The views expressed below are not meant to represent anyone except me. You are of course free to agree with me.
There’s been yet another paucity of posts on here since the start of the month. This time I have a decent excuse though – I’ve been taking part in the unbelievably awesome occupation at Glasgow University that has given rise to the Free Hetherington Research Club.
Down the bottom I’ve put a little piece I wrote earlier in the occupation about my feelings about this unique liberated space we’ve collectively created here. It remains something I’m incredibly proud to be part of. This post however is not about that.
This post is how I am disgusted by the actions of a minority of students. A vocal but unrepresentative group who claim to speak on behalf of others, and in doing so harm the interests of their fellow students. I’m talking about these haters.
On Saturday, a group of students in Glasgow were the latest to express their disgust at the conduct of National Union of Students President Aaron Porter. Porter is an odious Labour careerist of the highest order. His only interest is in using his position as a springboard for a future sinecure as a Labour MP, following in the footsteps as other such NUS luminaries as the noted racists Phil Woolas and Jack Straw.
The fact of the matter is that nobody would have every heard of Aaron Porter if it weren’t for the fact that students took direct action against the headquarters of the Tories last November. His name was made by his own unforgivable betrayal of those students, when he called for them to be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” This of course was badly out of step with the reaction of working class people and ordinary students around the UK, who were delighted to see someone finally taking some radical action after the initial months of the ConDem assault on the welfare state.
In a Guardian piece the day after Millbank, Porter claimed that he would “make no apology for condeming the mindless violence of a few that tried to undermine the cause of a great many.” Except that, soon enough, he would. As November wore on he began to realise just how badly out of step he was with the mood among students. In another interview with the Guardian, he apologised for his own “spineless dithering”, and pledged to give material support to student occupations. A promise which, of course, he reneged on.
Following the initial demonstration that led to Millbank, the NUS under Porter’s leadership completely failed to organise any kind of coherent opposition to the raising of tuition fees for English students. While bodies like the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts were regularly putting tens of thousands of people on to the street, and here in Glasgow we were outrunning police in our hundreds to show our opposition, the NUS was organising a “candlelit vigil” against the government, and refusing to endorse the mass collective action of anti-cuts students.
More importantly, while these same students were being beaten in the streets by the cops, while children were being illegally held in the freezing cold for hours in kettles, the so-called leader of the student movement was not only silent, but was boasting of how proud he was to have “worked closely with the police.” Lest we forget, these are the same cops that hit Alfie Meadows over the head, requiring emergency brain surgery, and hauled Jody McIntyre, who has cerebral palsy, from his wheelchair and dragged him across the road. To remain silent in the face of such state sanctioned abuse goes beyond “spineless dithering” and becomes a knife in the back of students from our supposed leader. This man has forfeited any claim to speak on our behalf. And yet he continues to do so, shamelessly appearing in the media frequently as if he represented our views. He does not, he is an out of touch sell out.
Having shot to notoriety through such ridiculous behaviour, Porter now finds himself to be a not entirely popular figure among student activists. In Manchester he was chased through the streets by hundreds of angry students, and was escorted away by his good pals, the cops. This was the same incident were he and his people disgracefully tried to falsely accuse protesters of racism. When greeted with the chant “Aaron Porter, shame on you, you’re a fucking Tory too,” he tried to claim that in fact the last line had been “Tory Jew”. This claim was dutifully picked up and reported by the right wing press, principally the Telegraph.
At the time he announced over Twitter that he would “not bow to racist abuse.” Another claim that he would later row back on, recently claiming that he had never said he’d heard anti-Semitic chants (a flat out lie.) The greatest problem with this incident wasn’t the appalling smear that he made against fellow students (although this was of course reprehensible), but the fact that it devalues the ability of real anti-racists to call out anti-Semitism when it really happens. It was a cynical exploitation of the very real problem of racism and anti-Semitism for personal political gain. Not unlike the Queen Margaret Union magazine’s ridiculous comparison of our occupation to Vichy France, it is frankly offensive to anyone who takes these issues seriously.
(Incidentally, Aaron Porter is not Jewish, but as part of his campaign of lies he was happy to let people think he is.)
Porter now finds himself in the position that, as a result of his disgusting scab sell-out behaviour, he faces oppostion and protest wherever he appears in public. Last Saturday he was at Glasgow University for a young Labour conference. Of course, he wasn’t here to express support for the Free Hetherington, one of the most astonishing and inspirational of all the current wave of student occupations. He made no public statements about the devastating cuts to a swathe of Glasgow’s most successful courses, which are going to impact Scottish culture and society as a whole. No, he was here to act, yet again, as a careerist politician. Fortunately, not without opposition.
A group of us waited outside the lecture theatre where he was to greet him. After lots of dithering by the flummoxed party hacks on the door, they took the decision to offer him up as a sacrificial lamb to avoid any of the other conference goers having to cope with the awful sight of real student activists expressing their opinion.
