The protesters form a semi-circle against the Nuffield Building, in Birmingham University campus. An impassioned protester yells into a microphone, damning the cuts to staff pensions and to other facilities which Professor David Eastwood, Vice Chancellor, has instituted. ~In every single aspect you take a hard line.~ The students now enter an ardent frenzy, chanting ~We are all Simon Furse.~ In solidarity with a fellow protester who is suffering a ‘disciplinary’. One can feel the support and taste the rage. A young woman takes the megaphone and belows into it, beseeching the protesters to make enough noise so that those who are in there will know how many people are out here. As she cries the heart flutters and one wants to rise ~Hands off Simon Furse.~ They chant.
As I move away from the epicentre of the gathering, I see the structure, a semi-circle with the straight edge formed by the Nuffield building, and a student in the centre with a megaphone, pouring out his commitment. Less committed people also stand around, chanting more quietly, with the outer edge formed by police, university security and protest organisers. A policeman refuses to have his photo taken with me.
* * *
15/II/12 — I’m sitting in the students’ bar at the University of Birmingham. Outside is gathering what looks like the protest, though with five minutes to go, the numbers are still modest. I see two people whom I know, towards whom I think I might want to gravitate when this thing begins. What I think is the protest is dominated by Siberian hats and fluorescent jackets, the latter being worn by organisers of some kind. The crowd is more healthy now, two people carry a banner reading: DEFEND THE RIGHT TO PROTEST.
The area is full of what I would call protest-types, beards, long hair, open faces; a punk. I was sitting on a central fountain which is outside what Birmingham University call ‘The Guild’ — a location with the pub and other ameanities. A friend of mine walks past and does a double take; ‘Oh, it’s Oliver, doing something random.’, says her expression — I realised that I was sitting and scrawling in a very obvious location, and decided that I should move.
My watch reads one o’ clock, protest-time. The first order of the day is health and safety, as a young man in a Siberian hat occupies the podium and tells us to report any misdemeanors to the demonstration organisers and not to deviate from the planned route.
A second speaker is called up, who gives an overview of the legal matters. A first-year, she speaks with clarity and passion, describing how the vague nature of the injunction, which the university secured against occupations, makes it a harsh attempt to restrict protest in general. She added that occupations are one of the students’ most potent methods of getting the attention of the leadership. She expressed her disappointment at her experience of university, describing students as being at the bottom of a pile of inept managers, whose goal is to extract profit from them.
Between me and the speakers stands a florescent-clad man, SECURITY.
The next protester to climb up speaks about protest and the government. She notes how student protests, especially occupations, are a counter-balance for the large amount of power which is held by the authorities, stressing that she wants the coalition to consult students, rather than beating, criminalising and kettling them. She also moved that universities have replaced accountability and democracy with commodities and markets.
Democracy was the theme for the next speech, with the speaker expressing how the the freedom to occupy is an important feature of the university, so as to balance the power and access to media which are held by the Vice Chancellor.
Another protester takes the microphone, saying that if the authorities act against the occupations and demonstrations, the demonstrators will return and continue in greater numbers. He warned that the ban on occupations in Birmingham University could be the preamble to a ban on nonoccupational protests, and then to protests in other areas of Birmingham.
The final protester to speak described how this ban on occupations is a part of a wider movement by the government against protest, referring to the horse charges and batons which were used against the massed student protests in 2011; stating that many of the people who took part in those protests are now in prison. She also noted that the authorities are probably acting against occupation because it was this style of protest which very nearly provoked action against the occupation of Gaza.
* * *
14/II/12 — I’m at my desk, looking over the comments on the Facebook page for the demonstration which I will attend tomorrow. There are some quite cogent arguments which people are making against it, specifically that the protest opposes a ban on occupations, which, some people claim, are illegal anyway. Nevertheless, I will be present tomorrow, among the demonstrators and as a journalist, the latter absolves me of all. To a large degree, I’m filled with trepidation re tomorrow, though there’s excitement at the promise of a new experience.
* * *
The master of service at the guild calls us to action, telling the protesters to march, as loudly as is possible, to the clock tower. ~Defend, defend, defend the right to protest.~ they chant; though there is a reticence, the voices are subdued and not everyone is speaking. We exit the courtyard outside the Guild, and take a left, going underneath a bridge, with the chants occurring and subsiding intermittently, I realise that to shout in this way takes a great deal of esteem.
Some fool brought a siren which they set off on occasion in a very irritating way.
We then walked past some of the university’s more modern buildings, with the dome of the Aston Webb building rising up to our right as we passed. ‘These are coaches for accommodation visits.’, notes a student as large coaches containing visitors drive by. ~Occupation is a right, they say ban it, we say fight!~
The first speaker at the Nuffield building takes the microphone again, explaining how the authorities should not take actions which make it so that only a few people can afford to go to university, especially, in the case of Birmingham, because of the expensive halls. ~They say cut back, we say fight back.~
Then they turned their voices to the Vice Chancellor ~Eastwood, Eastwood, Eastwood; out, out, out!~ When the chants had finished, there was a brief hiatus until the marchers set off in a new direction, towards Eastwood’s office. A police officer refused to have his picture taken with me.
The central feature of the University of Birmingham is a curve of ornate buildings with the clock-tower set in the centre. We found our way to a grand looking part of this arrangement which, I gathered, contained Eastwood’s office. The students repeated their messages which called for Eastwood to stand down, affirming their right to protest while they formed another semi-circle up against the red bricks.
I’ve never met this Eastwood chap, so I shouldn’t say too much. Nevertheless, the power which the students placed behind their demands for him to leave felt like it could arc between them and the building.
The white banner reads: ‘Workers and students, unite!’.
Their chanting quickened, then they switched to another phrase, then another, then concluded. At this point many moved off to ‘Staff House’, surging in to occupy the building. My friends warned me against participating in this action, as it would solicit adverse attention from security.
The students who represented the guild, those in charge of health and safety, announced — as the hands on my watch read two o’ clock — that the protest was over, and that our safety was our own business thereafter. So I left the scene, with some students departing as I was, while others were breaking the injunction and occupying an important building. I ambled away and got lost in the campus.
* * *
It was ten past twelve and I was in Selly Oak, a few hundred metres away from the university, sitting in what is amusingly called ‘Cafe Face’. I was at a table with a very good coffee and all my papers spread around me, writing about Baroness Warsi. I considered that it was a little late, as I was supposed to be meeting some students here at twelve. I texted my contact to see if the meeting was still on. She replied: ‘Hi Oliver – in Leamington for some reason. Just woke up.’ I understood; ‘We all wake up in Leamington at some point in our lives, one has to obey the whims of the great magnet.’
For a few more minutes I continued to assemble my arguments for secularism in Britain, then decided to move along. So I gathered my papers and found my way to the door, strolling down Bristol street to the Guild and hence to the protest.