With the UCU strikes continuing at Sussex University next week, this week's post is sharing the description of a walking tour that retraces some of the history of student activism on Sussex campus. Even if you can't walk it in person, there are photos and links to videos that give you some idea what student action in those significant places on our campus looks like. You can find the original post,which was written by the Sussex Student Union, here.
The Radical History of Sussex: A Walking Tour
The University of Sussex has a long history of radical action, upheld by the generations of students that have chosen it as their home. Whether you can join us during Freshers Week for an interactive tour, or have found this guide and will embark on your own journey, we hope you enjoy what you learn about the collective history of protests and politics at Sussex.
Stop 1: Falmer Crossing - the picket line.
“When a man or woman, young, or old, takes a place on the picket line for even a day or two, he will never be the same again” - Cesar Chavez (American labour movement leader and civil rights activist)
Many students will come to know this crossing as not only their entrance onto campus, but as the location of the classic picket line. Picket lines are formed when workers go on strike, and supporters refuse to cross into their place of employment. The most recent picket line was formed here in 2020, part of several successive strikes conducted by the University and College Union (UCU) over legal disputes involving pensions and work and pay conditions.
“The picket is a classroom. Don’t cross it. Join it.” - Amia Srinivasan, 2019 UCU strikes (last tweet in this incredible twitter thread).
The picket lines, Falmer House, and whatever space that was going outside of formal academic spaces also became sites of collaborative learning - led by staff and led by students, working together on things that mattered to them politically, socially, at work and in education. Link to Badger article about strikes: https://thebadgeronline.com/2020/02/support-the-strikes-attend-a-teach-out/
PHOTO: Bhangra dancing at the picket line, 2020 UCU strikes. VIDEO: Picket line aerobics, 2019 UCU strikes. VIDEO: Billy Bragg - Never Cross A Picket Line (With Images Of The UK Miners Strike 1984/85)
Stop 2: Sussex House - the eye of the storm
“The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” - Audre Lorde
As you walk up the road from the Falmer crossing, you will find yourself outside Sussex House. Home to the University management team and some professional services staff, its pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the Vice-Chancellor’s Office. Many protests have focused around accessing the building; in 1973, the Students’ Union and 500 students voted to occupy Sussex House as part of an on-going campaign against rent increases and over 100 students being made homeless. During this occupation, students carried mattresses into the building:
“The VC, Asa Briggs, looking out of his spacious office must have been bemused by the comings and goings – people scurrying between Falmer House carrying mattresses and blankets into the Chamber through the windows” (Union News, Oct. 1973)
In 2013, as part of a national movement against the privatisation of staff jobs and local privatisation of catering services on campus, Sussex students held a protest, joined by affected staff and their trade unions. The protest culminated with some students breaking down the glass doors and entering Sussex House. Documents from inside the building were then burnt on the street outside, in protest of the changing employment contracts. See the video below for footage of the break in!
Stop 3: The Sussex Eye - All-seeing, All-knowing
“They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head, you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness, they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking.” - George Orwell
Take the Arts Path that runs to the left of Sussex House, and make your way towards Library Square, turning left past the Meeting House. Directly in front of you, to the left edge on the Square, you will see the infamous Sussex Eye. This cornerstone of invasive surveillance was put up in 2013 in response to the protests the same year against the privatisation of services and jobs - the same protests that broke into Sussex House at Stop 2! This is part of the on-going securitisation of campus, which saw a student-led movement to “Reclaim Sussex” after increased police presence and security camera vans on campus during the pandemic.
After the Eye was put up, a group of postgraduate students set up a pretend religion worshipping the camera. This is exactly the kind of wacky protest you can find happening at Sussex Uni every year!
“The Sussex EYE Always Sees Us The EYE Loves You and Forgive You The EYE Follows You everywhere for Your Own protection The EYE sees You in Your Sleep It knows Your Dreams and Pains Surrender Yourself in to the Sussex EYE The EYE knows Everything. The EYE feeds You. Obey The Sussex EYE.” - poem from the Eye Worshippers
Via: The Tab
Stop 4: Bramber House - the unwilling hotel
“Since 30 October, Occupy Sussex has twice taken action to support us, lecturers and tutors, in our national dispute over fair pay. We consider their actions, and ours next Tuesday, to be part of a broader struggle.” - Staff at Sussex Uni
After exchanging intense eye contact with the Eye, turn to your right and take the path leading away from Arts A towards Chichester. Walk under the bridge and follow the path towards Bramber House. The tall walls of the building have proven popular with banner drops, and the offices inside are a great place to organise an occupation.
