Occupied (again)

Dead heat in David Willetts "no confidence" vote 24 November 2011

Student activist group Cambridge Defend Education (CDE) has begun an occupation at Lady Mitchell Hall (LMH), Sidgwick Site, following their disruption of a talk by Universities Minister David Willetts on Tuesday.

Just as Willetts took to the stage at 6pm, and before he had even managed to say a word, the students began chanting: “David Willetts, the future does not belong to you. This is an epistle that is addressed to you,” before launching in to a pre-prepared speech, lasting 25 minutes. Students then proceeded to occupy the stage.

Professor Simon Goldhill, the Director of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) who organised the talk, announced at 6.25 that Willetts would no longer be speaking. He expressed his outrage at the students occupying the stage, telling them: “Who are you talking to? He’s gone.”

He went on: “Really sorry for the people who came here for a real debate that have to witness this self-indulgent nonsense.”

Since the occupation began, following the abandoned talk, there have been between 20 and 50 students participating.

The occupiers intend to remain in the LMH until 30th November when CDE plan to hold a picket line on the Sidgwick Site to show solidarity with the public sector workers’ strike scheduled for that day.

CDE’s actions have angered a number of JCR Presidents, who previously backed them in a motion brought to CUSU Council on Monday 21st November. At the time, CDE assured the assembly that they would not interrupt Willetts’ lecture. Only four representatives, from Pembroke and Peterhouse, did not vote in favour of the motion.

Richard Stockwell, Pembroke College Junior Parlour President, told The Cambridge Student, “Cambridge Defend Education’s actions are irresponsible and immature. It would have been more worthwhile for those who oppose the government’s proposals for higher education to listen to what the minister had to say, in order to better inform their opposition. As it happened, Cambridge Defend Education prevented the talk from taking place.”

There are rumours that the Vice-Chancellor has personally apologized by phone to David Willetts on behalf of the University.

Yesterday morning Ben Russell and Hannah Capek, President and Vice President of Trinity Hall JCR, circulated an email calling for an emergency CUSU Council in light of the occupation.

Russell and Capek told TCS: “CDE representatives stated that they would not prevent Mr Willetts from speaking. For many JCR Presidents this is what reassured them to vote in favour. CDE was not truthful, via omission, with us. We take voting seriously and are proud to represent our JCRs; we thus feel our opportunity to do so has been taken away from us. We may share different views, but everyone expects to be treated with respect and honesty.”

An Extra-Ordinary CUSU Council has since been announced by CUSU Chair Jimmy Murray, which will take place this Saturday.

31 student representatives for JCRs and faculties have formally backed the Emergency Motion.

The motion notes that, while CUSU voted to support CDE’s protest, that support only extended to the planned ‘speak out’, which had already taken place outside Lady Mitchell Hall from 4pm until 6pm, when Willetts was due to speak.

The motion resolves to condemn CDE’s actions and disassociate CUSU from the group.

The occupiers have also produced a flier justifying their presence, stating “We are here to present an alternative to the government’s White Paper on Higher Education and to build – in support of millions of striking workers – for November 30th”. They added, “David Willetts’ voice is being heard over and over again while our voices are being silenced by kettles and rubber bullets… We need to take this action to make our voices heard.”

Activities at the occupation yesterday included poets from London and Edinburgh reading translations of Russian anti-capitalist poetry, as well as a film showing of Boys Don’t Cry.

Last year members of CDE took part in the occupation of the Old Schools in the run up to the decision on raising university tuition fees.

Nor is this the first time that Cambridge lecture buildings have been occupied sites in political protests. In January 2009 the Law Faculty played host to the ‘Cambridge Gaza Solidarity Occupation’.

Lectures in Lady Mitchell Hall went ahead as planned yesterday, despite the occupation.

One first year Economics student at Clare said the lecture “wasn’t disrupted as such but there were random protestors walking in and out. The foyer and bit just outside was occupied, there were banners and posters up all over the lecture room but the lecture went on as normal with no interruptions.”

By yesterday evening 22 Cambridge academics had officially given their support to the occupation, including Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Fellow of Churchill College, who previously coordinated academic support for the Old Schools Occupation.

Plans for the occupation today include a protest at a lecture due to be given by Education Secretary, Michael Gove, in the Law Faculty at 6pm. The title of the lecture will be “The Meaning of Liberal Learning”.

Emily Loud and Judith Welikala

For more coverage and reaction download this weeks’ print edition of The Cambridge Student Newspaper.

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