Occupations are a tool of direct action, and have been used by social movements for decades.
In 1970, Warwick students occupied the Registry building to protest against the management’s stubborn refusal to grant a permanent Student Union building, despite overwhelming student demand. After more threatened – and actual – occupations, the administration capitulated in the mid 70s, leading to the construction of the SU building we use today.
Later on in the decade, Warwick SU repeatedly threatened to occupy areas of the University in response to management’s reluctance to stop banking with Barclays, at the time heavily intertwined with the apartheid government of South Africa. In 1977, that struggle was also won – and Warwick divested from their apartheid-linked shares, too.
The administration capitulated in the mid 70s, leading to the construction of the SU building we use today
Across the world, sit-ins and occupations have been used to redress systemic power imbalances by those excluded from those formal mechanisms of authority. From young African Americans famously staging sit-ins at all-white lunch counters in North Carolina at the start of the civil rights movement, to Brazilian land occupations, to an occupation of SOAS in 2009 in response to the impending deportation of foreign cleaning staff, movements have occupied – and won – for decades.
Just last year, Fossil Free Edinburgh staged a successful snap-occupation after the University refused to divest from fossil fuels, whilst the ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement utilised occupations to stop a tuition fee hike in South Africa.
Such tactics are now illegal at the University of Warwick. On Dec. 3 last year, police stormed a free education sit-in, sprayed students with CS gas, and threatened them with Tasers. The next day, 200 students occupied the Rootes Social building.
Such tactics are now illegal at the University of Warwick
In response, Warwick took two students to court and got a High Court injunction indefinitely banning occupations across the entirety of campus. Rather than negotiating in earnest with the demands of the protesters – for an apology, a security code of conduct, and an independent investigation – the University preferred to utilise the coercive arm of the state, threatening unlimited legal costs, and in the most extreme case, prison sentences against those in occupation.
Whilst injunctions have been sought by universities before, this one is unprecedented in scope and length. Warwick has a history of such authoritarian responses. During the 1970 occupation, students uncovered documents detailing evidence of surveillance of politically active students and staff by senior management.
Students uncovered documents detailing evidence of surveillance of politically active students and staff
Warwick responded with an injunction banning the occupation, and also prohibiting publication of the uncovered documents in any media outlets. This was a disgraceful double attack on both free speech and the tactics of civil disobedience. Warwick SU’s archive has files full of legal papers documenting Warwick’s repeated use of injunctions to crack campus uprisings, in 1975, 1979, and 1987.
Amnesty International and Liberty have previously condemned the use of injunctions by university administrations. Whether you support the causes of campaign groups on campus or not, everyone should support their ability to exercise their legitimate right to engage in civil disobedience and other protest actions.
This was a disgraceful double attack on both free speech and the tactics of civil disobedience
As one would expect, most students and staff agree, once they are aware of the details of this heinous legal instrument. A colleague and I put forward a motion to last term’s All Student Meeting at Warwick SU calling for the initiation of a campaign to scrap the injunction. It passed with an overwhelming majority: over 70% of those who voted, did so in favour.
The University has noted the passing of the motion, but argued that a “step change in the form of a series of student protests” has required such harsh actions. This “step change” likely refers to the fact that we now have one of the most successful and tactically astute campaign groups that Warwick has seen in years, Warwick For Free Education.
Most students and staff agree, once they are aware of the details of this heinous legal instrument
They’ve helped transform the political atmosphere on campus, and have subsequently borne the brunt of a hard-line response from the University power structure.
That said, the campaign to scrap the injunction is highly winnable. A major shakeup in the management of Warwick is upon us, and the evidence suggests that Stuart Croft, the new Vice Chancellor, is far more liberal than Nigel Thrift. In conversations with free education activists this month, Croft pledged to initiate a discussion with other University decision makers.
The campaign to scrap the injunction is highly winnable
He has supervised a PhD on direct action and militant resistance – the acknowledgements of which thank him for his “endless supply of enthusiasm for the project”. Whispers from academics say that he’s imposing a more liberal regime across campus, of which there is already some indication.
A year ago, simply standing next to Shell’s stall at a careers fair dressed as a grim reaper was enough to get you thrown to the floor by two burly security guards. Today, protesters can go into a BAE systems recruiting event with a megaphone and – for the most part – be left untouched.
Simply standing next to Shell’s stall at a careers fair dressed as a grim reaper was enough to get you thrown to the floor
Following student pressure, other universities, such as Sheffield, have scrapped injunctions – all it takes is for the management to tell the High Court that the injunction is no longer required.
Warwick’s management are on the back-foot, a new regime is being instituted, and the level of organisation by activists groups on campus is higher than it has been for years. This injunction can, and must be scrapped. But we need as many students and societies as possible on board to get it done.[related_posts_by_tax columns="4" posts_per_page="4" format="thumbnails" image_size="medium" exclude_terms="34573"]