In an emergency, break glass: Occupy Sussex and the bigger picture

Don't focus on one broken door, suggests Sussex student Jessie Thompson. Concentrate instead on the jobs at stake and an uncaring management

A door was smashed on the University of Sussex campus on Monday.

In other news, over 1,000 people gathered in the university’s Library Square for a large demonstration to outsource 235 support service jobs. Students from across the country travelled the distance in order to stand side by side with students, staff and academics at Sussex. All wore a small yellow square on their coats to symbolise their solidarity with the campaign, and children played on the yellow swings that hung from the trees.

A ‘Pop Up Union’ was launched to represent the workers under threat, and all cafes on campus  were picketed, occupied and shut down in a direct hit to management revenue and as a warning to possible private providers. ULU President Michael Chessum declared: “We have found a voice here today that will not die.”

Now, what was that you mentioned about a broken door?

This national demonstration was only able to occur due to the hard work of the Sussex Against Privatisation campaign group, many of whom have also been occupying the Bramber House conference centre for almost seven weeks. The occupation itself has seen a space previously used as a revenue generator for the university now reclaimed as a productive, creative and inclusive space – it is now a home to academic lectures, comedy nights and drama workshops.

Of course, this did not happen overnight. The campaign began almost a year ago, and only thanks to constant persistence and patience has it been able to grow in strength and size to such an extent that an Early Day Motion in Parliament has now been signed by 25 MPs.

In an increasingly unrepresentative political system, in which we all seem to be at the mercy of rich oligarchs, attempts to reclaim a voice appear to be very much a part of the national mood. This seems to be the reason the Sussex University management employed the predictable tactic of demonising the student protestors as much as possible.

Clearly unaware that it’s not really the style of anarchy to form an orderly queue behind a bar, on police advice they banned the sale of alcohol on campus until 5pm. Registrar John Duffy emailed staff to let them know they could work from home if they felt scared, and the windows to Sussex House were barricaded. The attempts by management to portray this movement as a tiny bunch of yobbish, fringe nutters who just want to cause trouble might be effective, but this gross misrepresentation betrays one vital thing: they are scared. The fact that the Sussex occupation has conducted itself with consideration and dignity throughout its seven weeks gives them little reason to use heavy handed force, which in turn, makes them incredibly difficult to silence.

For this reason, we must not allow ‘the breaking of one glass door’ to mutate into ‘the thuggish smashing of the whole of Sussex House’. Do people really think that the Sussex occupation have slogged their guts out for seven weeks in order to lose their heads and start breaking things? Nevertheless, some students across campus have become depressingly hostile to the campaign. Complaints range from demented histrionics about the despicable disruption to education to plain frustration at the inability to buy a sandwich.

I must express an exasperated plea for my fellow students to look at the bigger picture: the cancelling of one seminar is inconvenient, and being a bit peckish is a pain, but 235 people losing their job security and pensions is rather more troublesome.

Whilst the disproportionate focus on one small act of minor vandalism is initially slightly dispiriting, it would be a disservice to the hard work of this movement to become depressed by it. The incredible strength and energy that has characterized the Occupy Sussex movement so far suggests it will no doubt find further reserves within itself to overcome these attempts to tarnish the cause.

It must, if larger grassroots movements like the People’s Assembly are to be a success. Occupy Sussex are not a group of people in black clothes and bandanas with a will to smash – they are selfless, pioneering activists who are unfazed by a tyrannical management that threatens helpless individuals. It is a movement that has radicalised me – if hoping for a better future and caring for fellow human beings is radical, then I am happy to be.

Their unabashed persistence and belief in their cause is where they find their power, and knowing this, the university has today served the occupation an injunction that aims to evict them from Bramber House, as well as banning all further protest until September, an infringement upon a fundamental human right. We must resist the politics of overreaction; they’re more scared of us than we are of them.

Jessie is an English Literature student and writer based in Brighton. She blogs at www.girlignited.wordpress.com and you can follow her on Twitter here: @jessiecath

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