‘A month of planning, sleeping bags and Minecraft’: What it’s like inside the Wills Memorial occupation

‘It is an indefinite occupation, we are going to stay as long as possible or until our demands are met’

“At this stage, we are not attempting to negotiate with them,” James* tells The Bristol Tab. He is one of the 12 students who are currently occupying Bristol Uni’s Great Hall in the Wills Memorial Building.

Armed with sleeping bags, food and drink, the occupiers are in high spirits. After a month of planning, it took them just 15 minutes this morning to execute the largest occupation at Bristol Uni since 2017.

They plan to maintain their barricade until the university meets their demands. They are: to back UCU proposals to pension plans, spread “strike day” pay losses across multiple monthly pay slips, reverse their decisions to withhold pay from staff taking “action short of strike” and make sure the occupiers don’t face any repercussions.

‘They told us to ‘f**k off’

Shortly after 8am this morning, James* and 11 other fellow students walked into Wills carrying padlocks ready to take over the landmark  97-year-old university building.

“The first two hours were very difficult with security,” he says.

“They were very openly aggressive to us. They told us to ‘f**k off’, they chased us into the Great Hall, they withheld a sleeping bag from us that we had left outside.”

The occupiers have said the university can have the building back when they stop ‘punishing staff’

Despite the university security breaking the padlock they had placed on the main entrance to the building, the students moved into the Great Hall, where, using a combination of chairs and tables stacked against the doors, they’ve managed to successfully barricade themselves inside.

Students make use of the chairs inside to barricade the doors

After their aggressive introduction, university security have changed tack as they attempt to negotiate with the occupiers from the balcony of the Great Hall.

James* believes this is an attempt by the university to control the narrative of the occupation and portray themselves as the “good guys”.

“It’s very interesting that for the first hour or so, they were very openly aggressive to us.

“Now, they’ve realised it’s not the right approach and they are going about it in a different way. I still fully believe that their aim is to devalue the occupation and make themselves seem like the ‘good guys’ which is why they are working with us.”

Security have attempted to negotiate with the students from the balcony

While the students came prepared with food, drink and sleeping equipment, they told The Bristol Tab they have enough supplies to “last us for a couple of days” and that they are working on finding a solution for supporters outside to bring in replenishments.

They’ve also brought their laptops and have found a way to connect them to the projector inside the hall.

“We’ve just got Minecraft working on the projector,” James* jokes.

The students are resolute this is an “indefinite occupation” and whilst their laptops provide a source of entertainment, the main purpose for bringing them in is so they can keep up with their studies whilst living inside the building.

‘In our current position, we don’t have access to toilets and running water’

It is now six hours since the students began their occupation and they are running into practical problems.

The university claim it has provided the occupiers with access to toilets and running water which are “ten metres away in the corridor outside” and that they can access and then “re-enter the Great Hall afterwards”.

However the occupiers fear this is a trap. To use the toilets means taking down their barricade and they are unwilling to do that.

“In our current position, we don’t have access to toilets and running water without seriously running the risk of security coming in and ejecting us from the building,” James* says.

“We have a bucket. That’s what we have to do because we can’t safely get there”

“I hope this occupation shows that staff and students are all united against the management now.”

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “We are aware that students are currently occupying the Great Hall in the Wills Memorial Building.

“The action follows similar occupations at several other universities in which students are supporting the ongoing industrial action by lecturers and academic staff which is part of a complex national dispute over staff pay and pensions.

“Students have access to toilets and amenities. We have never taken action against students for peaceful occupation and will not do so in this case.”

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