As he came out of the door, our minds went blank with the shock that we were confronting the sell out himself in the flesh. He made his intentions clear by moving away from us as rapidly as possible – he had no real intention of engaging with us, but intended instead to run away from any kind of debate. As he got outside we caught up with him, and started a piece of symbolic non violent direct action. We joined hands and surrounded him in a circle (not making any physical contact with him), and chanted “Aaron Porter, shame on you, now you’re in a kettle too,” whilst others let him know exactly how we felt about his behaviour over recent months.
The only person that carried out anything that could remotely be compared to an assault during this incident was Porter, who pushed us (as stated, we weren’t touching him), and tried to slap one person’s camera out of their hand, breaking the strap. He eventually ducked under our arms and did a comedy bolt, in a shite Benny Hill style escape up the steps by the QM and away. Any attempts to pursue were made impossible by all protesters being doubled over with laughter at his bizarre antics.
This small action has led to an outburst of faux outrage by the right at Glasgow University that is truly beyond satire. Apparently the two undergraduate unions intend to release a statement condemning those who took part, and allegedly some figures from their boards have in fact called for our immediate removal from the HRC and disciplinary action to be taken. They have also engaged in a personal campaign of abuse and hate mail via Facebook private messages.
Let’s be clear right now about one of the key issues here – the action was not decided on collectively by the whole occupation, but was an autonomous one by some of the folk who are here. The deliberate attempt to conflate the protest with the Free Hetherington occupation belies an agenda, an agenda by those who have been waiting for an excuse to attack the occupation.
I absolutely respect people’s right to disagree with the action that some students took. Indeed, we have offered people the right to come and voice their concerns in person at the occupation, rather than abusing us over the internet. Of course, they haven’t had the courage of their convictions to express themselves to our faces, but instead jumped straight into issuing ignorant statements and setting up Facebook groups.
But using it as a pretext to try and deprive others of their degree is disgusting. When QMunicate has published disgusting misogynist columns that do real harm to women, we haven’t called for the authors to be kicked out of uni. When GUU members smashed up the QM a couple of years back I didn’t go crying to the Principal.
The fact of the matter is that these people, having completely ignored the occupation in the first couple of weeks, have now seized this incident in an attempt to manufacture a moral panic false controversy in order to attack the occupation. As one commenter on Facebook succinctly and accurately put it, “The aspiring political class don’t like it when you attack one of their own.”
The people behind this right wing attack on the protesters are people who aspire to be our future political leaders. They, like Aaron Porter, must play the game. That means keeping the terms of political debate strictly within defined limits, and squashing any dissent outside of these self imposed boundaries. The extent to which they are threatened by the initiative being seized by the Free Hetherington is revealing.
Some of the haters have questioned the use of the chant “You’re a fucking Tory too” at a Labour Party member. But the confinement of political debate within the narrow neoliberal consensus in the UK doesn’t end with student politics. The Labour Party have completely failed to put up any serious opposition to the government, because if they were now in power they would be cutting just as hard. Ed Miliband won’t even march against cuts, let alone support strikes and direct action. Labour is in power at a local level throughout Scotland, where they refuse to defy Tory cuts and use their position to implement them. To be truly anti-cuts, you have to oppose all who implement them, whichever of the four main political parties implement them.
That’s not to mention the much more immediate question of Aaron Porter conducting secret negotiations with the Tories, with the publication of emails in which he encouraged them to cut bursaries and grants as an alternative to raising fees, a new low even for this sell out merchant.
Then there’s the criticism that we are hypocrites for condemning kettling and then using the tactic ourselves. This comment could only be made by people who have no idea what they’re talking about, either with regards to the action at the weekend, or simply from the point of view that they have never themselves been in a kettle. Those of us who have know the reality of being held for hours in the freezing cold with no food or water or toilet access, and what it’s like to be assaulted by police when we try to leave. Aaron Porter doesn’t know anything about this, because he’s failed to take part in the mass protests of the last few months that have been kettled. Our symbolic, theatrical action aimed to make him try and get a glimpse of what it’s like, but it was very far from the reality. We never touched Porter when he tried to push free, as opposed to what the police would have done – battered fuck out of him. He was held for less than 5 minutes while we made our point.
Others have asked what we hoped to achieve by this action, claiming some kind of open debate with Porter would have been more effective. Leaving aside the issue of how much we’d like to debate with someone who wants us “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”, Porter isn’t interested in any kind of real debate, ignoring the messages he’s been sent, and running away from anyone who opposes him.
What we hoped to achieve was to conduct a stunt that would help the world to know that Aaron Porter is completely unrepresentative of the views of ordinary students. Some who condemned us said:
“It is a particularly black day for democracy when people are attacked, harassed and hounded simply for being on our campus and attending political meetings. This behaviour is a direct assault on political freedom and is indefensible. I believe one of the proudest boasts of Glasgow Uni is that it has stood resolutely as a centre of tolerance and debate in a world where these things are all too frequently disdained.”
This is a completely false claim. Aaron Porter of course has the right to express his views. So do those who are truly against the marketisation of education. The difference is that he has the full force of the mass media to express his out of touch opinions, pontificating as if he represented anything. We don’t, which is why we’re forced to take to the streets to get our views expressed in non violent direct action. Aaron Porter wasn’t no platformed at the weekend – we didn’t disrupt the Labour conference. We spent 5 minutes of Porter’s time letting him know we feel. To characterise this as anti-democratic or an assault is a travesty.
