The student protests of 2010 were when I became radicalised. Believing in, voting for and being betrayed by the Liberal Democrats probably had something to do with it. Anyway, everything after that just radicalised me further. I can’t remember exactly what took hold of me. A sense of injustice? A feeling of being lied to? A realisation that the future was not something that just happens, but is shaped by people in power and people opposing power? I was not a totally apathetic young person, yet I was definitely not particularly conscious or politically active. But this moment was an awakening. It was radicalising. I guess, as students at the time, we’d been activated by the election campaigns fought, not solely, but quite vocally, on tuition fees and reforms to higher education. When party politics failed us, our politics went searching. That’s why for many, the student protests have been a touchstone over the years, because for us, they were a place of political birth or rebirth.
Flying on emotion, galvanised, and guided by a tutor in the direction of a far more active PhD student, I left home with one of my housemates and we joined the growing occupation at Frenchay Campus at UWE, Bristol. All I knew was that what the coalition government was proposing felt wrong and a lot of very big companies were avoiding paying their taxes. I felt like I had nothing to lose and everything to fight for and that was enough to drive me to perform the radical act of sleeping in a lounge area on a university campus I didn’t even have classes at.
The occupation served as our home, our studio, our classroom, where we would plan, work out ideas, learn from one another, argue and resolve conflicts with one another. We’d protest in Bristol together and we’d coach down to London together, looking out for and after each other, returning to the occupation to recollect and reconnect. We’d also rest there, together. It can’t be understated how radical this is – to rest with people you’re also getting to know, in exceptionally heady times. You’re waking up, under office standard halogen bulbs, on a sofa, in a sleeping bag, in what is usually a busy thoroughfare. That kind of vulnerability around people whom you’re unfamiliar with, makes changes; the distance between one another, which seems inherent, so absolute in this individualist society, reduced, disrupted through intimacy and learning to be with strangers in strange places.
We held meetings regularly if only to sometimes experience the vital difficulties in coming together. We took turns to be on information points, forever in conversation with passers-by. We video-called other occupations around the country, building that sense of something bigger. We had people come and teach us about things we didn’t know, like how to rescue someone from arrest and global systems of debt and tax avoidance. We chilled out, in this liminal space, watching digital advert boards illuminate arguments between anarchists and communists, over a future feeling ever closer.
Occupied spaces can maintain a movement and engender liberation and revolution within it. A place is transformed beyond its usual function. The minds of those within and touched by it are transformed. Hierarchies are disassembled or are actively addressed, the facade of reality is interrupted, and the hypnotising rhythm of the everyday is disturbed. And there you all are, thrown into the wildest and realest camping experience ever. Occupied spaces don’t just act as means of moving the imagination towards a radical future of our conception, they are those futures manifest, performed and workshopped collectively. Our politics in practice and an environment where we can learn and unlearn, develop and transform one another, our ideas and vision, our hope for and belief in a future. It’s a group of people, new to one another, driven, sharing, focussed, chaotic, messy, in total contrast and conflict with the brittle realism of the mundane and the violent status quo.
In a way, it didn’t seem to matter that the protests were just happening without strategy because between each one we never switched off or returned to the world we wanted to abolish. We remained in that hopeful place of imminent and immediate utopian future. The protests were another stage in a weekly cycle of a movement. Something would happen, buildings sieged, banks vandalised, visual symbols created – these things, these events would re-energise us, like marches and demos do, but instead of taking that energy home for it to dissipate, we took it to the occupation, back to one another where it would bounce around, inspire and motivate.
The occupation and the student protests are things I’ve thought of less and less the further from them I’ve gotten. They’re over a decade ago. I was 20, I’m 32 now. But I’ve been back there, in my mind, a few times of late. Most recently was at Goldsmiths during the 2019 and 2020 strikes. There was no occupation but the university had been transformed. Space, purpose and meaning reclaimed. The usual, everyday happenings, paused. Timetables thrown out for radically different teach-outs. We swapped classes for picket lines and the electric and instrumental conversations that happen there. There were seminars and workshops focussed on consciousness raising and mobilising support and solidarity for different struggles. You sat on the floor next to your tutor who was there to learn just as you were. It was an alternative to reality, it was our reality. Inspiriting, invigorating and formative. Free. Non-hierarchical. Organic. But just as the march eventually marches home, so too did the strike end, and the status quo return.
I’ve said it to anyone who would listen over the years; I’m convinced what ended the student protests was Christmas. I’m oversimplifying it for comedy, and my memory is far from perfect, but honestly, if the occupations had started the other side of the festive season, we may still be there. But Christmas coming when it did was always going to decimate a movement so young, so early on in its momentum. Funny that traditions should have obstructed progress like that. It’s true, the student protests didn’t win in the sense that any of the demands were met. But such is the story of political struggle, world building and dreaming. The past is with us, in us, in the times and our ideas. Energy can’t be destroyed, only transferred. Movements, forever moving, under different banners in the hands of different people.
The Kill the Bill protests feel like the louder, more active stages of a greater movement cycle that is always there. A coming together of struggles disparate and united. Some are saying that without organisation the movement will return to its quiet hum. That it’s reached the extent that it could without direction. They’re not wrong, it has that feeling to it, but it’s not just organisation of any kind that the movement needs, it has to be radical and committed. It has to become sustained and brave. Varied and numerous. Marches. Direct action. Moments. Visuals. Events. Strikes. And occupations.
We need occupations. At this very moment in time, we need those communal spaces of transformation and political education in our lives and the lives of others. We need those places where the status quo disintegrates, where we disintegrate it. Environments of natural organisation that mould the movement they’re within. Where we form new bonds and radical relationships to one another, to the present and to a future. We need the young to occupy and build a movement in and around them. For them to find that messy, human organisation in physical unity. It’s not towards a goal, occupations are the goal, the goal of a different reality brought to bear. The goal is to sustain them forever so that they cascade out into the wider world, or at least for long enough that more minds and visions are alive to the reality of possibility. Awake to a future that is closer than one realises.