On the 6th of October at around 7 pm sixty students entered and occupied the Brunei Suite, which is on the ground floor of the Brunei gallery of SOAS, and thus began the SOAS occupation. The Suite is a rectangle space about 18 meters by 11 with a total area of around 170 square meters. The occupiers have divided, with screens, hammocks, chairs and tables, this area to make three inner rectangles – a common area, a study area, and a sleeping area.
As you walk into the suite you are faced with the common area which is the biggest of the three rectangle. Over the past few weeks this area has been transformed into a seminar room, a concert hall, a space for general assembly meetings, a art studio among other things. Though, it also has three permanent features – the free food area, free library and radical literature stand. The free food area is to the right as you enter and consists of a row of tables lined up along the wall. On top of the tables are canisters containing coffee and hot water, there are bananas, apples, soy milk, dairy milk, bags of various grounded coffee, cups, plates, knifes, spoons and forks, paper cups, sugar, and strawberries. Other items I have seen on the table include bread, donuts, sushi – which come from skip runs the occupiers carry out in the evening and into the night. Last night rounds plates were put out with rice and vegetables mixed in a mild chilli sauce. These were eaten by about sixty people. It was cooked by Tom (a young occupier) and I helped myself to two servings and my colleague and fractional contracted teacher at SOAS – Farooq – to one.
The free library contains donated books. Among many other books and magazines, there is a pamphlet of the BDS campaign titled, 'BDS: A Student Handbook', a book titled 'The Politics of Scoial Ecology', and other titled, 'After Occupy: Economic Democracy for the 21st Century'. Next to the free library is a table and vertical rack for various campaigns to leave there literature on. There are posters and leaflets by Freedom Bookshop, SOAS Marxist Society, English Collective of Prostitutes, No Colour Bar, and the Campaign Against Arms Race. Likewise, above the food tables, running throughout the wall (on the right as you walk in) is a ten meter long and about four meters wide green cardboard banner in the center of which is written, 'Solidarity With...'. The ocuppiers have then left space on the banner for people to write in campaign names. A few I noted:
Justice 4 Cleaners
London Campaign against Police + State Violence
Disabled People against Cuts
This then is the space. But why was it created?
The Students Demand
I asked this question to M, an occupier who has been there from the start and therefore is in a position to answer the question.
'A leaked document drawn up by senior mangagement showed that mangagement wanted to cut 6.5 million pounds over the coming years. They wanted to do this by cutting courses, faculty and staff. This doesn't make sense because last year SOAS ran a surplus of 1 million pounds. We are against the cuts in jobs and courses. That is one reason for our occupation. There are others.
Secondly, for a number of years SOAS Justice for Cleaners Campaign has been fighting for a living wage for the cleaning staff and also for such staff to be directly employed by the University (rather then being outsourced). The campaign has shown that there is a consensus on this demand among students, faculty and staff – yet senior management plans to outsource cleaning work on a tender process. The occupiers are against this outsourcing and want all staff to be given a living wage. We wants outsourced workers to be brought in-house.
Likewise, there is a consensus among staff, faculty, and students – and the Student Union here has voted for it – that SOAS as an institution sign up to BDS. Likewise, we want SOAS to not implement PREVENT. Finally, all these issues raise the question of goverance. So our final demand is the democratization of governance. The students, staff and faculty want one thing and the senior management another.
We occupied this space to tell senior management to talk with the cleaners, stop the cuts and listen to the voice of the students on issues such as BDS and PREVENT. Meanwhile, we will use this space to self-organise, discuss, learn, plan actions, and educate ourselves, while also inviting others to use the space'.
The occupation then is the outcome of numerous campaigns and follows a broad consensus among faculty (particularly, those on fractional contracts), students and staff on how SOAS should be run and position itself. Senior mangagement, however, plan to follow an anti-democratic path and push SOAS further into the neo-liberal university model. The occupiers, the cleaners, the unionized staff, the students, many faculty (and particularly, the fractional contracted teaching staff) want, however, to , as a leaflet of the occupiers states, 'Take Back the University'.
I asked M another question, how do you at the occupation make decisions?
'we hold a general assembly once a day – sometimes more. It takes place here in the occupied space and all are welcomed, whether you are coming in for the first time or you have been here since the beginning. There are no leaders and we listen to each opinion and work on consensus'.
The 'Gross' Misconduct of Sandy Nicoll
On Monday 26th October, at around 6 pm, I walked, hurriedly and excitedly, from Warren Street Station to the occupied Brunei Suite. I had been their a few days before at which time NO Borders – a ground campaigning for the free mvoement of people – had held an informatiopn session and a meeting. The atmosphere at the occupied space had been of learning, dialague and caring. People were listening to each other, learning from each other, planning together, healing each other against the seperateness and divisions so part of modern metrople centers – so common of capitalism.
I walked hurriedly to return to this space of caring. Upon arriving I was faced with four well-build men blocking my entrance to the occupation space. The senior management had brought in the heavies – they had hired private security guards to stop anyone entering the occupied space.
They had also cut the wifi in the space, part of the electricity and turned up the air conditioning. In response, the occupier and sympathizers used a window to enter the space and called a solidarity protest for the next day.
Next day solidarity arrived. Hundreds of people turned up, a brass band lead them in a jovial protest past the outnumbered heavies and into the the occupied space. From there the protest with the brass band at its head moved into the main SOAS building and up to the directorate office – the offices of senior management. As hundreds of students swiped their cards at the turnstile at the enterance of the main SOAS building so to did Sandy Nicoll.
Sandy Nicoll has worked at SOAS for twenty one years in the IT department and is the representative at SOAS for UNISON (a trade union). In the time I spend with him on Friday 30th October, on the stairs of the main SOAS building I saw the love and affection with which he is held by all in the SOAS community. Cleaners, students, staff and faculty came over to offer him support and solidarity. Two days before, Sandy had been suspended from his job by senior management for 'gross misconduct'. They alleged that he let the in the protestors into the SOAS building. This is a dubious charge. Hundreds of students had ID cards that allowed them to enter the building and head up to the directorate offices and continue their protest. The gross misconduct of Sandy Nicoll is that he cares about the students, the cleaners and the workers and that they too care about him. The real motive of suspending Sandy is to scare the students and pull back the unions.
It didn't work. The occupiers called a general meeting, fractional staff called a meeting, Unison called a meeting and all decided to picket outside the main building and ask others to join them in the picket, If Sandy can't work – neither would they.
The next day the occupiers put out free tea, coffee and breakfast for all those coming to SOAS. They explained the reasons behind the picket and asked people to stand with them on the steps of the Main building in the picket. By 1 pm hundreds of people danced, hurdled, read, and talked outside the Main Building in support of Sandy and the occupiers. Noting the numbers, Senior management closed the doors to the main building. SOAS was shut down. The picket continued into Friday 30th October.
As I write this SOAS goes on reading week. The heavies remain at the doors of the occupation and the battle remains in the balance. The stakes are: If the students occupiers and all those with them win then the democratization of the university becomes a possibility. If they lose – we all lose. For, anothers space would have turned away from responding to working people and caring work and been brought under the rule of those with capital – the rich. For this reason we must all stand with Sandy and the occupiers.
Nonetheless, the occupation has already won. They have together created a horizontal democratic egalitarian space of caring – which responds to peoples needs. They have enacted our dream. Let us stand with them, let us stand with our dream.