In conversation with activists at the forefront of the Gordon Aikman takeover

In the week of March 21st, activists from three student groups, Youth in Resistance (YinR), Justice for Palestine Society (JPS) and Student-Staff Solidarity Network (SSSN) ‘reclaimed’ the Gordon Aikman lecture theatre by taking and holding the building for a week whilst opening the space to other students for activities and events.

On Thursday, I sat down with four activists heavily involved in the reclamation to discuss how, why, and what is happening. To protect their identities, they have gone by codenames: Knuckles he/him (K), Issa she/her (I), Madeleine she/her (M), and Have they/them (H).

Why did you decide to ‘reclaim’ the Gordon Aikman building?

I: For JPS, why we decided to do it (is) this week is the International Israeli-Apartheid week, and it just worked out that it’s also the same week as the strike and the same week as the climate march. So, it just seemed like a perfect opportunity to form a coalition and to come together to … express the three different topics and educate people.

M: I think it’s basically just visibility; we are the link between the staff striking and the students … and because it’s so close to the library, people walk past this all the time, they see that we’re here, and hopefully, they get curious, and they come ask us, and we can just open up a discussion with them.

K: The University is exploiting us in one very simple way. It’s asking for enormous fees and then preparing us for a future that simply doesn’t match up to reality… The type of education we need is one which prepares us to deal with exploitation, colonialism, and ecological collapse because this is the reality for the global majority.

Banner reading “Free Palestine. End The Uni’s Complicity” with a Palestinian flag. Image courtesy of SSSN.

How did you ‘reclaim’ it, and what planning went into it?

H: We just kind of got together … and we spent meetings planning it in advance trying to get as clear a plan as possible and when we executed it, it kind of went perfectly… there was no conflict, no nothing. We just kind of went inside the building and have been holding it since.

K: From when the idea was conceived to when we did, it was the space of about a week. Once we got together and had the conversation, we only had about three or four meetings.

H: The vast majority of people hadn’t been involved in taking a building before, so I just want to emphasise that this isn’t some sort of master plan … it’s just quite possible to organise when you get together with other people.

K: Definitely. We would encourage other students to take the university buildings and use them. (laughs) 

Generally, how is it going?

K: Really well.

M: We’ve all been working so hard for it, and generally there’s not a single hour in the day where we can just relax and do nothing because we’re planning all these events … it feels good to put this much energy in something that matters … that we’re really proud of … We didn’t all know each other before this, so we’re all coming together, we’ve had such productive discussions and … I just feel like I’ve learnt so much just in the last few days.

I: It’s also really amazing to see how the student body has engaged with us … having the space be so open and seeing how … receptive (students) are to the space has been amazing. I think every night, there’s been at some point over 100 people in the building, and we have a cap of 120,. We’ve almost reached that cap every single night, and I think that’s just amazing.

H: From the beginning (we) wanted this to be a non-hierarchical space, so we’ve all sort of been involved in decision making … and I just think this is such a great example of why it isn’t true when people suggest you can’t organise together without having leadership.

Students at an event inside Gordon Aikman during the takeover. Image courtesy of SSSN.

Why are you using the term ‘reclaim’ instead of ‘occupy’?

I: There’s a lot of connotations with ‘occupation’, a lot of right-wing connotations … especially when we’re trying to teach about Israeli occupation … we want to emphasise the negative aspects of occupation and how that has affected Palestinians… We use the word ‘reclaim’ because this is our space, we are meant to own this space. We do pay these high tuition fees to be in these spaces. We are not just taking a building; we’re bringing a building back to what it meant to be.

How has the University responded?

K: On a personal level, the security guards have been really nice.

H: And the cleaner of this building has reached out to us and been super helpful.

K: The University management obviously got irritated.

I: Lisa Dawson, Deputy Secretary of Student Experience, and the head of security came up and were having a talk with us … and they said something along the lines of “I think you guys need to think about taking down, or reflecting on, the anti-Israel flags you have up.” and the only flag that could’ve been even associated as an anti-Israel flag would have been the Palestinian flag. They see the bearing flag which our identity is tied to as anti-Israel, and they don’t associate it with the actual ethnic and cultural groups that belong to it which is incredibly racist and problematic in itself.

H: (Emma Goldman) has this fantastic quote about how when it comes to political organising it’s impossible to separate the ends from the means because the means are the ends, and we really believe in that. What we essentially want is to have an entirely different education system … in fact an entirely different society, and the way we’re trying to bring about the power to achieve that is to create it in the cracks of the current one … because the University is not saveable, all we can do is build something better in its place.

The University has previously stated: “We support the right of people to protest lawfully and peacefully, and we are working with the students to ensure their safety and provide for their basic needs.” Is this true? How do you respond to this?

M: I think it’s very funny that they’re using this safety thing … (because) we are taking much better care of this building than they are. When we came in, we noticed a leak on one of the radiators, and we conducted a heating engineer to deal with it. Two days later, we noticed another leak in another part of the building,. There was an issue with the fire monitoring thing downstairs…

I: … the boiler too…  

M: … we got a fire engineer to come, and he said “Oh, well the fire system is probably obsolete” which, I mean, security doesn’t usually care about any of that and now suddenly they care because it’s a way to get into the building when we’re here.

K: (A) very obvious way … of maintaining power is by when you realise, you’re being challenged in a way that you can’t really deal with, (they) try to reclaim that narrative… They don’t want us in here, of course, they don’t want us in here. We’ve stolen their building (laughs) but they have to make it seem like they do to preserve their own power, or their own façade of power because it’s all bluff.

Two posters inside Gordon Aikman reading “Peter Peter Pension Eater” and “Youth in Resistance” during the takeover. Image courtesy of SSSN.

Any further comments?

K: We need as many youths as possible to join us… We can already think in terms of doing something a lot bigger, and the more people that come up to us and speak to us and want to actively think about getting involved, [the] power increases exponentially. The more power we have, the more we can act in meaningful solidarity with front line communities facing the worst effects of the overlapping global crises.

M: I would love for everyone on campus to … think about what they can do and what the University is taking from them … a lot of people need to … allow themselves to imagine something different … I generally just think people should have utopia and walk towards it.

Image courtesy of Student-Staff Solidarity Network (SSSN).