cerelia & joanna: perspectives from an occupation


On 6th December 2010 a group of students at the University of Bristol occupied Senate House, the administrative nerve-centre of the University. They did this in solidarity with other student occupations happening across the UK which have been protesting the government-proposed education cuts and changes to the University fee-structure. The aim was to open a space of dialogue and critical thinking around these issues, which have so far been successfully depoliticised by political elites. Student-staged occupations have been spreading across the country and what has so far been considered an apathetic generation has chosen to speak up about crucial issues. Here are two perspectives from the Bristol University occupation.

Cerelia Athanassiou: Encounters with Powerful Men

‘The moment the people is legitimately assembled as a sovereign body, the jurisdiction of the government wholly lapses, the executive power is suspended…For in the presence of the person represented, representatives no longer exist.’ (Rousseau [1762] 2008: 92)

For a moment we’re into the second day of the occupation of Senate House at the University of Bristol. Only ‚original occupiers’ (i.e. the students that first went into Senate Room, of Senate House – the administrative nerve-centre of the University) are allowed access to the occupation space, and they have to register with Security every time they come in and out of the building. The occupiers have been in negotiation with the University’s Registrar about opening up access to the occupation, but have thus far been unsuccessful. I volunteered to go into the second of such negotiation meetings as one of the ‘representatives’ of the group – University Management only agreed to meet with representatives of the group rather than with the whole group itself. They presented no rationale for this, but it seems that their perseverance with this system of meetings corresponded to their refusal to see the current system of management of the University as hierarchical and problematic. In fact, every aspect of their correspondence or meeting with our group oozed condescension, aloofness and disdain. This is what it feels like to be confronted by power.

The message we got from Management in those two ‘representative’ meetings was that our tactic of occupation was undemocratic, coercive, unconstitutional and unrepresentative; the repetition of these words was meant to remind us of the illegitimacy of our protest. The repeated reference to Management’s responsibility for an entire University was aimed at further marginalising us and the concerns we brought to the fore with our action. The sanitised meeting room in which our meetings were conducted, with their modern furniture and with the highest-quality technical equipment (including one of the many new plasma screens that have populated the University in recent years) also communicated to the group of three sleep-deprived student-occupier ‘representatives’ that here is an institution which is successfully providing for a large number of students and staff, and which thus has no interest in listening to a ‘minority view’. No part of that meeting was sympathetic to the cause brought forward by the ‘occupiers’. But there was also a sense of unease that Management policy had been questioned in such a spectacular manner; unease that a random group of students was now occupying a grandiose conference room in the heart of the University’s administrative hub;

unease that students at the bottom of this University hierarchy had the tenacity to occupy that conference room a few minutes before the start of a meeting of University Senate; unease that these students issued Management with a list of controversial demands. The closed field of politics was just opened up slightly and became re-politicised; and this brought with it the realisation that a random group of students can be just as important a player in this as Management.

As the letters of support started flowing in from other students, individual members of staff, and then whole departments across the University, we understood the far-reaching consequences of our action: we had energised what had so far been a de-politicised sphere of influence. We do not want to be a part of Management’s Public Relations informed ‘vision’ of an ideal University brand; we do not subscribe to ‘values’ which seek to marketise a public good; we do not see how the University can function as a space of critical thinking when its own structures overload and exploit its own workers, most of whom work far harder and longer than they are paid for. These are not irrational pronouncements, the arguments supporting these views are not uninformed, and Management are aware of this. The re-politicisation of the sphere of Higher Education brings with it interesting consequences, which rightly scare those in power: their version of what is good for this and other universities, and of what counts as ‘good’ education, have not only been questioned, but alternatives have been made possible.

One of our main targets of protest has to remain the undemocratic decision-making structure of this University and the cosiness with which some job functions in the Management structure operate; and we will demonstrate that another, democratic and fair, way of organisation is not only possible but already real. This is the face of the re-energised student movement nationally: leader-less and in direct opposition to power and convention – and this annoys people. We weren’t lying when we said that Senate House was just the end of the beginning; the potential for change is too great for us to stop now.

In solidarity with all student activists and with university occupations happening across the country (including those continuing over Christmas) and internationally.

