"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.

Photo: André Spicer
Show Hide image

“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.