Victimising ten will not crush the movement created there

The moderates arrive at Senate House. Despite the use of force, their attempts to remove the occupiers were in vain.

There’s a substantial and moving account of the occupation by Mike Smith in this week’s Guild Gazette:

A pre-occupation shower made me late for the meeting of March 9th. As I arrived I began to wonder whether I had pre-judged the issue. The hall, the Mountford and the Lounge Halls were packed and from behind the protective line of Press men the Vice-Chancellor was carefully constructing his defences.

“This University has never had a policy on Chemical and Biological Warfare. There is nothing so distasteful to me as that a University should involve the whole paraphernalia of the law in something of which it understands nothing.”

The emotion was low, sporadic heckling, and moderate applause. Occupation seemed far removed from that meeting. But then came the questions. Pertinent questions, a series of body blows to the men on the stage. They weaved, they dodged, but their defences were down and each blow sent them reeling.

Eventually they gave up and left. The mood had changed. No one seemed satisfied and all that was needed was the call for an occupation then they would move: down Bedford Street, along Oxford Street, and into Senate House.

This was the beginning of an adventure. Adventurism is a term of abuse in left-wing circles. But this was an adventure in a very real sense of the word. The people who left that Hall knew where they were going, they knew they were committing themselves to a long struggle. They knew there were risks and they were prepared to meet them.

When that body returned to the Mountford eleven days later they, and their committment, had changed. They returned stronger. They returned from an experience none could forget, they returned as a group. A group with its own beliefs and its own jokes. ‘Mass meeting time’, fun, ‘agro workshop’, and ‘pharoah” all had their own meaning.

Though some now doubt that the two hundred or so who returned from Senate House that Friday still feel a loyalty to each other and to their five demands, there can be no doubt that at that time a real community existed. The movement on March 9th was not a spontaneous one. It was one that had grown over one or two years. It’s origin depends on when you joined it.

The sit-in in the Social Studies Building, the Abercromby Tenants Campaign, the Springboks demonstration and the Guild Ball-Lord Salisbury sit-in were all part of the development of a movement which led to the Mountford on March 9th and from there to Senate House.

It was this series of events and others besides which had given many people a sense of committment and a group loyalty. The issues: Thomas, Chrimes and the others’ failure to answer the questions on Lord Salisbury, files, Chemical and Biological Warfare and investments all led to feelings of disgust; but it was the group loyalty and experience of previous action which turned this disgust into a movement to Senate House.

Knowing the feeling of the meeting and where it would lead, I left and went over to Senate House early. Already there were people in the foyer. Already the question of who controlled the building was in dispute.

Then came the masses; not as a demonstration, not in any form of order, but as small groups of friends. They all came, the committed and the curious. The socialists brought with them plans of action; the doubters wondered what was to be done?

I went up to the roof, met some friends on the Vice-Chancellor’s corridor.In a daze, overcome by their success, the whole building was swarming with students. What was it that was ours? Do administrators too write slogans on lavatory walls? And what of the roof? In the euphoria that followed the initial entrance, all these questions were answered.

But that afternoon while we were in the building we did not occupy it. Both we and they controlled it. The secretaries typed on, ignoring the students outside, and the students excluded the press, ignoring the office workers still in the building. The red flag flew triumphant from the flag pole, but the Vice-Chancellor worked on beneath it!

The entrance had not been forcible, and we had yet to win the right of occupation. We could only claim to command Senate House if we were able to defend it. The test of this came about five o’clock. At that time I was at the basement door. We had already made preparations for defence. The original occupants were leaving. Most thanked us for holding the door open. Some were amused, some hostile and the Vice Chancellor ignored us.

The ”moderates” arrived. They had faced other locked doors, but here they caught us unawares. For a second we faced each. We both called for reinforcements. They seized the door handle and dragged one of us outside. I was trapped in a loose scrum, one arm outside and the rest of me inside. My jacket was torn apart, and the other defender at the centre of the scrum had his glasses smashed, his sweater and shirt ripped and his hair torn out.