In 2013, students occupied Bramber House in support of the national strike by lecturers and administrative staff. Around 30 students entered the building, which resulted in the university suspending five occupiers, who later became known as “the Sussex 5”. Their suspension garnered mass attention, with celebrities such as Cara Delevigne expressing support for the students.
The Sussex 5 eventually had their suspensions overturned, and won a £2k compensation each, alongside a “grovelling” apology from the Vice-Chancellor. You can read work by one of the Sussex 5, Mikael Segalov, in The Guardian and Vice.
In 2011, Sussex Masters’ student Luqman Onikosi was first threatened with deportation; his application to remain in the UK on medical grounds, with the treatments he needed to survive unavailable in Nigeria, was denied by the Home Office. In response, Sussex students started the “Don’t Deport Luqman” campaign in 2012, which culminated in - you guessed it - the occupation of Bramber House.
Callum Cant, a member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and organiser of a fundraiser to help Luqman cover legal costs, told the Independent “Luqman’s fight against deportation is part of a wider struggle against state violence and the border regime in communities and on campuses around the country.” The occupation garnered headline news, and brought attention to Luqman’s case, as well as the unfair deportations carried out by the Home Office every day. After a gruelling eight-year legal battle, Luqman won the right to remain in the UK.
“Thank you very much for all who have participated in the occupation/demo on scene and behind the scenes! You are all super fantastic and my personal heroes!” - Luqman Onikosi
Stop 5: York House
“This university needs to do better. First we’re locked in like animals, and now we’re being stereotyped and physically assaulted outside our own flats, that we are paying to live in, by the people that are paid to keep us safe.” - Manchester Uni Student
Turning your back to Bramber House, look over to your right and you will see York House in the distance. This building is home to the University’s security team, who have been criticised in recent years for exerting undue force over students expressing their political rights or simply walking across their campus.
In 2013, the university announced a change in the employment of security staff. Before, staff were employed by the university directly, a part of the community in a way that the new, outsourced guards were not. University staff and students protested this change, citing unfair employment contracts and concerns for the safety of the community. Despite their protest, security was outsourced to a private company, and continues to be. Outsourcing allows the university to create distance between themselves and the actions of security.
The occupiers faced harsh treatment from security staff, a trend which has continued on Sussex campus to the present day. In 2021, footage of security throwing a girl to the ground was shared by the Sussex Renters’ Union. The increasing securitisation of campuses continues to foster an unsafe environment for students. The Students’ Union recognises this as a big concern for students, and campaigns such as as Sussex Anti-Racist Action (SARA) and the Sussex Renters’ Union
Stop 6: The New East Slope
“All I want is a two roomed flat where I can be warm, and live without the threat of bronchitis from damp walls and bankruptcy from high rents. Too choosy?” - Ian Levison (Sussex student), Unionews 1988.
If we turn our backs to York House and walk back past Bramber House, we can see the accommodation buildings of the new East Slope at the very stop of the hill. The old East Slope buildings were demolished in 2018, taking away a massive part of student culture on campus. In their place, the new East Slope was built, ultra-modern flats which raised the price for a room from £88 a week to between £155 and £168.
Over 40 students occupied the building site of the new East Slope, with security threatening them with dogs, cutting off their heating and toilet access. Despite the building going ahead, student activists are turning their attention towards the proposed West Slope development replacing Park Village. Should this go ahead, no room on campus will cost less than £120 a week; many students will be priced out of attending university.
"We are occupying in solidarity with academic staff who are on strike over pension scheme changes and demand that Adam Tickell, Sussex Vice Chancellor, use his position as lead negotiator of Universities UK to meet the demands of striking staff. We are also demanding that University of Sussex halt the process of social cleansing on campus and maintain the previous rent of the occupied site at £88.56pw, instead of raising it to £156.55.” - Occupying student
This protest wasn’t the first time students had tried to save the slope. In 2005, East Slope bar (once the stage for such musicians and Jimmy Hendrix and The Who) was threatened when the University wanted to expand East Slope residences and turn the grassy area into a car park. Students stormed the fences and occupied the slope, climbing into diggers and preventing the destruction of their slope from happening. The Save Our Slope campaign was successful, until the redevelopment of East Slope in 2018 closed the bar’s doors for the last time.
