Sticking it to the man
Two years ago, Dan Glass was the President of the University of Sussex Students’ Union. This summer, he superglued himself to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Read his article in full with audio of the incident exclusively on The Badger Online.
At Sussex I learnt a great deal, which I am very grateful for. About the issues our generation faces and about how we, civil society, can challenge them. Ask many people what Sussex University is famous for and they’ll tell you, with a glint in their eye, that Sussex University traditionally stands up for justice in the face of adversity and creates opportunities for students from all different backgrounds. It’s up to you to decide whether this is still the case.
Since the heady days of Sussex, I’ve been campaigning and taking direct action against the biggest threat facing humanity today, climate change. I have attempted with many other people, to challenge the growth of the aviation industry. I have been doing this with Plane Stupid, a network of groups taking action against airport expansion and aviation’s climate impact. Plane Stupid wants to see airport expansion plans scrapped and an end to short haul flights. This as, aviation emissions are the fastest growing contributor to global CO2 emissions. If we don’t tackle aviation, then all our other efforts will unfortunately fade into the dark. Communities all over the UK are fighting for their own future and are not willing to allow private businesses plunder the planet and divert resources away from positive alternatives for a sustainable future.
Last month I found out I won an award for my involvment. To collect it I was to go to No 10 downing street and meet the Prime Minister, the same man who has been wilfully ignoring all Plane Stupid’s work and 70,000 London residents rejections of the third runway at Heathrow. Building more airport runways completely defy the logic of the British Governments desires to reduce pollution. We are fed up with waiting for governments to act. We are the last generation with the opportunity to adequately tackle climate change before it is too late. So, it didn’t take long to decide what I would do… With a team from Plane Stupid backing me up I put on my second hand suit wearing a device in my pocket which was linked up to an anonymous Skype account on a computer in front of the team… At 6.15 he came out into the audience to shake our hands. I knew what I was about to do as I squeezed the superglue packet into my left hand. Whilst he was huffing and puffing and trying to rip me off his arm I read testimony from communities around the world already being plundered by the consequences of climate change. I told him that ‘yes, prime minister, we can tackle climate change, but this isn’t going to come about by expanding the world’s largest international airport. It’s time you stood up the British Airport Authorities and stood up for the British Public’.
Sticking myself to the ‘big shot’ was intended to raise the issues profile. In such a critical time, our generation are prepared to put our bodies on the line. I was completely prepared to be arrested, yet the reason I don’t think I was, was because there was so much support in the room for action on climate change, he was outnumbered and he knew it.
To be honest, underneath it all, one of the reasons for taking these actions, is because actually I am scared- for the present generation, my generation, for those to come and ultimately for life itself. We have a large responsibility on our shoulders. We are the first generation to be equipped with the science of climate change and also how to deal with it- yet we continue to plunder in the completely the wrong direction. At Sussex and further afield, in times of emergency, actions speak louder than words. The world is drowning in a sea of words, and I don’t want to add to the deluge. Almost everyday I notice signs that more and more people are longing for our species to cease its self-destructive war with earth and each other. In fifty years time, future generations will either thank us for our actions or lament us for not being radical enough; not tactics that line the birdcage but real acts of civil disobedience. That is why it falls to those of us who have the opportunity to work together to create that mass-based and secular resistance to social and environmental injustice. The more people who take a stand against oppression and work mutually together in solidarity, the more chance our generation has to build a sustainable and positive society. We are the last generation with the opportunity to adequately tackle climate change before it is too late; and there’s more people taking action every day. Bring on the spanners.
You were actively involved in Tent State when you were president and it is being tried again this year. What were the results when you did it and what are the benefits of tent state?
Roll on the day when our education system has all the resources they need and the army runs a jumble sale to buy a missile
When we started Tent State I was subjected to some pretty arch remarks from those in Sussex House (the ‘management’): what has the war got to do with top up fees? Was there a war on campus that students helped to stop?
For more than 13 years, twenty four million Iraqi people have lived in a war zone and been denied food and medicine and clean water. According to the latest count, 176 British young people like us have died for the policies and ‘ideals’ of the British Government.
So what is Tent State? Tent State University UK is an initiative of an autonomous group of staff and students at the University of Sussex, inspired by the national Tent State University movement in the United States. Set up in tents to symbolize the under funding of academic provisions it highlighted the money taken from public services and being spent on war. The main slogan of Tent State is Education Not War. Tent State was our vision of an alternative university, where education is truly free and open to all, regardless of class, race, religion or gender. By reclaiming part of the campus we were expressing our dissatisfaction with the status quo, whilst also demonstrating a beautiful alternative.
Tent State is more than just a protest. It highlights that we cannot be impartial, that we have to takes sides. During a week of the summer term multiple free workshops took place to discuss how students can work for a better world. Tent State is intended to grow year on year, and it is incredibly exciting to know that Sussex are going to make their mark again. We impressed upon Sussex University the importance of ethical investment through not funding the arms trade (they created a first draft ethical investment policy) and we highlighted loud and clear that education is not a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, but a right for all. Tent State lays the foundation for a movement that works to change the balance of priorities in a nation that increasingly supports war at the expense of education.