The real question for these people is what are their priorities and when are they going to get a grip. Their actions speak volumes about their lack of political understanding. At a time when Glasgow University are destroying the future of arts and humanities education at our university, this is their priority. Where were they when students were being assaulted by cops up and down the UK? Where are their statments of condemnation of the police for undertaking political attacks on their fellow students?
At the mass meeting in the QM last week to discuss the cuts, the QM President, when asked a direct question about whether he would support staff taking strike action, fobbed off the audience with a non-answer that he “didn’t know”, and that he “wasn’t familiar with the issues.” This led to his justifiable heckling by lecturers from Slavonics and Anthropology who’s jobs are on the line, the most pointed shout being “These are student representatives?!”
I would suggest the time spent falsely accusing protesters of assault would have been better spent looking into the issues and wising up. In other words Mr. President, do your job. Having been silent and inactive on the real issues facing students, the Glasgow Uni bureaucrats choose now to make an intervention, over something that is trivial and irrelevant compared to the unconscionable cuts we are facing. They are the ones creating division within the student movement, and their actions will threaten their very own positions as the uni begins cutting the funding of student services.
The one positive thing from the unions’ joint statements is that it calls on people to protest uni management’s actions on Weds 16th. This is a semblance of having some kind of correct political instincts, unfortunately overshadowed by their ridiculous claims and grassing in of fellow students. It’s time they got a grip.
For more background on the Free Hetherington, read more after the jump.
The Free Hetherington Research Club is in my opinion possibly the most important action that has happened in the current wave of student occupations across the UK.
The majority of student occupations at other universities take place in lecture theatres or court buildings. The logic behind these targets is clear – to win demands of university management it’s necessary to be somewhere that’s majorly disruptive and will force them to concede in order to get them out.
Our occupation, however, is a different kind of operation. The space we’ve occupied, a former student union closed down by the cuts, means we aren’t causing much disruption to the day to day operations of the university. (Although, if the reports we’ve received are true, management were about to begin a major programme of construction to transform the building into office space, which would forever have killed off the prospect of the much loved Hetherington re-opening. In that case, we couldn’t have picked a better target – no disruption to students, lots for management.)
But if we’re honest, what we’re trying to do here is different to many other occupations. The Free Hetherington Club isn’t a protest; it’s a living demonstration of how people can come together and build a space that is democratically run, autonomous and non commercial. So far it has been an incredible success beyond what many of us could possibly have hoped for.
Our occupation has demands of the uni management and the world at large (no cuts or redundancies; the Principal Anton Muscatelli to condemn cuts and take the average wage of a university worker or resign; and an end to all public sector cuts.) However, our single most important demand is something that nobody can give to us – it’s something we walked in and took for ourselves. The Free Hetherington Club.
It’s hard to communicate to people who haven’t been involved the sense of euphoria involved in this place. Something really exciting and unique is happening here. Every day the place is busy with students and members of the community coming in for (free) coffee and a bit to eat, a chance to meet people and get stimulating conversation, and to take in some of the hugely varied programme of events (film showings, guest lectures, skill sharing) that we’ve started to put together. Crucially, the building is being booked and used by ordinary student groups and societies, like the Hispanic Society Language Exchange and GU Applied Visual Arts Society. The more it becomes normalised that this building is open for use in the wider community, the harder it’s going to be for the uni to kick us out day by day. So far they know how well entrenched we are, and haven’t even started.
Something that in my opinion is absolutely crucial to the success of what we’ve done so far is the non-commercial nature of the operation. When you come in the door of the Free Hetherington you realise straight away that this is different from the other student unions and surrounding West End pubs. When you come here, no one is making a profit out of you. One of the clearest illustrations I’ve ever seen of the alienating effects of introducing money into human relationships is what happens when you remove it. Being a non commercial space fosters relationships based on respect and solidarity; people wash up their own plates, ask how they can contribute and offer to organise events. People don’t come here as consumers, but as participants.
Last year I visited the Basque Country, where, like many parts of Europe, there is a strong tradition of self organised young people taking a space and running it as a collective space for non commercial socialising, as well as collective organsing. To see that youth houses, as they call them, are everywhere, even small villages, was incredibly inspirational. When I asked them how they managed to build such a culture of autonomous spaces. Their answer: “We just do it.” Their advice to me was that if we wanted spaces of our own, then we just had to start taking them. That’s what I feel like we’ve started doing in the Free Hetherington Club. However our occupation here ends, my hope is that there’ll be a generation of Glasgow Uni students who will have gained vital experience in taking over a building and turning it into a little microcosm of what it might be like to live in a better world; a world of real human freedom. We all must remember to take that experience out and make many oases of freedom like this. If we do that I believe that in 10 or 20 years towns all over Scotland, just like in the Basque Country, can have a place where young people organise themselves in non hierarchical free spaces to do what they want in a way where no one tells them what to do and they don’t have to spend money. This is the beginning.