A Brief Guide to University Occupations

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Lots of students across the UK are shortly going to be launching occupations and sit-in protests in order to maximise the impact of the UCU strike, and build support for broader demands about justice in the UK education system.

If you’re one of them, or if you’re thinking about being one of them – hello! NCAFC have thrown together this guide as a check-list of things to think about before you occupy.

1) Making the decision
The first step is to have a discussion with people around you about having the occupation. This might seem obvious, but it is important that most people support the occupation and its aims. At this stage you want to make the decision about whether to occupy overnight, what your demands or the general political aims of the action are, and what you hope to achieve.

Work in concentric circles, rippling outward, including more people each time. Get a few people together who are up for it. That small group should get together everyone they know who might be up for it. And then that larger group should call everyone they know… and so on. Work rapidly and aim to launch within a week once this process begins. Don’t give things time to fizzle out. Be decisive; encourage those around you to be bold.

It is OK if not everyone is persuaded at once: but you need people to understand what they are doing and why. If your occupation isn’t democratic, it’ll fall apart at the first difficulty.

2) Why are you doing it?
Some occupations are serious long-term show-downs with management: you take over an important target whose occupation will call real disruption (like a management office, say) and stay there until the Vice Chancellor surrenders.

Other occupations are more about using the disruptive and spectacular power of an occupation to get everyone’s attention, get people talking about your demands, and change the atmosphere on campus, leaving while you are still fresh.

Decide what you want to do before you go in – and prepare yourselves accordingly. Might you wind up being dragged out by security? Will your studies take a back seat for several weeks? Or will you be back in lectures by Monday? Within sensible limits (don’t tell anyone who you think might tell on you!) people need to know what they are getting themselves in for.

3) Where to occupy?
Choose a location to suit your objectives. Are you going to choose a really disruptive and heavily-fortified place to occupy; or a very visible location with lots of windows and access points? Has your university splurged stupid money on a flashy conference centre that is no use to staff or students?

There are some non-negotiable things that you need in an occupation. Don’t occupy anywhere without these things:

a) It needs to be safe to sleep in. Rooftops are not a good idea for overnight stays.
b) You need a toilet. You, gallant reader, might be ready to shit into a carrier bag for the cause; but sadly most students are not. Make sure you’ve got enough loo roll and hand sanitiser gel.
c) Wi-fi and/or phone signal. If an occupation happens and you can’t tweet about it, has it really happened?
d) Windows or balconies. People need to be able to see you! Also, on day 3 you’ll be glad of the natural light.

Look at the venue beforehand. Look at the doors and ask yourself: will we need to lock them shut? How can we do that? What are the access points; how many toilets are there, where will we get tapwater from? Is it easy for people to find?

4) Springing the occupation
If you have a strong and motivated group, you will be able to simply storm the target location: all turn up in the management corridor or Presitigious Conference Centre, lock the doors shut, sit down, and issue your demands online. But that requires secretly organising a big-ish team to converge at the right time and place, or leading a rally or demonstration indoors “by surprise”. You can’t very well set up a Facebook event advertising the time and place of the sit-in, or the building will be locked down.

Another method is to call a public meeting in the room you intend to occupy (or nearby) and launch your occupation at an appropriate moment in the proceedings, by having the chair explain the plan and asking the meeting to approve it.

The start of an occupation is normally pandemonium. That’s OK – don’t stress over a little chaos – but try to get things under control. Make sure that people have jobs to do, so that people can get active right away. As soon as you are securely in the space and you’re not about to be run out of the building, hold a meeting to endorse your demands and establish a division of labour.

What kind of things need doing?
a) Security – post a watch on all the doors and make a rota through the night
b) Food, water, hygeine – sort out a clean food preparation area, a clean method of distributing tap water, and make sure that the loos are clean, accessible and well-stocked.
c) Online propaganda – let everyone know where you are! Set up a blog and social media accounts for your occupation. Post on them regularly – your demands; practical information and requests for help; political statements like messages of support from the local trade unions or other occupations; videos of people having fun in the occupation (security considerations permitting); and memes.
d) Turning the occupation inside out (see below)
e) Organised fun: show films, provide board games – you’ve got a big group of people living crammed together in an uncomfortable space. Do things to keep people happy and relaxed.

5) Security and repression
You are not likely to be expelled, disciplined, arrested or beaten up for occupying.