Joanna Tidy: The Performance of Security

I am going to start by quoting part of an informal conversation I had with the head of university security towards the end of the occupation:

Me: So, perhaps the Vice Chancellor might come down and speak to us now that you know we are not…

Jerry Woods [head of security]: Terrorists.

From the first moments of the occupation, fear was the principle reaction of University senior management. Our occupation of a space was termed ‘violent’, senior management told us that the staff working in the building were afraid of us and we heard that the Vice Chancellor and Registrar were ‘freaked out’ by what we had done. In the University’s eyes we were terrorising University staff and our student peers for ends specific to our ‘vocal minority’ agenda. The management did not (or decided not to) understand the concept of an occupation and sought to marginalise and delegitimize what we had done through performances of security which served no pragmatic purpose but were instead designed to reinforce a very specific narrative. These performances of security took a variety of forms but I want to emphasise two here; the spectacle of a suspension of normality to produce a climate of instability and fear, and the surveillance of occupiers to construct us as aberrant, isolated and extreme.

The Suspension of Normality and the Spectacle of Aberration

Key to the management’s narrative of us as a threatening vocal minority was the public closure of the entire building in which we had occupied just one room. The front doors were shut, and a sign informed anyone trying to get in that access to the building was limited due to a student sit-in. Security guards patrolled the perimeter, and stood on watch at doors. From the outside the building appeared to be completely shut down and off-limits. Key to the narrative of the threatening vocal minority was the production of the idea of a suspension of normality; a highly unusual, unstable and deviant event in the face of which the only logical response was a highly securitised one. Inside the building however, things carried on much as before. Staff and occupiers used the back entrance, people carried on with their normal activities and most of the usual functioning of the building was maintained – but crucially, hidden from public view.

The List

During the occupation, management allowed ‘original occupiers’ to come and go through the much less visible back entrance of the building. The journey from the back entrance to the occupied Senate Room was the main point around which security was performed to construct occupiers as the threatening terrorisers of the university. Occupiers entering the building would be processed through a series of (up to three) checkpoints. University security quickly produced a document which became known as ‘The List’; a record of names of known occupiers and the meticulously noted times of their passage through each checkpoint. These surveillance practices were not about the collection of data for any meaningful purpose; instead they were part of the spectacle of marginalisation. Occupiers were escorted between checkpoints by University security, using a route around the building which would change from day to day or even hour to hour and which was typically circuitous; we were taken up and down flights of stairs and through a number of card-entry-only doors when the actual distance between the back door and the occupied room was very short and straightforward. The emphasis was on process, on the suspension of our usual access rights as students, and on functionless rituals of securitised control which remade us as aberrant, trespasser-detainees in our own university.

Producing the Possible

These performances were a crucial part of the management of the occupation by the university. They operated to remake the occupation and occupiers in a way the university could deal with most easily, and define the possible in terms of dialogue. We were placed in an ideological cordon sanitaire: isolated spatially and apparently intellectually. Ultimately however, this strategy of marginalisation did not work. Contesting these performances, the positions which informed them and the narrative they produced became a point around which solidarity from other students, staff and the wider public mobilised and distilled into positive dialogue.

Whilst the public performance of security did not, in general terms, alter over the two weeks, at an informal level there was a thaw in the initially hard line taken by the management; two events were held in the Senate Room and eventually the fear seemed to subside into a resigned disapproval, backed with the threat of a court injunction. They still refused to recognise that what we had done was in any way legitimate, constructive or – fundamentally – understandable. In terms of our encounters with the management the only real movement seemed to be a grudging acceptance that, as Jerry Woods said in the conversation I opened with, we weren’t actually terrorists. Of course, the occupation had a number of objectives and successes and being chummy with the senior management had definitely never been on our ‘to-do’ list. However, effectively challenging the management’s position, performance and narrative was, and functioned as a lens through which to view the wider problem.

It is important to note finally that the reaction I have described was not in any way inevitable. In the vast majority of other student occupations over the past month or so university managements have responded very differently. Many occupations have had open access and most occupations have been visited by their institution’s Vice Chancellor. At Senate House, the University senior management took the decision to respond with securitisation rather than dialogue and it didn’t work for them.

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