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n recent times, there has been an increasing shift towards neoliberalization in the UK higher education sector. This has been characterized by the rise in student fees to £9000 a year in 2012 and £9250 in 2017 (Adams, 2016), increasing job insecurity for non-permanent members of staff, and capped by the proposed changes to pensions that triggered the 2018 UCU strikes. In short, the changes were to do with a shift from a defined benefits scheme (where a retirement income is guaranteed) to a defined contribution scheme, where the pay-out is based on the fluctuations of the stock market (Burns, 2018). This could lead to academics losing up to £10,000 per year from their pensions (Anon., 2018) resulting in, as one of my striking lecturers said, many not being able to retire at all. Universities up and down the country were paralyzed during February and March 2018 as staff walked out, supported in many cases by simultaneous actions from the students, which, in the case of Exeter University included an occupation, a silent sit-in, and attendance of teach-outs.
The Occupation began on Monday, 5 March at 9am, and, despite some attempts at planning, managed to be nearly entirely spontaneous. A group of fifteen students made it into Northcote House via an unlocked fire escape with an outside handle, and accidentally found themselves in the John Usher meeting room, the one which, later that day, was supposed to play host to the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group (Evans, 2018). For the first four hours, it went well, until after a meeting in which protestors were asked by members of University management if they even knew what pensions were, Security started to tighten up on the Occupation by blocking the original fire exit through which they’d entered, leaving the protestors to rely on the windows for food and stopping anyone who left from coming back in. The rest of the first 36 hours has been documented in Owain Evans’ report for Exepose; I joined the Occupation at 11am on Thursday the 15th of March, 9 days later, and the photo-journal begins then. All of the text in italics are excerpts from the diary I kept whilst I was there, and in the interest of ethics, all names have been changed.
Someone has come to the window and given me vague instructions; I go in through the main door with my uni card and ask at Reception – the receptionist looks faintly withering when I say that I’m here to replace someone in the Occupation and directs me to Estate Patrol. I don’t realise that they’re at the little cubby hole right after the door, and go back out, getting confused. I try to go to the doors through to the Occupation on my own (they’re key card swiped) but get rescued by the receptionist and actually put in the right place and told to wait. Security come out when I ring the bell, and then radio through to the occupiers. There are well heeled people sitting at Reception, and everything is clean and shiny and smart and corporate looking. The front wall is made entirely of glass and we are situated at the top of Forum Hill like a king or a god, gazing beneficently across our realm and all the students scurrying to and fro outside. I wonder whether this is deliberate, to have management spatially placed in this way to allow for maximum visibility both of their area and over their domain. – 11am, entering the Occupation.
1. My first view of the corridor outside the John Usher meeting room
It was a strange feeling, coming in this late. It had already been agreed that tomorrow was exit day, so in a way, I was just a placeholder to allow someone to leave (there was a one in/one out rule in place, and the occupiers wanted to keep the number inside at 15, not let it drop). Most people were still asleep, and I didn’t know anyone at all. My first few hours were characterised by not knowing what to do, how to perform this space; we were in a corporate corridor and meeting room, but we ourselves were a bunch of student-protestors who wouldn’t enact this space the way it is “supposed” to be enacted. In fact, we could even go as far to say we were the antithesis of the usual performance. Everyone else was much more at ease with it, but they had been here nearly two weeks by this point, so I think it was less jarring for them than for me. This was the first protest that I had attended that was not a march and/or rally, and I didn’t know the codes of behaviour, how to tread the tightropes over what the space demanded and what the practice of protest I was used to countered. The most striking feature of this space was its blandness, as you can see from the photograph; everything is white and beige, the only signs of life are the random detritus left scattered by the students, an interruption in the smooth flow of usual life here.
2. Morning yoga
This happened spontaneously – Nina couldn’t sit still and started balancing on her hands. Sandra joined in, and before I knew it, everyone else was having a go. It evolved into headstands and headstand lessons. The spontaneity was a recurring theme of my time here – we weren’t working to any sort of timetable or under any sort of pressure, we were free to move through the space as we pleased, gas molecules reverberating off the walls and each other, kinetic energy suddenly crystallising into moments of activity that emerged abruptly and dissipated as quickly as they’d come.
