Jazz-hands, a radical library and an abundance of hummus: What I discovered when I went undercover at the Gordon Aikman student occupation
It’s a bit like a cult
Edinburgh's Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre, formerly George Square Lecture Theatre, has been occupied by students in support of our striking lecturers for the past nine days.
The occupiers have not been so welcoming to the media, refusing entry into the building on the first day of the occupation and not responding to requests for an interview for over a week. So, the obvious thing for me to do in a mission of daring espionage, was to enter the lions' den in an attempt to discover what our would-be Blanquists would be doing after the strike ended.
I arrived at the occupation at an important moment. Tuesday would be the final day of industrial action on behalf of the UCU. The strike action had been the catalyst for students entering and locking shut the doors of George Square. There had been a band playing outside earlier in order to attract greater attention, and I was curious as to how the occupiers sought to either continue their sit in, or surrender the lecture theatre.
Infiltrating the building
In order to get into the occupation zone, I knew I'd have to blend in with the other occupiers. I decided to give myself a disguise, aided by a costume and a few props. I stuffed a copy of Engels into my bag, threw on some bleached jeans as well as a vintage sweater. Thus, I assumed, I would blend seamlessly into the mass of middle-class comrades.
Arriving at the occupation, I was almost certain that I would be denied entry. I was aware other writers who had tried to get in on previous occasions had been denied. Although I'd looked around once before, it was nowhere near as busy as it was on this visit.
Upon entry, I was met by a table of gatekeepers. They asked if I was there for the teach out on 'The History of Climate Change Denial'. However, as someone with a very limited knowledge of what a 'teach out' may have been, I merely said I was there to have a look around.
After a brief chat about the status of their occupation and how long they thought it would continue for, I was permitted entry. I could feel the eyes glaring at me. It was a clearly a very tight-knit community I'd entered into.
I think I was the only person in the building who didn't have a red piece of cloth pinned onto my chest that distinguished me as a fellow occupier. This made me stand out, at least that's how I felt.
Acting as an imposter
The political persuasions of the occupiers were on display. Two small red flags outside the occupation are linked together by a larger red flag, which is taped to the side of the staircase.
I felt I was on the satirical set of a student activist comedy bit as I gazed upon some of the hanging signs. One read, 'challenge all hierarchies we encounter', another, 'try alternative teaching paradigms'.
One such suggestion read 'push for horizontal lectures and courses'. I asked one of the occupation leaders what that one meant, but she wasn't entirely sure.
Speaking to some of the other occupiers
I spoke with Ruby, the occupation leader, who chatted to me at length about the occupation. We spoke about their goals and desires. She suggested many of the occupiers had learned more during the occupation than they had across a whole semester at University. I was sceptical, but she seemed genuinely enthused.
She also informed me they'd been paid a visit by a former Glasgow student, who took part in the Hetherington House Occupation back in 2011. That occupation lasted around eight months until they were eventually evicted by police officers.
She half joked that it was plausible for George Square occupation to hold out for longer than that. It was clear she bought my occupational sympathies, telling me that lecturers had given them money, and that they had recently applied for funding from EUSA.
It was hinted to me the occupation had no end in sight for some time, despite security having suggested to them they should leave.
The library occupation plot
When speaking to Ruby, I saw a sign situated near to us, which suggested the library could or should be occupied in the near future. As well as this, there was mention to other smaller occupations that could be carried out to achieve greater attention.
I was informed many students were still unaware the occupation was occurring, and that the rector, Ann Henderson, had advised them that management's strategy was to ignore the occupiers. This only encouraged them to ramp up the volume. Literally.
Exploring George Square lecture theatre
The Radical Library
In an attempt to seem more casual, I climbed the stairs and inspected the 'Radical Library' they'd set up. The variety of 'radical' literature on offer wasn't perhaps as radical as its content, and there was a clear belief among those contributing to the library that the occupation was more commune than protest.
As I ventured further upstairs, it came to my attention that due to the nature of the 'teach out' occurring in the lecture theatre, I would have access to the living spaces uninterrupted.
The Dance Studio
I found myself sneaking into areas of the George Square lecture theatre I'd never entered before. I'd caught wind of the fact there was a dance studio on the top floor and just had to take a look. On my way up, I passed inflatable beds, make-shift sleeping mats, and the litter of those who had been living within its walls over the past couple of weeks.
I eventually found the dance studio. The lights were off, but properly impressed I stuck the flash on and took a picture. As I did, another occupier walked out of a side room. I asked him if there were lights for the room before a voice from the floor informed me they'd been turned off.
It appeared as though I'd woken up some of the sleeping occupiers due to the blinding 360 flash reflections from my phone.
It was dark, but I could just about make out what appeared to be a male and female student sleeping together on another makeshift bed on the floor. This was a particularly jarring sight as it was only around 17:00.
I apologised after rousing my comrades, and decide to inspect the labeled rooms of some occupiers. These were the fancier digs. The students vacating these rooms got far more space than the others. They must have gotten here early to bag them.
