This is a comment piece by one of the Newcastle occupiers, written in a personal capacity.
When in an occupation, three days in, having slept on a bare concrete floor as snow falls outside, one thing more than anything chills your bones.
“Riot Van! Outside!”
People charge around, some fly to the windows, others to the door. It is swiftly makeshiftly bolted with a bicycle lock. You wonder, is this it; have they finally come to pull us out, like they threatened with SOAS, are they going to punch a hole in the wall like in Oxford. Police attempt to push the door open. They seem surprised to find it locked. They call through the crack in the door;
“Is Markus there, we just want to talk.”
Confusion reins, this is not what we were expecting, is this not to be our last stand after all? Markus trots to the door, pears through and has a look.
“It’s alright”, he says “I’ll just have a chat.”
The looks are nervous as he unlocks the door and steps out. It is quickly bolted behind him. As the rest of the sixty strong occupiers strain to hear the conversation through the door the tension grows and grows. The doors creak under the strain. A minute passes, and finally Markus turns round, almost surprised at the attention he is receiving.
“Just give me a sec,” he says to the Police, “I’ll let them know what’s going on.”
“Don’t worry guy’s. It aint about this.”
Because you see this isn’t London, the Police are not the violent thugs who use a bit of broken glass as an excuse to attack school girls and charge crowds with horses. Here the students are not the enemy. In fact the students are the Police’s friend. Why? We are in occupation of a building against the wishes of its owners, we march through the centre of Newcastle over 2000 strong, causing chaos, with no clear direction, marching on the Civic Centre, the Finance Building and for a brief period occupying the Eldon Square Shopping Centre.
If this was London that would be cause for the Riot Police, arrests, court hearings and widespread media condemnation, so what is different in Newcastle? The answer is simple. The Police are not thugs and they recognise that Newcastle students and pupils have a right to protest and we are the only ones who care about our future. Abandoned by our Government we marched on London. Abandoned by our student union for our support of direct action against cuts and fees we were left to fend for ourselves.
Did we wither and die like they hoped? No we stayed strong, we organised and we prepared. For one thing is clear. The students are leading the way, they are the vanguard for a social upheaval not witnessed for a generation. Plus, we were angry, a small group though we were, we realised we were not the only ones. Especially when college and school pupils began to look for support.
They too found themselves isolated and alone. They found a natural ally in the Newcastle Free Education Network. When they tried to organise within their Schools and Colleges they were threatened with exclusion. We offered them nothing but support and a place where they could come and be heard. They have most at stake in this issue and their voice deserves to ring loud and true.
Our Student Union pulled support for their own walk out on Wednesday because we could not give them assurances we would not be violent. This is an outright lie, when assurances where asked for they were given wholeheartedly. We were shocked when support was pulled the night before the event on health and safety grounds. A scandalous hypocrisy as they had promised the Police they would provide stewarding at the event.
So on Wednesday twenty university students were left with the job of containing a 2000 strong protest that we had merely helped get off the ground. We were by no means the sole organisers and can claim no credit for the vast numbers who attended. That credit must go to the hard working 6th Forms intent on defending their education.
But the Police had met with one of our number in a joint meeting with us and the student union, and so looked to us to help with an impossible task, controlling 2000 angry protesters. Yet they did not need ‘controlling’ in the Metropolitan Police sense. Why? Because once allowed the space required of a march of this size, well policed, with clear overspill areas despite the constant spontaneity, the march was entirely peaceful. A point for which the Police commended us on our efforts and we return our gratitude to them.
We arranged a ‘teach-in’ with pre-booked rooms in order to attempt to dissipate the march in a semi orderly fashion. (We underestimated numbers, but coped well.) At the teach in a number of workshops were run, including those on non-violent direct action, in an effort to educate those who had possibly just witnessed their first protest.
At the end of the teach in we democratically voted for continued action and have since occupied the Fine Arts Building of the University, and it was here that I found myself when the Police knocked on our door. Not the Student Union’s door, they had already showed that they can not be trusted. Not the doors of schools and colleges, by not supporting their students they had shown that they were unable to control them. But at the door of sixty occupying students, asking for a Dock Martin wearing, Mohawk sporting Politics student, because he more than anyone in any form of establishment could speak to the will of the students, and he had far more idea of potential plans for the second National Day of Action on Tuesday than any University, Union or School bureaucrat.
The occupation of Newcastle University continues, we are providing workshops and alternative lectures for students, we are completely happy for normal lectures to continue in the lecture theatre that we control, yet management are not. Yet, now we are more than this, we are now a beacon of hope for school and college pupils in the area. We are the people that show them they are not fighting on their own. So they come knocking on our door asking for help.
And so do the Police.
A comment piece by Peter Campbell