3. In the process of tidying up
A couple of guys came to the window to ask to swap in; they wanted to tidy up some of the mess. I floated around and helped out where I could, not particularly knowing what wanted doing, though after ten minutes or so it became relatively clear that rubbish was going in the rubbish bag, and food was being sorted into some of the myriad plastic bags hanging on the coat hook next to the whiteboard. The sheer abundance of food – all donated from outside over the course of the last two weeks – points to how well connected the Occupation was to sympathisers and previous occupiers on the outside. Another issue was private property; I was never sure whether it was allowed to move someone’s stuff around! In any case, the great tidy-up was a demonstration of just how horizontal and collective the Occupation was. Some people didn’t pitch in, as they had academic work to do, but no-one complained or told them to stop what they were doing and help. Even within the Occupation, the demands of real life still exerted an influence, creating a dual identity and reminding us of our roles as students as well as occupiers. The infrastructure (of the Wi-Fi and plug sockets) allowed a relative degree of freedom when it came to performing our student-roles within the space of Northcote House; in a way, this could also be seen as a form of protest. I heard it talked about during the strike that the management should be working for the academics instead of forcing the academics to comply to their frameworks and demands. Transplanting academic work into this management space felt as though it was reclaiming the management space for academia.
Patrick has just wandered past in nothing but a black and white plaid blanket and his t-shirt. There’s mellow music playing and the sound of a hoover. It’s nearly 1 o’clock now, and it doesn’t feel like I’ve been here nearly two hours. Leek, the sleeping guy, is still asleep through the noise of the great tidy-up. One of the girls is still knitting. People are wondering if Leek is dead, but eventually there’s a general consensus that he’s still alive since he’s still breathing. They’ve just bodily carried him back into the meeting room like a sack slung between two people – one person has his arms, the other his legs. I’m starting to feel more comfortable here now, people are so lovely and friendly. I guess we’ve all come to do this for the same reason. “Kabo” holds up a random copy of the Communist Manifesto and asks: “who’s copy of the Bible is this?” – 1pm, moments from the middle of the tidy up.
During the afternoon, we had several visits of which I do not have photos: a delegation from the Guild, and a delegation from University Management, both to discuss our impending exit from the Occupation. There was a definite shift in atmosphere between when we had visitors and when it was just us, a change in power relations and a reminder that the world outside was still hierarchical and nothing like the little enclave created in that corridor and meeting room. I noticed the fact that the visitors always took chairs by the door, whereas we had no assigned seats—we floated between different chairs, the tables, the floor. Another thing is that none of the occupiers were wearing shoes, and all of our visitors were…
In my mind, I’m generally sock-footed in places I feel comfortable; I mean, I generally eschew shoes at the best of times, because I feel that they limit me, however there’s definitely something to be said about the wearing of shoes and power relations and the practises of binaries such as public/private, domestic/corporate etc. One does not wear shoes at home, therefore it signifies a space where one is comfortable, because shoes work as a sort of protection. Without them, you are slightly vulnerable – if you are outside, you are more in tune with the earth, and if you are inside, does that make you more in tune with the building and/or the space you are inhabiting? I think it might tie into the ideas of the domestic-as-protest, because it is a form of bringing the private into the public, and possibly being unruly in a way that public space is not conditioned to be comfortable with. We engage in a certain set of practises at home, that signify comfort with our environment and the people we are with, and that is quite powerful when we relocate it to a space which is attuned to very different relations and practises to the ones we are forcefully performing inside it. – ruminations on barefooted-ness as a form of protest.
4. Detritus of the insane game of Secret Hitler
We also had an enormous, spirited game of Secret Hitler, which is a fun political game, and got incredibly heated with everyone accusing each other of being fascists. I really enjoyed playing it, for all that I’d never even heard of it before today: the aim of the game is that people are given secret identities and party allegiances, mostly liberals, but there are three fascists and one person is Hitler. The Fascists have to try and pass fascist policies and elect Hitler (they know who each other & Hitler is) and the liberals have to try and pass liberal policies (they know no-one’s identities or allegiances) and you have to work out who your allies are and go for it. We were just sprawled on the floor between the Occupation entrance and the John Usher room, our cards spread out lazily, lounging around and super-relaxed, yelling over each other in that way you do when you’re playing a game; wanting to be heard, but not that serious. Playful. – about 7:30pm, after dinner. Absolutely everyone got involved.
Shepard (2012) writes on the intersection of social movements and play, arguing that whilst the term activism usually “conjures up images of serious encounters and debates, dour meetings, and endless strategy sessions” (p.xv) (of which there were plenty during my time in the Occupation), play is also an important part of social movements as it is the process of imagination that can create new means of politics. As highlighted above, the major feature of the organisation here was its horizontality, and the way everyone functioned as a network. Secret Hitler felt like an extension of this horizontality, the network in its fundamental form; we were not dealing with the uneven power relations inherent in our meetings with the University Management, just laughing and imagining and being radically political by playing a game in a space that has never seen a game before.