I felt like I was invading their privacy by snooping around, but then I remembered I was in a university building, and I, as a student, really should have equal access too.
My investigation into the top floor was becoming less Louis Theroux and more Bear Grylls. The smell and cleanliness wasn't quite to my liking. I became curious as to whether George Square lecture theatre had a shower or not, and if I would have to inspect the now gender neutral bathrooms.
The iron curtain
Behind a curtained off area appeared to be an area exclusively for sleeping and artistic activities. I found one occupier reading a book, probably from the radical library, and two others creating a particularly large banner. However, this also appeared to be extended living quarters, and had a distinct smell of students who had been there for a while.
My first high risk moment had come. I'd attempted to take a picture, but I was challenged and informed I could not take pictures that had others faces in. I assured them that they didn't, and promptly left.
It was clear every occupier I saw knew I was a newbie. They all gave me the same chat about how powerful the occupation is.
Whilst I'm sure some of the occupiers were enthusiastic, I found most of the occupiers appeared to be fairly bored. They were usually sitting around, not really achieving a great deal. I didn't see many occupiers when I was in there though, especially once I ventured beyond the main lobby.
Their Safe Space Policy and Occupation rules
I descended the stairs into the hallway once more and was confronted with the jarring 'Safe Space Policy' taped to the doors. It included rules such as 'no alcohol', which reminded me of a religious sect more so than a liberal occupation.
Ironically enough, it contained phrases such as 'we reserve the right to ask visitors to leave'. If only the university had written one of these up.
The general meeting
When wandering around, I was invited to attend their general meeting. I gladly took them up on this offer, not knowing it would last two hours.
The meeting began with an older man holding up a packet of potatoes and shouting "these are not genetically modified", which I didn't totally understand.
There was much talk of tomorrow's event, which would include the cutting of a ribbon, the wearing of masks of the Vice Chancellor and the draping of banners that would christen George Square Lecture Theatre the 'Edinburgh Futures Institute'.
This was confusing as Edinburgh already has an 'Edinburgh Futures Institute'. I was in no place to question branding choices, however. There was a planned 'drinks' reception of Schloer and apple juice after the big event as well.
A lecturer spoke at the meeting, and everyone did jazz hands
I nearly exposed myself as a blatant outsider when an Anthropology lecturer rose to speak and I went to clap. The lecturer's attendance however was not met with a roar of applause, but a roar of jazz hands. I nodded my head and hid behind the safety of my laptop screen pretending I had some idea as to what that was all about.
She announced she was "thrilled with the occupation", but was almost jeered at as she suggested "the occupation isn't going to last forever".
— Tereza Valny (@tvalny1) March 20, 2018
Finally, the topic turned to what would happen post-occupation. One student said he didn't want the lecture theatre to return to being "clean and corporate", which was the first time I'd heard the word clean used with a negative connotation attached.
The occupiers discussed their list of demands if the university wanted to negotiate with them at any point. I sensed the occupiers really didn't want to return the building. Another occupier mentioned the support the students were giving to their cause was paramount.
When someone brought up the fact students might be worried about missing their lectures now the strikes are over, a simple reply of "I don't give a shit what they think", was returned.
The mention of student support was a pivotal point in the meeting. Many students had complained about the live music that was being played so close to the library. Others wanted to increase the volume, with louder speakers and more music. It was pointed out this could seriously impact how people viewed them and reflect on them in a negative way. A reply of "that's how capitalism teaches us to think", was met with another roar of jazz hands.
A girl is actually doing her dissertation on the occupation
A girl who was helping run the meeting announced she was going to do her dissertation on the occupation. I struggled to consider it an important enough event, and I was getting the feeling many had delusions of grandeur about what was going on.
This wasn't the Paris Commune, this was a comfortable middle-class occupation during which one leader had bragged to me about how whilst other occupations had been struggling, they had abundance of hummus and avocado. It hurt that it wasn't a joke.
After what felt like an eternity, the meeting drew to a close, and I'd had enough time in the occupation. It was dinner time for the occupiers, but I declined food and snuck off to get a few more pictures. I thanked those at the door and was off into the now cold night.
Life on the outside
In hindsight, I found the occupation quite dull. Whilst some organisation was going on, many there seemed under the impression they were having more of an impact than the reality. Being constantly told about how lively the occupation was by people who were otherwise doing nothing felt totally fake.
What happens when the strike ends?
In chatting to some of the occupiers, there was an underlying uncertainty about what was going to happen when the strike ended. Some were unsure as to how much people really cared about what was going on there. Repeatedly, I was told they were working on their outreach, but it was surely too late?
The occupation felt selfish, a small group of students had hijacked an important space for what should be the majority of students so as to self indulge their own political passions. The strike was ending and they still did not see themselves giving it up. In my opinion, they deserve to lose the sympathy of Edinburgh students.
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