Thursday, December 31, 2009

Day 31 The Occupation or Two Weeks that Would Change their Lives

The time was May 1998. The place was Dagenham. The institution was University of East London. The people, well at first anyway, were John, Carla the socialist, Garry, and Lina.

John was studying Italian and heard from one of his lecturers that cuts were being made to the Languages Department. Because John was toying with the idea of becoming a socialist and because the cuts didn’t seem fair, he told Carla the socialist. John and Carla the socialist marched to the student union and demanded that something be done.

Lina, who held an official student union position at the time, happened to be there and happened to be the first person they spoke to. Garry, who wanted an official student union position and was always up for a bit of trouble, joined their conversation.

After some more research, they found out that there were ₤1.3 million cuts being made across departments, 24 lecturers were going to lose their jobs and the university had one of the highest paid vice chancellors in the country. They were angry, but they weren’t sure what to do. Carla the socialist had the answer. Occupy!

They gathered 100 signatures to call an emergency general meeting of the student body, and 250 students showed up. They invited Frank Gould, the fourth highest paid vice chancellor in the country, to make his case. Luckily for them, Frank Gould was patronising, arrogant, had an all-year-round tan, had a shower in his office and talked about his ski thumbs. The students voted unanimously to occupy the building.

They occupied the two main buildings and shut down the administrative side of the university for two weeks. Someone, maybe Dagmar, had the brilliant idea that they would continue to hold classes for students, but only if the lecturer supported both ‘the aims and means of the occupation’. And so classes ran, more or less, as normal. The students unfurled a banner outside the main building that proclaimed: ‘Under New Management!’

Ryan and Massimo became the brains of the operation. They came up with the name, ‘Autonomous University of East London’ and wrote a manifesto. Fred who was nifty with graphics became in charge of propaganda/publicity. Committees were formed: the academic committee that made sure classes ran, the food committee that fed the 100 or so occupiers on a daily basis, the security committee that made sure all entrances were covered and nothing was broken, the cleaning committee that cleaned. The occupiers had two general meetings a day to make all decisions publicly and democratically

One dawn in early June, the occupiers were evicted by 200 riot police.

No-one was arrested or hurt. They formed a negotiation committee that was able to save the jobs of those lecturers who didn’t sign ‘voluntary’ redundancy agreements and they struck a deal that no student would be penalised for taking part in the occupation. Frank Gould, the fourth highest paid vice chancellor in the country, was forced to resign a year later.

John, Garry, and Lina are still the best of friends. The whereabouts of Carla the socialist are unknown.

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