Leeds Occupiers host a model symposium
Yesterday afternoon, between 2pm and 6pm, the student occupiers of the Michael Sadler building hosted a well-organised and very well attended symposium, a ‘General Assembly’ which they’d organised, advertised and promoted within 24 hours. Up to 200 people attended the assembly, with age ranges from 13 to 70 (though there was also a one year old baby in attendance) from student, school pupil, parent, teacher, Uni staff and resident demographics.
As we entered the Michael Sadler building – walking passed shivering occupiers who had gone outside to smoke before the event – we were greeted by smartly dressed students (one was wearing a tie) who gave us printed agendas, and directed us to tea, coffee and biscuit facilities. We slowly filtered into the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, to see last minute preparations under way – a group of occupiers were sweeping the floor in front of the projection screen.
A local BBC cameraman stood his large camera up at the back of the hall after a vote was taken that representatives of the media could only take photos and video from the back, and the first session of the day began with a series of invited speakers. Speeches were introduced by one of the occupiers, who first asked for a vote of acceptance that he should chair the session. He welcomed everyone to ‘the Occupied University of Leeds’ and the first resounding cheer of the day filled the Lecture Theatre. The first speeches came from the Leeds Trade council representative who offers “unequivocal support from the Leeds Trade Council”. He was quickly followed by a talk from three students from Allerton Grange High School, who spoke of how they organised a walkout of hundreds of their fellow students on Wednesday 24th. They explained how, one by one, their teachers offered their support “but don’t tell other teachers I said so”, and described how, rejecting the easy option of the bus, they marched the two miles into town together in their hundreds, calling on local students at Thomas Danby to join them en route, before arriving at our University to be astounded by the size of that day’s protest. The twitter feed of @OccupiedLeeds, as they were speaking, tweeted that these school students “WERE the march”. They read out the letter that their school had sent their parents and announced that in effect their protest had won a kind of sanction for further walk-outs. Their stories were complemented by words from representatives of Notre Dame Sixth Form College, and all such School students received without doubt the largest applause of the afternoon. The School students urged the conference to “take into account what we could do: we want more people to join”. Notre Dame students stated “we’re not going to stop until our voices are heard”. UCU encourages support for these school students.
Our own Malcolm Povey then addressed the meeting, and his speech can be seen and heard here in its entirety: http://www.twitvid.com/H5BHX. The nature of the on-the-spot recording from a mobile phone offers only reduced visual quality, but the sound is clear, including certainly the applause. Hover your mouse over the image (after following the link) to have the option to ‘rotate’ the image to the correct orientation.
The UNISON representative then gave a rousing speech of support for the occupiers in Leeds and elsewhere. UNISON had provided significant support for the occupiers, including printing facilities and financial support. The HE cuts were referred to as ‘butchery’ that “destroy the hopes and aspirations of a generation”. A true anecdote was offered of how one school pupil had begun to walk out of class at 11pm on Wednesday 24th, and her teacher stopped her and asked “where do you think you’re gong”. “I’m hoping to go to University”, came the reply, and she marched with her class-mates in that direction. The anecdote was greeted with applause. “Thank you for providing us with the inspiration, to know that we can fight” finished the speaker.
The open meeting then continued with an open forum, chaired competently by the occupiers. Speakers from all groups had their say: “this is not a national question, but an international question”; “It’s not just the ‘usual suspects’ on the left who are unhappy, everybody’s unhappy”; “be in no doubt (to school students), your teachers support you” (from a representative of NUT); “the Tories and LibDems have one big disadvantage; they think we’re stupid”; “They keep telling us how important we are. But we have to tell them how lucky we will be [because of the example of our children]”; “it’s not enough for us to react […] we need to start taking control”; “I don’t want elitist education, I’m for the abolition of all fees”; “I don’t want to be part of a University where support staff are hidden away on part-time, short-term contracts”; “the only people who should pay [the fees] are corporations”; “try to fight practically, not theoretically.” Finally, and importantly, one student reminded the meeting that the government’s catalogue of cuts were likely to impact disproportionately on women.
In amongst the speeches and comments, we were treated to a piece of poetry, written about the cuts, from a former Leeds student, spoken in hoarse voice with measured fury, the performer invited “the ambassadors of the new” to “bring your soul and your passion”.
One very notable aspect of both the occupation and this General Assembly is the democractic nature of its organisation and behaviour. No one group of students or protestors have control of any agenda, but a very clear sense of organisation and community leadership steers this arrangement. Votes are taken on all procedural matters and consensus is an important operational and logistic feature of the occupation. One speaker made is clear that “this is all our problem; we can’t afford to alienate people with our different theoretical backgrounds”. At one point, another speaker referred to a fellow student as ‘comrade’ and received the shouted reply “don’t call me ‘comrade’, I’m not your ‘comrade'”. This demonstrated the clear awareness that exists amongst the students about the nature of certain rhetoric, and how it places contextual parentheses around how their behaviour and motives might be construed or represented. While some embraced the value of certain discourses of the left, and were respected in doing so, others embraced a more neutral discourse to capture their feelings on the HE cuts that were the focus of the meeting. “I don’t have a pledge of allegiance [to a party of political philosophy], I’m here to stand shoulder to shoulder with you”, one stated.
Today we learn that Aaron Porter is to visit the peaceful occupieers around the country which must include Leeds. This represents something of a shift in the NUS recognition of the occupations.
Later that day, Billy Bragg released this video in support of student occupiers, after visiting the UCL occupiers: