Winter of Discontent: “We were meant to start at 5 but we’ve just been outside having coffee and cigarettes since then.” The Free Hetherington: An Epitaph

Bean Reoch

Image © Francis McKee

After staring at a blank document for what feels, now, like hours, I can only come to one conclusion about the Hetherington Occupation: it was like nothing else I have ever experienced.

Officially, the Free Hetherington (as it became known) was a student occupation of a disused university building, protesting the savage cuts being made to academia and resources at the University of Glasgow. It was a bloody thorn in the side of the Principal Vito-Antonio Muscatelli and his Senior Management Group (SMG) for seven glorious months. It was an occupation with real demands; a social space; a hive of activism, of academia; a stage for a chiaroscuro of events and meetings; and sadly also a target for abuse. The former Postgraduate Research Club was reopened by a group of anti-cuts activists on 1st February 2011 and, by the time I became involved in late March, it had grown into something quite spectacular. From there it continued to grow – and despite its end on 31st August 2011 the ripples it made can still be seen on the loch of activism in Glasgow today.

On a personal level, the Free Hetherington was to be a phenomenally beneficial force in my life. Suddenly, I existed in a space where I could actually have a conversation about the essay I was writing and come away from it with more than I had before. My own beliefs were challenged – and in some cases even amended. For the first time in two years’ study at Glasgow Uni, I was being forced to actually think. So, Muscatelli, the resistance to your programme of cuts benefited my education more than any other element of your Principality. How ironic. My mind and my social circle were expanded. I was not the only occupier whose existence was improved by being a part of the free Hetherington, but I am the only one for whom I can speak in this piece. Suffice to say that when we walked out of that building (on our own terms; on our own feet without police or security guards dragging us) I was not the only one with tears in my eyes. That building and the space we had created within it left its mark on me, and I left my mark on the bar downstairs. That bar upon which I’d measured out my summer in coffee spoons: “I came here, and was myself again. And happy.”

Views on campus were mixed. Many supported us. Many were against. I would say that most weren’t quite sure what to think. Occupiers and the occupation were subjected to abuse from some particularly unpleasant objectors – on more than one occasion this led to physical altercations. To the best of my knowledge, never once did an occupier throw the first punch. On 22nd March, University Security Officers entered the building and set about an attempted eviction. At the request of Secretary of University Court David Newall, Strathclyde Police’s finest arrived to forcefully evict the occupiers. This was the day I joined the occupation – I joined the fight. Thousands of students watched as their contemporaries were subjected to what can only be described as police brutality. A minority cheered on the police and hurled abuse at their fellow students. President elect of the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) Stuart Ritchie was one of these. Ritchie resigned from the SRC in November, pre-empting a vote of no confidence from the student body over his advocacy of higher fees for rest of UK students. It is strongly suspected that his decision was “assisted” by members of the SMG.

But back to eviction day: after every remaining body had been dragged from the building, thousands of students (occupiers and a great many more) marched on the main building of the University and took the Senate rooms. This directly disrupted the running of the University and after only a few hours (and a gig by David Rovics) the Hetherington building was returned to us. The events of this day left the SMG with a red face, Strathclyde Police with a hefty bill (and a chip on their shoulder) and the Free Hetherington with a new image, revitalised support, and a positive media image.

Like all things in life, however, it was not always sunshine and rainbows. Before my involvement, I’m told, there were struggles within the building. Certainly since the eviction attempt there were cleavages within the space which I witnessed, and more than one person abandoned the occupation on moral grounds. Somehow, each of these problems made us stronger and brought those who had

quarrelled closer together. Most who had left eventually returned, more committed than ever to righting the wrongs they saw in the space. Personal differences, although there were many, were put aside in aid of fighting a greater common enemy – the cuts. Yes, there were those who questioned the feasibility of continuing to occupy. But you don’t put out a candle just because the room gets dark. If anything, it is then that you guard its light most closely.

After negotiations with the SMG (via a small group of representatives from the occupation), a series of meetings on these negotiations, striking a deal, another meeting and a vote on whether to accept the deal, the occupiers of the Free Hetherington took the decision to voluntarily leave. The exodus took place on 31st of August 2011. Almost all of us towed the media line that we were leaving victorious. Management was accepting our terms. There were to be no more compulsory redundancies, no further courses cut, no academic or legal repercussions for those who’d been involved in the occupation, a new postgraduate social space was to be opened. And perhaps most importantly, publicity for the ending of the occupation was to be handled exclusively by our media team. Our media team who had somehow become – organically, in the space of a few months, with little or no previous experience – one of the most effective non-professional machines for the dissemination of information I’ve ever encountered. Hats off and fists up to them. Not just for doing us proud, not just for doing a colossal amount of work or pulling off a ridiculous, sublime task. Not just for being the only ones awake at 9am to let fresh faces into the building. But for the fact that when we left, the Director of Corporate Communications for one of Scotland’s biggest universities sent you her statement, before she sent it to the press, so that you could check it. That, for me, was the moment I knew we had won. Solidarity.

But I digress. Since the Hetherington building was boarded up again, the activism it incubated for seven months has hatched in the communities of greater Glasgow. Friendships and connections made in the Hetherington have strengthened pre-existing networks and have led to the conception of others. For me personally, the Hetherington resurrected something long gone within me. I was re-radicalised, re-socialised, reminded of the importance of questioning conformity. The Free Hetherington gave activism a springboard from which to attack the wrongs we see in government and society today. It gave me my breath back.

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