But eventually they were forced back. The door was closed and the building definitely ours. Students could not remove us. The only force strong enough to get us out was the law; and had not T C Thomas said, only four hours ago, that nothing was so distasteful to him as to call in the whole paraphenalia of the law?

But security remained essential. For almost the whole eleven days, people remained up all night to defend the half-dozen entrances, and a ”flying squad” prepared to rush to the scene of any danger. We were there to stay, and that first evening the heavy equipment moved in. Record players and sleeping bags, the duplicator and television, food and the silk screen.

The foundations of a community were laid and over the next ten days they were cemented. While rumours of other offices opened or seen into floated around, the majority of us were restricted to a very limited part of that building. Three committee rooms, a roof, and an infinite area of corridors and foyer. Each area had its function; not by committee decisions nor even by mass meeting, but rather because we were a community.

One committee room for academic work (much quieter than the libraries), one for television and all those games of Monopoly, Subbuteo, and Risk (which suddenly appeared), and the third for duplicating and decision-making. It never seemed a question of  who took decisions, so long as they were taken in the right place. Within a few days, two other essential rooms were occupied: the kitchen and the Senate Chamber.

Organisation was minimal, but jobs got done. Some people liked to sit by the front door all night and others felt it their duty to go out and get the food, leaflets and posters were produced-not because of any definite decision, but because they were needed.

The University has rejected the declarations of equal responsibility. They claim that we are all free agents. Yet, if they had only been there at the time, they would have understood what equal responsibility was. It was everyone doing what they were best at – and doing it for the sake of the occupation.

Though some doubtless shirked their responsibilities, the vast majority did what they could. They felt a loyalty to the occupation, and to leave was to feel guilty. Morale did not remain a uniform high. It reached its peak on the Saturday night, when it became obvious that we had survived the weekend with no catastrophic loss of numbers. It reached a low on the Wednesday night, with the infinitely long debate on if and when to leave. Though the numbers in occupation on the front door registered the mood as well as the strength of the occupation forces, everyone still kept together.

This, plus the crises; crises made up, imagined, and eventually, on the day before we left, the real crisis, these all maintained the spirit of the occupation.

The discipline charges arrived early on the Thursday morning. The rumours, the jokes (‘there is a prize for the best poster – an injunction’) these were over. “Why did they miss so and so off?” “What’s HIS name doing there?” These were the questions. That night there was one of the biggest meetings of the occupation – and we knew that withdrawal was not to give in, but that the fight had just begun.

The five demands: Sack Lord Salisbury, End C &BW Research, Reveal the Investments, No Files, No Victimisation – these unified all the personal and political differences, but what unified us more was the fact that we were a community under siege.

To all go out to lectures, or home to sleep, would have been to betray all that we stood for. We must remain in strength so that we can leave when we want and not when they decide.

Friday morning was like the end of a holiday, sat waiting for a train. We moved out as a group – tired perhaps – but as a group with much more order and much more unity than we had entered.

The original occupants returned. They removed our posters, they hoisted their own flag. It broke the flag-pole. They had been reduced to our tactics.

We had left, but they could not forget us, and though for the time being we had relaxed the struggle, there can be no doubt that something had been created in that building – and to discipline ten out of the three hundred would in no way crush the movement.

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Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

2 thoughts on “Victimising ten will not crush the movement created there”

  1. Gerry’s blog has unearthed some fascinating documents. Please keep them coming. But so far this is my favourite. Very well written and above all sums up the atmosphere. Somebody once said (or something like it) that history is not about “the facts”, but about recreating the atmosphere. In general Gerry’s blog does it brilliantly (although there are lots of “facts” as well), but this article sums up the atmosphere of the time brilliantly for me.

  2. Yes, I agree – a very nice piece.

    One thing strikes me about much of our writing on these events. Generally the tone is modest, restrained and at times incredulous of the absurdity of things. For the greater part, self-mythologising is set aside in favour of Leopold von Ranke’s great historical maxim, ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen ist’ – telling it how it essentially was. Mike Smith’s piece here & Gerry Cordon’s on the tenants elsewhere do just that.

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