronics company Marconi was essentially a military contractor (hence the 'Marconi sells death!' graffiti on campus). The occupation continued for nearly two weeks before the University took out a High Court injunction. 

I found this diary entry for March 13th 1984 which describes how it started: ‘next term's accommodation lists had been published and the university had gone back on an earlier verbal promise and was going to rent out 25 rooms in Park Wood to Marconi Electronics. We went over to the union offices where some more people had gathered in small groups. We went over to the Registry and took it over though unfortunately due to bad planning we only got one office upstairs in addition to the finance office downstairs. Subsequently as doors were mysteriously broken down we had access as well to all the corridors, toilets, kitchens the post room and the print room. The first thing that happened was that people rifled through files and cupboards, a lot of university stationery was expropriated. A key was found which opened another office which we took over as the 'Autonomy Office', we covered the door and some corridors with anarchist posters’. The more 'hippyish' occupiers also set up their own area, which they christened 'Weird City'.

Among other things I recall that during the occupation we had a film showing of The Hunger, the vampire movie which starts with Bauhaus playing Bela Lugosi's Dead. Socialist Workers Party leader  Tony Cliff gave a talk in the occupied foyer on the Russian revolution with a bad tempered argument about Kronstadt thanks to anarchist questions, and a couple of miners came by - the miners strike was just starting in the local Kent coalfield and was soon to become the main focus of radical student activism for the next year (see previous post on miners support in Kent).  I also recall having sleep deprivation hallucinations, looking out from the occupation and buildings seeming to move.

These occupations were mainly short lived and actively involved a minority of students, though the size of union general meetings where these actions were discussed and sometimes agreed was quite impressive, more than 600 people for instance at one of the meetings discussing Marconi. Disagreements about tactics and maneuvering by different factions was sometimes exhausting. But the act of taking over space and living together in a common cause outside of the routines of everyday life, even for a short time, is an intense experience never forgotten.

[at the time of writing this, May 2024, students at UKC have set up a pro-Palestine encampment at the university and a campaign against education cuts is continuing with courses facing closure including art history, music and audio technology, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, health and social care, and journalism.]