"No one is going to do this for us, so we'd better get it right"

Why the university occupations are giving students a crash course in political activism.

The defining image of the student occupation at University College London is probably a MacBook. Walk past security, through the corridor plastered with hand-made signs, and into the brightly-lit Jeremy Bentham Room, which is overflowing with students, and you'll be struck by the proliferation of laptops. Clusters of large tables are dominated by them, supporting the core of the UCL occupation: the working groups.

The Media Team are updating Twitter, an important tool that has brought the support of a previously reluctant NUS president. "Outreach" are working on the daily leaflet to persuade fellow students to join us. The "Process" group are untangling the complicated business of helping meetings of hundreds to make decisions. "Events" haven't taken a break for days, filling our schedule with meetings and entertainment. "Escalation", a group dedicated to building the movement, debate the next political action before breaking off to start it. The UCL occupation is constantly working.

These groups are largely composed of new activists. Fired up by attacks on education they've joined with living wage campaigners and union members, long active on campus, to form the backbone of the occupation. They are the social media obsessed, apathetic, celeb-enamoured generation of popular myth. But they're taking the emblems of this stereotype - the laptop, the Blackberry, the internet - and turning them into political tools. And for young people often tarred with the apathy brush, they're intensely hardworking. As a new visitor said to me last night, "you're surprisingly disciplined for a group of students".

It's not all hard work, despite the sense of commitment that gets us out of our sleeping bags every morning. As the temperature drops and the huge windows darken, clusters of tired occupiers enjoy music and comedy, provided by some of our 2,000 Twitter followers who've made the trip to Bloomsbury. The floor is covered with sheets and hunched figures paint our latest slogans on them. One security team comes in to grab some dinner from the communal supplies while another replaces them, carrying the books and playing cards they'll need to fill a four-hour shift. But as the day's work winds down, the discussion continues. With music and dancing in the background we keep talking politics.

This is important - in this space, politics has become not something we consume, then cast away, but a process we have to build for ourselves. There's a feeling of a work in progress here, a work that we own. Coming up against the sharp end of cuts brought the occupiers here. What's keeping us here is not just the struggle to defend education, but an investment in exploring how that can best be done. Fighting cuts and fee rises are our goals, but the ongoing experience of constructing our own movement from the ground up is of equal importance.

Let's not be starry-eyed about this. We're not a new "generation of 68", skipping past cops and holding hands across barricades. Implicit in the reclaiming of what constitutes politics is a hard-edged cynicism. Not about our ability to win, or at least to build something of lasting significance, but about university management, the media, mainstream politics and even "our" national union. When it was announced that the NUS President Aaron Porter planned to visit us, no one jumped for joy. A lot of us might be new to this, but none of us is naïve. As the debate stretches out into the night, as we wake up to another day of hard organising work, we continue precisely because of this cynicism - no one is going to do this for us, so we'd better get it right.

Sofie Buckland is an English Literature student at UCL, and a former member of the NUS National Executive Committee. You can follow the UCL occupation on Twitter here and find out about student actions across the country here.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear