Winter of Discontent: The Hetherington Occupation

Students seize the Hetherington Building at Glasgow University. Image © Hannah TaitHannah Tait

Hannah Tait

From February to August this year, I spent a lot of time inside an ordinary-looking Glasgow townhouse at 13 University Gardens – but the space created within those walls was far from ordinary.
The Hetherington Research Club (formerly the post-graduate club at the University of Glasgow) had shut its doors, depriving the academic community of an important space on campus for socialising and discussion. On the 1st of February 2011 a group of anti-cuts activists entered the disused building through an open fire door, and the Free Hetherington was born. For seven months, the building was occupied 24/7 (with the exception of one eventful day) and became a hub of activism in Glasgow.
But the space that grew within those walls was about more than anti-cuts activism, although that was the core which held disparate opinions together. It was about discussion and debate – I rarely walked through the door without being drawn into an interesting conversation – and it was about trying in our own way to make a safe space and a better world. Of course it was not a utopia; we walk into any space carrying the experiences and the conditioning of the society we inhabit. But it was, more than any other place that I have been, a place where people were prepared to challenge injustice and unacceptable behaviour. We didn’t always get it right, but we always tried. It gave me the courage to stand up for myself and to shout my feminism more loudly. It exposed us all to new ideas and perspectives and it challenged us constantly.
Our presence in the building – every free cup of tea we handed out, every makeshift sleeping bag bed – was an act of protest and defiance in itself, but the organising and the networking that was facilitated by having a space was at least as significant. We had visitors from all over the country and even further afield. People would come to stay the night and stay for weeks. Having a space to call our own allowed us to stage countless events throughout the life of the occupation, from reading groups and children’s film screenings to rebel clown workshops and legal observer training; we shared skills and ideas and spent long nights in animated discussion. We were human beings, coming together with different ideas and a common goal. I had never felt the meaning of the word “solidarity” before my time there; I found it twee and outdated. But it was tangible in that space, in the sense of community and in every message of support we received from London, Wisconsin, Palestine… We were one page in a much bigger book of global struggle.
The Free Hetherington was voluntarily de-occupied on the 31st of August 2011, but the network of activists it helped to bring together lives on. The space played a part in forming those relationships and creating a community through working, organising and living together, and the fight moves forward with the benefit of the skills and experiences people gained there. The book is still being written.


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