5. Impromptu jam session
Straight after the game of Secret Hitler, people just picked up instruments and started playing, improvising. It was like a punctuation, no real purpose except to have fun, to express feeling – again, performing in a way that was the antithesis of the space we were in. Afterwards, due to the one in one out rule, Zara and I went for a walk to allow a couple of guys to come in and practise for Occupy Live, the concert that would herald our exit. My staying the night was a complete accident; I hadn’t been expecting to at all, but when the opportunity came I grabbed it, happy to experience spending a night in here with everyone. I would have hated to go home. For me, this feels like the start of something, of becoming involved in the often-invisible politics that operate here at Exeter University; indeed, my joining of the Occupation can be very simply linked to Askins (2013) correlation of activism to emotion, and that activism is founded on the desire to do something. The Occupation was incredibly profound in this manner because it was an action. For me, it was the end of wanting to support the strikes more than just baking for and smiling at my lecturers on the picket line. It was the end of being political-but-lost. It was more than an end – it was a beginning.
6. Pizza, from Edinburgh Occupy
7. A Skype call with Occupations from up and down the country.
In this photo, we are all sitting in the John Usher meeting room, talking to other occupations via my laptop, which kept overloading and crashing. It was a complete mess of noise with ten different groups trying to be heard over each other via the tinny laptop speakers, and most of us gave up after the first ten minutes, though I think the call went on via the chat function for up to an hour. The most amazing moment, however, was when we all sang “Solidarity Forever” across the airwaves, bellowing out the chorus. It was a reminder that, despite the fact we were sitting, isolated, in a meeting room of a deserted management building at the top of the steepest hill on campus, that we weren’t alone, that we were creating a resistance network in our own way, a sort of student-led counter-topography (to follow Katz, 2001) that attempted to act against the hegemonic structures of the neoliberal university. To me, the whole strike has felt like this, using the internet as a contour line to link students and staff in different departments here and different institutions nationally and spark diverse creative responses and relations to the common flattening process of neoliberalization.
Last Day of the Occupation
6:56am – nominally the next day, though really just later on
I’m awake, though I have been for about forty minutes. I slept out in the lobby on one of the sofas, because it got to 2am and I had been awake since before 7am the previous day and my brain was melting out through my ears. Writing 4000 words hadn’t helped either! Additionally, my comrades were still going strong, with harp music and their game, so it was easier for me to sleep out here: Ana told me how best to arrange the sofas to get a comfortable night, and yeah, it was pretty comfortable, for all four hours of it. I’m not sure what time my comrades got to bed, but I heard them kicking a ball (?) around pretty early in the morning. They’re all completely conked out now; I ventured back in to the corridor pick up my laptop to keep writing this, and they’re all strewn across the corridor in their sleeping bags and cuddle piles, completely dead to the world. – reflections on spending the night.
8. Occupational creativity
On the back of the paper plate it said: Missing, University of Exeter Vice Chancellor. If found, call: The Occupation at Northcote House. The second piece is the Vice Chancellor’s email to the students regarding the strikes, printed large, and marked just in the way we students would have our work graded.
Both, but especially the second, were a playful reversal of power relations which again felt so effective, despite the fact both pieces were eventually disposed of (to the best of my knowledge). They poked fun at the refusal of the VC to meet with us (as evidenced by the favourite chant of the Occupiers: Oh Steve Smith it’s time for you to come support the UCU!) and at University management’s attempt to keep going with business as normal, despite the interruptions we, and the wider strike movement, were causing to day to day life.
Occupy Live has started outside our window; there’s a modest gathering of people outside on the parking lot and at the window and the first band, the Allergens, are playing, cradled in the corner of the building. I recognise some of my comrades from last night in the crowd who had swapped out before this point. Hopefully more will show later when Billy Bragg appears from the picket line. We stand and listen to them and keep tidying up; have a brief conversation with “God-King”, Patrick, and Cătălin about the fanfare we’re going to be greeted with as we leave the building. “God-King” is adamant that it is going ahead, Cătălin doesn’t want it, and I make the point that I don’t really feel like I deserve it, compared to some of them who have been there since the beginning. “God-King” looks me straight in the eye and tells me that it doesn’t matter, because I am here and that is what counts, which goes some way towards relieving a bit of my imposter syndrome. – on preparing for our impending exit.
