Friday, 5 September 2014

Occupational hazard

The NATO conference in South Wales this week – preparations and protests! – has given me cause to think about student occupations, and what to do about them. It’s a matter which I’ve become familiar with from the point of view of the occupied.  Many years ago I was an occupier: I can confirm that it’s much more fun.

If you’re occupied – or more precisely, if you’re the one who’s responsible when an occupation happens in your university – there are good things to do and mistakes to make. I speak from experience.  Here’s my top tips.

Make contact with the occupiers. You need to know who they are, why they are there; how many of them there are. Expect hostility initially, but the more you can develop a rapport with the occupiers (they may elect a small number of spokespeople) the easier things will be.  Often an occupation will adopt very participative democratic forms, so don’t expect a quick answer. (I once spent an evening making many phone calls to the leader of an occupation: every suggestion I made had to be discussed and voted on. It was a very long evening.)

Negotiations with occupiers can look like this. I'm the one in the suit.
Sometimes it can be a good idea to put a bit of distance between yourself personally and the occupiers. I worked once with a splendid director of estates who turned out to be a great siege negotiator: he would not overreact to any provocation, and was trusted by the occupiers.  It also gave us a stronger hand, as he could represent our position without being able himself to make concessions. I think he quite enjoyed it, really.

Try not to get medieval. It is very tempting to treat an occupation as a siege, but this is problematic. You run the risk of losing goodwill on campus, and when you get the building back (and you will, sooner or later), the mess will be yours to clean up. So keep the power and wifi on (they can use mobile phone signals anyway, so there’s no advantage in turning the wifi off) and if possible arrange to have cleaners go in to keep the place hygienic.  You may still have a duty of care, even if you can’t get normal access to the building.  Making sure that there are university security staff nearby all of the time is a good idea: to keep an eye on what is going on, and to be able to intervene in case there’s trouble.

Try to find out how long it will last.  Some occupations are symbolic, and if they’ll be leaving in 24 hours then doing nothing might be the best plan. If the occupiers have demands, then find out what they are. The demands may be beyond your control, but if they are things that you can control, don’t dismiss them too quickly.  Occupations in the end run out of steam: although its not always the right tactic, patience can be very rewarding.

There’s a legal route to ending an occupation involving injunctions and bailiffs.  Get legal advice quickly, by all means, but if the occupiers are all your students, then think carefully before gong to court. It’s a balance between the disruption caused by the occupation and the costs; but the costs can include long-term loss of trust on campus.  If they are all external, then it is an easier option, but the physical act of removal can be dramatic and messy.

Manage the media. I don’t mean the papers and TV - managing that goes without saying - but definitely the social media within and beyond the university.  Make sure that staff and students in the university (the vast majority will not be taking part in the occupation) know what is going on. This will also make clear that you’re aware of and dealing with the situation. Make sure to follow any twitter feeds or blogs associated with the occupation: no state secrets will be given away, but at least you’ll know what rumours you need to squash, or who seems reasonable that you can deal with. Authenticity matters a great deal, if you post on social media in such situations. Remember that however irritating they may seem to you, most people taking part in an occupation are idealistic and sincere.

Be aware of other impacts. People who can’t get into their normal workplaces can feel very angry about things, and it helps a lot to explain fully what is going on, and why you can’t just call the police in. (Because they won’t just come in, by the way: trespass is a civil not a criminal offence.)

There are a couple of longer-term things to do, as well.

The first is to cultivate your Students’ Union.  You can’t expect them to be stooges for you in an occupation, but they may be able to act as interlocutors, between you and the occupiers; they may also be a good source of information. Sometimes it can be very helpful to have the SU officers vouch for your sincerity, when there’s a baying crowd. And in the aftermath, you’ll need to work with them to help rebuild trust and confidence on campus.

The second is to make sure you can prove your ownership of the university estate.  If you go down the legal route, you need to be very specific and precise about what and where the occupiers are; your rights over the building; and the other areas of campus where you don’t want them to occupy.  A folder of all the title deeds is a very handy thing when you’re trying to expedite a hearing in a court.

As I said at the start, it’s more fun to occupy than be occupied.  The increased instrumentalism which seems to have come from increased tuition fees might mean fewer occupations; or occupations more directed at on-campus problems. If it does happen to you, I hope that this is helpful.

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