Since 2008, thousands of students have taken part in dozens of occupations in the UK. In that period, very small numbers of students have been taken through disciplinary cases or suspended. Small numbers have been arrested. To our knowledge, perhaps half a dozen people have been expelled, in exceptional circumstances. At some campuses the police have been called to clear buildings out (Sussex Uni in 2010; Senate House, London 2013; Birmingham University 2014; Warwick Uni in 2014) – but while serious, these are rare incidents in a decade that has seen many, many sit-ins.
All the same, it is important not to take silly risks. Don’t brawl with security guards, damage buildings, light fires, smoke, drink booze, or take drugs in an occupation. Be careful about revealing occupiers’ names to university management. Observe a sensible level of secrecy when preparing.

If any of your people are victimised: fight back! Support them through disciplinary procedures, tell the world what the university is doing, organise anti-victimisation protests and petitions. Contact alumni (universities care about their image amongst alumni, who are a source of money). Contact NCAFC for advice on how to proceed: we have been involved in fighting victimisations of student activists since 2010.

Security guards need to be treated with respect. University security staff or porters are workers like any others. In London, university security guards have been going on strike and facing up to management bullying. Do not fight them or insult them.

They will try to obstruct you, because that is a condition of their employment. They will be worried that if they just let you have your way, they will get in trouble.

The best way to overcome security is to be numerous, quick and well-organised. Try to move decisively and in overwhelming numbers. Security know that if they are deployed on their own or in a small group, they will not be sacked for failing to thwart a group of many dozens of students. Keep an eye on them, and let them know that they might be being filmed, as this will discourage any “unprofessional behaviour” from the odd Rambo type. But in general you need to reduce, not increase, confrontation and tension with university security.

Likewise, the use of police as storm troopers to flush you out with gas and batons is, while not unknown, extremely rare. If the university tells you that the cops are on their way, remain calm. They are doing it to freak you out. Take sensible precautions: but the likelihood is that two bored coppers will turn up, tell you that the occupation is none of their business, and take off again.
Bring bicycle locks and ropes.

6) Turn the occupation inside out!
The most successful occupations are not barricaded-off fortifications. They are present across the whole campus and local community. Lots of local activists and ordinary students, staff and residents pass through, talk to the occupiers, find out about the message, and tell their friends. During the occupation, the campus should be alive with your message. Teams should be out doorknocking, postering and leafleting every day, and attractive events should be advertised throughout the day, to keep bringing new people in and developing the political education of the people inside.

It is possible that the security situation will be such that you don’t have easy control of access: if getting in and out is hard, then you’ll need a dedicated organisation on the outside in constant communication with the people inside. Plan for this. And be creative about solving access problems.

– Have an “outside” working group – they should organise people to knock on doors, chalk slogans, leaflet and poster. That will need a lot of printing, every morning. Plan how and where to do it!
– Set up a rota of attractive talks and activities every day. Plan it several days in advance.
– Get in touch with the local trade unions and the left. Invite them to come and speak. Have them bring their banners!
– Set up visual displays inside the occupation, or plastered to the windows if access is a problem.
– Make the occupation look good from the outside; and make it clear what you are there for.
– Launch sorties: do banner drops in as many different locations as you can, as often as you can; stage little noise demos away from the occupation. Be present everywhere!
– When you need to get numbers up, have everyone drop what they are doing and hit the phones. Organise a mass call-round.

7) Learn when to let go
Some people want to call the occupation off at the first sign of trouble, or after a few nights of sleep deprivation. Others go the other way: they’ve been through a lot, carried only by a feeling of determination and political will. Isn’t it a betrayal to call off the occupation? People with that mindset will resist leaving, under any circumstances.

It is not good to keep an occupation going when your numbers are very depleted and the participants are exhausted. Small groups get victimised. Very tired people make mistakes or get ill. But at the same time, in a long show-down with management, the moment when you are most exhausted is also probably the time when their patience is at its end and they’re ready to make a concession.

Try to make a dispassionate judgement about when to call off an occupation. Remember your original objectives: is it an up-down fight, or are you there to raise awareness? Is your activist group getting stronger by the day, or weaker? How are numbers holding up?

When the time has come to get out, don’t dither, but prepare your exit. Call one last big demonstration so that when you step out blinking into the sun, you get a big cheer. Don’t scuttle off in the night. Release a statement and call a follow-up event. Write down what you have learned and contact the NCAFC: if you feel up to it, we’ll help you take your message to other campuses about how you did what you did. If you need experienced activists to talk to about rallying your group after an exhausting effort, or resisting victimisations, we will help.

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