Stop 7: Library Square
“The landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for the natural produce of the earth.” - Karl Marx
Retracing our steps down the Arts Path and back to Library Square, we can look across to the Arts Buildings. One of the most iconic images from student activism at Sussex Uni was taken during the many rent strikes from 1972 to 1985; we think it was taken up at the IDS building (but it looks similar enough to the Arts Buildings that we can talk about it here).
Via: Rent Strike
In 1971, the University of Sussex Tenants’ Association was set up; the student-led USTA focused on “reversing the deteriorating living conditions on campus”. The first strikes of 1972 protested the increasing rents on campus and the building of more inadequate accommodation buildings. The USTA delegation met with university management, who “made it clear that they had no mandate to reach a settlement there and then”. After presenting the university’s statement at a general meeting of students, it was collectively decided to call off the rent strike and secure their first victory. In total, 77% of the campus population went on strike, withholding £35,000 for fifteen weeks (that’s £472,275 in today’s money!), preventing the building of a new hall of residence, and lowering the rent increase from 6.5% to 3.5%.
The following year, Sussex students joined a national rent strike across 44 campuses after changes to the real-term value of their student grants. Two-thirds of students paid money into the USTA strike fund. After announcing a 4.5% increase in rent, university management “agreed not to raise student rents for another year” after witnessing a second, consecutive rent strike.
A rent strike was called in late 2020 in response to students being encouraged to rent on-campus accommodation despite the series of lockdowns called during the pandemic. The Sussex Renters’ Union was formed to organise and support striking renters, who were part of a nationwide protest against the perceived entrapment of students in tenancy contracts during the pandemic, their enforced isolation and increasing security presence.
The almost year-long strike culminated in over 700 students who notified the Renters’ Union that they were withholding rent, securing the right to terminate their tenancy early, and a 10% reduction for all renting students. It has laid the foundations for a new campaign against rising rents, poor living conditions, and the university’s dodgy dealings with companies like Balfour Beatty. You can find out more about the rent strikes in the seventies and eighties in this leaflet produced by Sussex student Ed Goddard.
Stop 8: Falmer House - the heart of the SU
“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” - Paulo Freire
Turning your back to Library Square, turn and walk back towards Falmer Quad. Falmer House is the home of the Students’ Union; in the past, it housed tenants’ associations, a second-hand book store, and a ‘street library’ (where typewriters could be borrowed to type up assessments). Throughout its history, the building has always been home to students, their activism and the democratic processes that allow the SU to function - even when only 400 students attended the university when it was founded in the sixties! Falmer House is the only democratically-run building on campus.
During strikes, the House acts as a neutral ground between management and trade unions; they meet in the building to negotiate through disputes. Teach-outs, hosted by trade unions, and closing parties that happen throughout strikes exemplify the relationship between staff and students, where they don’t have to see each other through the lens of ‘consumer’ and ‘provider’, but can learn together to produce a radical alternative to the traditional institution of the university.
One of the most notable rooms in Falmer House is Mandela Hall. In 1964, Thabo Mbeki, the first Black South African student at Sussex, led a march from Brighton to the House of Commons in protest of the imprisonment of his father, Govan, and other members of the African National Congress including Nelson Mandela. 664 students and staff from Sussex signed a petition calling for their release which was handed to the Prime Minister. They held a demonstration outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, and Mbeki leading the march was shown on television. This kind of lobbying helped the Rivonia Trialists, who were later spared.
Mbeki was a prominent member of the SU community, and went on to become Mandela's successor as the second president of South Africa in 1999. His influence led to the creation of the Sussex University South African Campaign, led by students. They worked with the NUS campaign to organise marches and raise money, through things like anti-racism concerts.
To recognise this work, in 1973, the Mandela Scholarship was founded under the leadership of the SU president, Cam Matheson; this made it possible for oppressed South Africans to come to Sussex - the first British uni to offer something like that. Following his release from prison, Mandela wrote to the scholarship fund offering praise and support. In 1978, the large hall in Falmer House was renamed "Mandela Hall" in his honour, and to remember the anti-racist campaigning and fight Sussex students have been and are involved in.