Students during Tent State and beyond asked themselves, ‘When is enough enough?” ‘Where is my hard earned money going?’ ‘Did anyone ask me?’ ‘Where is the line where I will say “fund systems in society which provide support and welfare rather than death and destruction?”’ ‘So when am I going to get angry?’ Sussex is the perfect place to ask these questions. Whether a student today is interested in these initiatives or not, one can never be blameless. We are already enmeshed in the process- we are not powerful enough (or powerless enough) to not be invested in the process. We are complicit. The fact that whilst we sit in England in our comfy, padded chairs, drinking bottled water, in nice air-conditioned seminar rooms, 4000 miles across the world, not too far in our-ever compressed ‘global village’, hundreds of students in Iraq are being brutally beaten. They are beaten whilst protesting outside the British and American embassies at the destruction of their education opportunities, not to mention the brutal extinguishment of their families.
Student apathy is a myth. Tent State and so many other activities at USSU confirmed this for me and made student politics mean something again. When our society is faced with overwhelming violence and oppression everyday, we feel a psychological need to rebel, to negate it, to insist that it must end, and to create a mass democratic revolution NOW. So from every program, every action, every position, and every demand, we raised these questions and used our time to talk and take action on soaring debt. Before and today, as a community we must mobilize individuals and societies to realize their worth and become angered at a government who doesn’t recognize that education is a right, not a privilege.
Climate camp is one of the most inspiring global movements to tackle climate change today; but still desperately needs to grow and evolve so that it involves many more people. It was focused around Kingsnorth coal fired power station, last year around Heathrow. Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air. Kingsnorth is the first of the planned new generation of coal-fired power stations since 1974. Collectively these power stations would emit around 50 million tons of CO2 a year. The same mindset which wants to make a fast buck out of aviation expansion exists out of expanding the fossil fuel empire- it only benefits those with dollar signs in their eyes, not for the legacy of the human species, particularly when intelligent energy alternatives exist aplenty. On August the 8th, during the camp, twelve naked climate campaigners, including myself, superglued ourselves to the sanctioning body (BERR) for Kingsnorth Coal-Fired Power Station. Great fun-superglue is fast becoming the activist tool of the day!
We evaded the department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) (the department who will ultimately sanction the new generation of coal-fired power stations) security and have stuck ourselves naked to the office front. The extraordinary steps taken were to highlight the ‘naked truth’ regarding the UK government’s investment in coal and declare that the proposal to build Kingsnorth is not as ‘clean’ as E.ON would like the British public to believe. The placards covering the residents’ ‘privates’ state ‘clean coal is science fiction. If E.ON sticks to dirty power we will stick to E.ON. A zero carbon future is possible’.
The action came as part of multiple actions from the Camp for Climate Action to highlight government and corporate collusion to expand the fossil fuel economy when the scientific consensus demands the opposite.
University of Sussex
Whilst it may sound clichéd, the message USSU hits home, for so many who pass its doors is ‘Education is Power’. Your education, your experience, your say. Sussex has an amazing history of student input and action. Students have always, and will always, be vocal on broad, intense topical issues. From supporting gay rights to give blood, to setting the national agenda in supporting science, voices from Sussex students have often become a deafening roar. There is so much to get involved with; the social, drama, literary, sports and environmental groups never cease to amaze me, not just talking but doing. You have the opportunity to gather, to talk, to network and learn about each others causes under an umbrella network, sharing tactics in planning campaigns and events, exchange knowledge and beliefs. As students, whilst your primary task maybe aiming to win the world cup, compete with the philharmonic orchestra, demolish dictatorship or end pollution, most importantly it is to develop with those with similar interests into a force that may one day be capable of completing these aims.
However we cannot get complacent.
The direction of Sussex University is changing at a rapid pace. As you read this, the management are trying to implement reforms that see the academic programs being sponsored by private business with their own agendas rather than through public support, not quite the Sussex people fondly smile about. What this means determines your education, in essence big business sets the agenda, not you. Your voices and your concerns will be sold to the highest bidder.
During my short time at Sussex, a sneaky peek through the Sussex management walls made me understand the importance of students engaging in the direction of their education. For example, Sussex University pride them on being an internationally focussed university, yet provide dire resources for foreign languages support and leave the international students financially dry. The University claims to be the only University next to a site of outstanding natural beauty yet continues to sell off the land to make way for car parks. They claim to engage positively in wider society yet sign contracts for companies with infamously terrible social and environmental track record. They pride themselves on student support yet do not adequately support USSU financially, the one area which aims to provide all the students necessary support. I don’t mean to put a simplistic value judgment on this peculiar form of “progress” by suggesting that USSU is Good and Sussex management is Bad –or vice versa. What’s hard to reconcile oneself to, both personally and politically, is the schizophrenic nature of it. It’s as though the people of Sussex University have been collected up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks (a huge big one and a tiny little one) that have set off resolutely in opposite directions. The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering destination somewhere near the top of corporate education agenda. The other convoy just melts into the abyss and disappears.
