In a rather lavish room, a student is pointing a stick at a big computer screen showing a Google map of London. “This is the Strand, this is Whitehall,” he gestures. “Here’s parliament. We go down here, and here…”
Around 100 students sit attentively for a few minutes as he goes through possible routes, street by street. Then they spend several hours discussing the logistics of it from every possible angle.
This is the university occupation at the London School of Economics (LSE), the day before last week’s mass student march on parliament.
It is the sixth day of the occupation in the Vera Anstey Suite of the college’s Old Building, usually used for corporate conferences and management meetings.
The occupiers are demanding that LSE director Howard Davies issues a joint statement with the students’ union and lecturers’ union against fees and cuts.
The room isn’t large—though 150 people squeeze in at one point. But it feels like this is a hub for something much wider—on campus and far beyond.
The 30-plus student occupations that have taken place across Britain in the past month have become a sort of mission control for the new student movement—a place of vibrant debate, a hive of organisation and a political centre.
On the day I visit, many occupiers are out and about in south London, joining Goldsmiths, London South Bank and Camberwell college students to visit schools and colleges, leafleting for the demo.
The movement has been marked by walkouts by sixth form and school students protesting over the removal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance—a £30 a week payment to poor students, which the Tories are abolishing.
The occupiers are clear, though, that this isn’t a case of the university students telling the kids what to do.
“On previous protests the students from the sixth form colleges and secondary schools have been some of the most active and militant,” says LSE occupier Lois. “They bring the protests and marches alive.
“It’s good though that university students are taking up the issue and occupying, because we’re in a position where we can do that more easily. It gives us a strong base to branch out from.”
She adds that LSE students have helped younger students organise walkouts at the City of Westminster College and Westminster Kingsway.
All around the occupation, among the constant buzz of activity, is evidence of an intense level of organisation.
Almost every available area of wall is taken up with sheets of paper with lists of some sort: ideas, contacts, information.
The attention to detail stretches to small hand-drawn signs all over the room: “Sleeping bags,” reads one. “Shoes,” says another, with a little sketch.
At one point a phone on the wall rings. An occupier answers it in secretarial tone: “Hello, LSE occupation?” A pause, then a nod to his left, “It’s for you.”
Outside, banners hang on the walls of the Old Building: “LSE in occupation—join us!”
An “anteroom” style area that the occupiers use for banner-making doubles as a sort of reception area, where visitors get their first warm welcome.
Support floods in. In the afternoon, workers representing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs group executive of the civil service workers’ PCS union drop in. They pass around a motion they’ve just passed, backing student occupations, and hand in a donation. Later on a lecturer comes by and donates some books to the occupiers.
The action also has official student union (SU) support, passed by a general meeting, and SU reps have stayed overnight.
“We won the vote to back it on I think the biggest turnout the SU’s ever had,” says Max, an anthropology student.
“I’ve been astounded by the level of organisation in the occupation,” he adds. “It’s a really good example of small-scale democracy. There’s been a really nice atmosphere here, with everyone getting along. It’s been almost utopian.”
One of the lists hanging on the wall is the occupation’s timetable, filled in ad‑hoc as new events are organised.
So far they have included everything from a jive dance workshop to a ceilidh band, as well as lectures on subjects from refugees to rhetoric. That day, the occupiers have invited along feminist academic Nina Power and anarchist anthropology lecturer David Graeber, who talk about the media’s imagery of protest.
A question from Nina sparks some discussion: should this wave of student protest be compared to 1968? She argues that ’68 was about the conservatism of universities, and “liberation”, while today is “more about economics” since it is over fees and cuts.
But the occupiers say their fight is about more than that. “The fees won’t affect us directly, after all,” says one. “This is about the future. It’s about saying that the kind of society the government wants isn’t what we want.”
The occupiers are both proud of and inspired by 1968, in particular the role LSE students played. When 1968 LSE occupiers Tariq Ali and John Rose came to speak earlier in the week, so many people came that the meeting had to be moved to a nearby lecture theatre.
“Universities are training grounds for future elites, where students are imbued with the ruling ideology. Now that ideology is in crisis,” says student Vlad.
“Students can be a key part of sparking off a more general uprising against cuts. An occupation is a way of saying that we collectively can control our lives.”