9. Group photo with Terence McKenna
The (temporary, I assume) replacement of a bland, corporate headshot with a piece of Terence McKenna inspired art was another method of protest the earlier occupiers employed (all of this was up by the time I had arrived). With some research of Terence McKenna, there is definitely something to be said about how his work is the antithesis of the usual dealings and performances that go on in this corridor/meeting room, so this replacement functions as an interruption and a challenge to the (un)natural power relations that create this space.
10. Occupy Live getting into full swing
Nat goes outside, and he and his band play for a bit. Our favourite counter-protestor shows up at this point with his sign and his leaflets… It’s the nature of democracy that we should be generous towards those with conflicting views, and I have to give him credit for his guts, though several of my comrades just say he’s an idiot… We don’t have to agree with him, and him being there doesn’t really spoil the moment. He’s only one person with a placard, and he’s not trying that hard. – Occupy Live.
This gig was the result of hours of negotiation between the Student Guild, University Management, and us over where to have it, whether to have it amplified or not, and how long it would go on. It ended up taking place in a corner of the car-park outside the occupied corridor and being unamplified, as the University said they would have to get the police involved if we amplified it since amplification was in contravention of their license for the space. Inside, we were alternately standing at the windows listening, or finishing the last mad tidy-up, stuffing random objects into the huge boxes we’d been provided by Security. It was important, to celebrate the end of this occupation, to not just leave the corridor with no mark of the impact our action has left. It was also an event for the UCU Students Campaign Team to mark the end of March’s strike action, in conjunction with the march and rally planned by the UCU for later that day. In a way, it felt like just a larger version of the way we’d applaud anyone who left, a thank-you and celebration of the labour they’d put in to make the occupation possible.
11. Billy Bragg arrives!
12. Tidied up and ready to go
The tidy up felt very wrong, and very strange, because I’d become used to the way we had used the space. We were leaving, though, and I doubt I would ever see this corridor again, which is sad. As I remarked to one of my comrades as we were putting on our shoes to go and join the party outside, the very action of tying our shoelaces felt final, like we were replacing our defences against reality as outlined in my earlier ruminations on shoes. It marked the end of our domesticity-as-protest in a corporate space. We were leaving the Occupation behind and heading back out into the real world. However, although we have physically left that space, I think we have all carried it around with us, and I’m sure the very space itself will somehow be marked by our presence, a form of Anderson’s (2009) assertation that places are “ongoing compositions of traces” (p.5). Despite the fact that the physical traces of the Occupation will be trashed and hoovered out of existence, the digital traces we have made and kept, and the emotional ones, will serve as a reminder that this thing happened in this space, and there is no way anyone can deny it.
12. As we left the building...
To cheers and screams, everyone hugging everyone and then singing along with Billy Bragg to “There is Power in the Union” and “Solidarity Forever.” https://twitter.com/ExeterUCU/status/974614861903814656
13. The picket line just after we had left the Occupation
There are no words for how it felt to walk past the cheering crowd, on four hours sleep, straight down from Northcote House. For video footage, see the Twitter links I’ve included. We were dancing on the grass, chanting away, and then at some signal unknown to me, moved off onto the march. After that, and our rally, we had the final session of this term’s startup Volunteer University, speaking together about all the learning that has come out of the strike.
We’re all taking photos and laughing and talking, and then we realise that everyone is leaving for the picket line without us, so we hurry after them, still talking at a mile a minute. It starts raining a little, but I don’t particularly care; we go down past Queens and the Forum and down those little steps and around the corner.
I can hear the picket line before I see the full extent of it; it is enormous, there must be over a hundred people there, maybe even over two hundred, or perhaps it’s just my overtired, overexcited eyes making it up, but it’s so overwhelming again, all these people screaming and cheering for us. We are walking on Prince of Wales Road and nearly get run over but then us occupiers march down the road and in through the main entrance to uni – on the walk from the Occupation to the Picket Line.
No-one who didn’t take part in the Occupation will ever know what it was truly like in there. I am honored to have been a part of it, and I hope this journal gives a translucent window into the networks and spaces created in Northcote House over the last twenty-five hours of the Occupation. For me, it was certainly a lesson in the different forms of protest, and how protest can be as small as taking your shoes off to as large as a hundreds-strong march and rally complete with banners and speeches and chanting. It may not get remembered in official University history, as the occupations (of Queens Common Room, and the Peter Chalk Centre) before have not, but in these pages, perhaps it will live on.