This is exactly why education campaigns within USSU have come to represent far more than the struggle against what’s included in the syllabus. This has been both its strength and its weakness. Who makes the decisions is now being seen by many at Sussex as being as important as the decisions themselves, this can be seen through the controversial National Student Survey statistics. One of the reasons the management are so often surprised when they have to look down the barrel of an ‘issue’ pointed at them by USSU, is that their existing decision-making processes, including the processes by which they evaluate the ethical, environmental and legal implications of their activities, are primarily based on rational, scientific or technical criteria. They have not listened to the emotions, feelings and concerns of the students they claim to represent.
Over several years, the senior managements attempts to pass these massive reforms without decent consultation has become an issue that has risen up the political agenda and increasingly captured the popular imagination. In many ways what is at issue now is the very nature of students at Sussex democracy. Whose education is it? Should subjects be sponsored by business with attached conditionalities? Should we be investing in subjects which perpetuate military presence in society and on campus? Or instead be investing in positive solutions to combat war and injustice? These are huge questions. As I am sure you will experience, they are taken extremely seriously by staff, students and trade unions across this incredibly interesting, and frustrating, university.
Whilst management practices would like students and staff to believe that ‘everything is safe in their hands’, that students should ‘keep neutral’ and are unqualified to challenge the current practices, we know better. Within the paradigms of challenging, perceiving and assessing the direction of your university environment, many established arguments that demand authority such as where money is spent, and the subsequent manners in which they are constructed (often behind closed doors), are often seen as self-evident and unworthy of attention. That’s where the fundamental nature of USSU lies. Throughout the years, USSU has provided a space to support students in their challenge for a decent education. USSU stands as a microcosm of the world in which we want to live; a political movement. And every political movement is grounded in a vision of human nature. At the heart of USSU is this commitment to transformation and freedom, to look at how problems and issues affect people at Sussex in their daily lives, understand the University and empower people to change it.
Even more so, the mass of evidence that USSU has marshalled regarding University activity over the years to construct their case is formidable. Terrifying, actually. The starting premise of their work is not ideological, but it is intensely political. Just delve into the dusty archives in Falmer House. You will be taken on a tour through the bog of the University of Sussex and through the dizzying maze of corridors that connects the management, big business, and the business of managing public opinion.
The issues are not simply about Right vs. Wrong, about who supports the management and who doesn’t, as much as it is about having the opportunity to engage in a space which allows students to have these incredibly important discussions. That’s the real and rare strength of USSU; fundamentally creating new spaces to discuss, and act upon, our ideals for a decent education. Creating spaces to strategise resistance against the destruction of a decent education whilst at the same time creating alternatives, is not just a campaign, or even a movement, it’s a whole culture not negotiated by the management; but enforced by people. By the University public. As USSU has shown time and time again, the only institution more powerful than the management, are the students. USSU is about how to accommodate diversity amongst students and staff and about how to contain the impulse towards a profit hungry society determined to snatch this generations educational opportunities. By bringing together the University community; workers, students, artists, mothers, fathers, poets, music lovers, thinkers, dreamers and doers who are currently grappling with issues such as we have, these arenas somehow try and make what seems self evident and the ‘norm’ in our world, problematic.
If we want to reclaim the space for civil disobedience, we will have to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of top-down structures in the University and its fear of the mundane. We have to use our experience, our imagination, and our art to interrogate the instruments of that state that ensure that “normality” remains what it is: cruel, unjust, unacceptable. We have to use tools out of our everyday range to expose the policies and processes that make ordinary things – free education, good food on campus, ethical investment, a living wage for cleaners, and above all some semblance of dignity – such a distant dream for those at Sussex today.
Students at Sussex have achieved so much. All you have to do is look at the multiple student groups and collectives bubbling within USSU at Falmer House. Not only on campus, but further too. For example, Sussex students have notoriously challenged the National Union of Students time and again for their rejection of ‘free education’ and now their support for ‘top up fees’, which are suffocating students with unbearable debt. It is definitely an exciting time, and students are maintaining Sussex’s reputation as being a hot bed for political activity and forcing these issues of governance, equality and justice to be heard, talked about and to some extent understood. The potential at Sussex is enormous and the time is ripe for creative and rewarding discussion. And action.
However, on the issue of becoming involved in shaping your education, it’s wise to proceed with caution. There will not always be spectacular results to report on. Education sponsored by business and not by those who participate in it, is about the slow, steady infiltration of all the instruments of power. It’s about the slow erosion of civil liberties, about unspectacular day-to-day injustices. It means staying up late fighting corporate take over, library cuts and authoritarian rule and the relentless, everyday violence of resource undercuts. It means putting your ear to the ground and listening for the stories. The stories from the underpaid academics, from the ignored international students and from the cash strapped librarians. Even before students can recognise themselves as the creators of their own education, arise moments when students come to an awareness not just of their studies but of the distances that separates them from controlling the prospects of a meaningful education and their desire for freedom, self-determination and creation. USSU provides the space for these discussions to take place. USSU does not merely reflect upon the potential for providing education grounded in participation and social justice, it prepares it.
The time has come, the stakes are raised. With all that is going on time can easily fly at Sussex University, grab every opportunity with both hands.
At Sussex what often hits home is what the great American historian Howard Zinn once said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’