Of course, grassroots democracy can sometimes be a bit messy. That evening, as students from Cambridge, Warwick and other universities arrive to stay the night before the march, the lengthy mass meeting is still going on.
And in the event, all the meeting’s plans are forced to change in the brilliant chaos of the next day’s march. But everyone takes all that in their stride.
As we stand in the shadow of parliament, surrounded by riot police as MPs inside wave through the destruction of education, it does feel like a student occupation really is a kind of democratic utopia by comparison.
“I voted Lib Dem,” admits occupier Amena. “Obviously I really regret that now. Their policy on student fees was one of the main reasons I voted for them.
“It’s ridiculous how they’ve gone back on their promise. We voted them in on certain policies and principles and they’re completely ignoring that. How is that democratic?”
Is that why she joined the occupation?
“It’s the injustice of it,” she says. “It’s just wrong. It’s unfair that future generations would be in debt to pay for the mistakes of the bankers.”
The occupation has now been suspended after its demands were partially met. But Amena is sure we haven’t seen the last of the protests.
“If anything it’s just the beginning,” she says. “I don’t know where this movement is going to go now, but it’s getting stronger and stronger. I know how much the government wants us to go away—but they’re not going to get rid of us.”
‘The occupation is a great place to organise’
Sherelle is a first year employment relations student. She spoke to Socialist Worker about a typical day in the occupation
“You wake up. We’re meant to have our morning meeting at 9am, though that rarely happens on time.
Every morning we get a visit from somebody. Trade unions have brought us tea and coffee—yesterday the PCS brought us coffee and croissants. We get emails from people saying ‘we support you’, and then they come and bring stuff.
The occupation is a great place to organise and debate issues as everyone’s always here. Instead of having to set up a meeting, there are constantly people to do things.
After the meeting we generally go off and do lecture shout-outs, and flyering. We usually have some sort of speaker in here. People also sit at the table and do work.
We’ll always have someone on Twitter duty—they also watch the emails and keep the blog and Facebook page updated.
They keep an eye on different things—maybe solidarity with another occupation, maybe saying come down to LSE occupation because this person’s speaking.
We have different committees that meet every day—someone different chairs each meeting. There’s no leader. Each committee has its responsibilities and someone reports back on them.
For example, we have welfare committee that sorts out keeping the place clean, making sure there is no damage, getting food.
We have an events committee that gets speakers in. We have a negotiation committee that talks to security—all sorts of things.
We have another mass meeting at 6pm which usually goes on till half seven or so. There’ll be reports from what’s gone on in the day. It’s our time to plan for the next day—we take each day as it comes.
Afterwards we still have more stuff to do. We’re always planning.
Then we go to bed. Sleeping here is absolutely freezing—so, so cold. The heating’s not on at night. People think it’s like a bit of fun, but it’s difficult to spend a night here—you have to really care about what you are doing to do that.
I never thought I’d do something like this. I’m surprised at myself, really, how passionate I am about it.”
Sit-in wave sweeps through colleges
The LSE is one of dozens of colleges that have been occupied over the last few weeks.
The occupations have spread far beyond the “first wave” of London colleges like University College London (UCL), Soas (School of Oriental and African Studies) and King’s College, to universities like Bradford, Bristol, Nottingham, York, Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester Metropolitan University, Dundee, Sheffield and the University of East London.
Bath Spa went into occupation after a protest outside the office of local Lib Dem MP Don Foster. And the tactic of occupation hasn’t been restricted just to the colleges.
In a new development, occupations have even spread to schools, as sixth form students at Camden School for Girls in London occupied for 24 hours.
“It came about after two of us went to visit the student occupation at UCL,” Jen told Socialist Worker. “It was very inspiring.
“We were glad that university students were doing things, but we thought that sixth form students should take action too—because we’ll be the ones paying higher fees.”
Art students have even stormed into the Tate Modern during the Turner Prize ceremony, and the impressionist rooms of the National Gallery.
Students from occupied Newcastle University, Northumbria University and local sixth forms occupied the council’s chambers.
Newcastle University occupier Peter Campbell told Socialist Worker, “We issued a statement calling on the council to support the battle against the cuts, both those in education and more generally.”
And students have also been part of the occupations of Topshop stores, protesting at the firm’s boss legally dodging billions in tax.