(en) melbourne uni and the student occupation movement

Bruce Lindsay (bjlin1@student.monash.edu.au)
Sat, 10 May 1997 09:00:46 +1000


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Some reports of the student occupations of a number of university campuses in Australia has already been sent around on various lists. I participated in the support of the Melbourne Uni occupation yesterday, which was a pretty intense day, although no so much I guess as for those inside and for those that spent the night there as well (it was very cold even during the day). These are some quick notes about what happened there and what has happened recently in the student movements (which perhaps we can now *really* talk of). The Melb. Uni. action came out of national rallies against user-pays education/privitazation and on top of a past rally for a livable income for students/the low-paid. Hence, they are in general built out of attacks against the social wage. It was very well planned. At the same time, Sydney university, Adelaide university, Griffith University (in Queensland) were all occupied for various times. I am not sure at the moment of the present status of the first two actions, as far as I'm aware they are still going on. During the day, we also heard that students at the Northern Metropolitan TAFE (like a polytechnic or community college) had occupied in support, and I do not know the status of this either. I heard later that there were also actions at Deakin Uni at Warnambool (a regional campus), but again this is unconfirmed. This movement was given great impetus by a three-day occupation at the University of Technology, Sydney a couple of weeks ago, which basically built a mass movement for the action there, with hundreds getting involved, with lots of participatory-democratic structures, and collectivization of necessary labour. It was busted up by the paramilitary police units and the dog squad at 2am.

Basically, at Melbourne Uni the occupation lasted about 26 hours and was essentially a seige situation. Over 200 students went in originally and after some left about 170 barricaded themselves in for the duration. The police blocked food getting in and access to toilets, and these issues of food and sanitation became the critical issues in many ways. During the night when supporters tried to get food lifted to the occupiers in buckets the police charged them with about a dozen horses to stop it! The cops' role was really a process of harassment and intimidation, even though they weren't averse to more overt repression when they could get away with it, which was expressed in a really schoolyard manner the whole time. Later it was interesting to see how this was turned against them. I got there at about 8am Friday, thinking that I probably wouldn't hang around all that long. There was already plenty of media there. during the day there were a series of run-ins with the media and journos, who, yet again, acted like as bigger wankers as the cops.

occupiers and things started to get more intensive. Numbers in support grew from about 20 in the morning to 50 or so by 11 am. Between these times there was mainly a) the problem of police harassment with food and sanitation. Buckets and ropes were set up to get rid of excrement and to lift food up the occupiers (who were on the second floor). At one point the police cut the rope holding the bucket full of shit, etc, which naturally caused real outrage (apparently there isn't even a right to shit!). But then some comrades took the bucket, with a garbage bag full of excrement in it, and dumped in right in front of the police lines, which the media crews got heaps of shots of. This lead to great cheers. In response the need of food, the occupiers threatened to throw documents out of the windows if it wasn't allowed up - so eventually heaps of admin documents were thrown out the windows and scattered all over the campus. Yet more cheers. b) intensive activity to build up support for the occupation and especially for a rally at 1pm. I did lots of lecture-bashes, other leafletted and chalked the campus. There was a collective meeting at about 11am to organize these activites, plus police liason, other solidarity, etc. This represented the beginning of an important shift I think, becuase suddenly it was not the usual activists who were doing everything, but all sort of students organizing all of this work themselves, some who had probably never done anything like this before. I went to speak to mainly medical, physiology, etc students, and was really surprised that there were great cheers and applause going up at the end of my little talk, even during it.

The levels of support kept growing, and we were leafletting the campus, talking to students and staff, going throught the cafes and libraries with megaphones, and so on. There would have been 150 people in support by 12:30 and 250-300 by 1pm.

Now there was not so much a "rally" but a whole movement in support of the occupation developing, and this included speakers from the ground and from the occupation (though the windows), there was heaps of chanting, and people were starting to get food in by many clever ways. This food provision was important because it proved a means of outwitting the cops as well as feeding the occupiers, and it was a big focus of attention. Suddenly the cops were looking a little more helpless, and there was less of a sense of seige about the place. People made parcels of food and threw them through the windows, used ropes and buckets, etc. But it was really entertaining as well, as people really wanted to out-do the cops. They were on the floor below and would try to cut the ropes through the windows on that floor. When they opened the windows everyone would pelt them with fruit and other food. There were great cheers when food parcels got up to the occupiers. Meanwhile, with a fair bit of confusion amoung organizers, the supporters began to determine these sort of tasks that needed to be done themselves. Not only getting food in, but increasingly it all turned into a mass meeting mixed with a carnival, and people posed ideas such as occupying other part of the campus (we did check this out, and it was urged by people in the building). Briefly there was an attempt to occupy the neighboring law library. In the end, it was decided to have a march around the campus to build up support, and about tw-third of the rally went on this. About 150 people stayed at the occupation. Eventually there was debate over whether to occupy the VCs house on campus, but this action was deferred because an ultimatum was put to him to to address the rally. What happened is that what had in effect become a movement sustained itself, and the whole process didn't really need the VC. A couple of us went off to get food for those that would be digging in for the night, as there was more talk of this occurring. By the time we got back it had been decided by those inside that they would come out together. (At this point a group of reactionary knuckleheads from the rugby club tried to dirupt things by barging through the crowd, but it didn't really have much effect. They may have had something to do with the right-wing students who periodically turned up to get their faces on the TV - it was after our disupting one of these goons that we had a big "talk" with the journos and media crews). After everyone came out - to huge cheers, jubilation, and some words from the occupiers (including the first mention of of the idea of anything being "revolutionary" I've heard seriously at such a mass action) - there was a de-briefing of about 120 people in the Union building, and then everyone went off to the pub.

If I can finally make some brief point of analysis of this movement - and I think it was a real movement,with its own character and development. In the end the VC did not concede to the occupiers' demands, but what made it a success was that for the first time I've seen the beginnings of a real mass base of support emerged, and it functioned in a participatory-democratic way, collectivized our necessary labour, on the ground as well as inside (which was a more politically-conscious group). And while I believe that the positions of the movement remain limited, they do represent a basis of further antagonistic development and are presented with the emergence of a real social space in which to develop them. Thirdly, especially significant was the structure of this movement, which, because of the seige situation of the occupiers, developed in the base of support for the occupation. The essential structure of the movement was around this relation of *interaction* of the occupiers and the supporters outside. This means - and it was widely ackowledged at the time - that the supporters were an integral force of the developments as a whole. This is distinct from UTS were there was much more fluid movement between the occupiers and the supporters outside.

Well, this has been rather long-winded and perhaps open to voluminous criticism, not least for being long-winded, or maybe for inflating the importance of what happened. But then, the last time there was any sort of student occupations seriously done in Australia was when I was a first-year back in 1988. It might be fruitful now if those of us watching and taking part in these developments also look to what has happened elsewhere among the students, such as in New Zealand last year or in Canada, which are comparable countries. At least here things seem to be happening on a national scale, and this form of struggle in circulating.

Regards, solidarity,

Bruce Lindsay.

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