Manchester students go into occupation over university’s handling of Covid 19

Students in Manchester have occupied the Owens Park Tower on Fallowfield campus. Manchester has seen some of the worst excesses of student lockdowns, and whilst even the students themselves say that some restrictions are necessary, the draconian measures introduced by the university have sparked a backlash.

This began when the university decided to begin fencing people into their own homes by constructing manned barriers around student accommodations, refusing entry and exit. An impromptu demonstration of hundreds of residents tore down several of these fences, with the rest being hastily removed by management in an embarrassing retreat.

This, alongside other sporadic clashes with management, security and police, constitutes a wave of resistance that has culminated in the occupation and the formation of the ‘9k4what?’ campaign. 9k4what is a national campaign group drawing attention to the living conditions and other challenges students are going through as a result of the pandemic.

0161 spoke to Hannah, a 9k4what? and Young Communist League member who is also one of the Owens Park Tower occupiers:

0161: Why are you occupying Owens Park Tower?

Hannah: It comes after rent strikers have withheld their rent for months, consistently taken their demands to the Uni. We’ve had protest after protest, and the uni haven’t listened to us. Basically it’s extremely unfair of the universities to bring student ms back from across the country, cramming them into accommodation where corona spread like wildfire. Not fair on the students- who were lured back on the promise of having some face to face teaching, only to be told a week before classes start that it would be 100% online. Not fair on the staff, who have had to suddenly adapt to this way of teaching with little support, and the uni using corona as an excuse to push for redundancies. Not fair on the communities in Manchester, to bring a load of students in from across the country and stuff them in close proximity causing the R rate to rise in the city.

0161: What has the response of the university been?

Hannah:The uni management has refused to meet with the occupiers to sit down and talk about our demands. Instead they’ve said that they’ll only work through the SU. Unfortunately the SU agreed to the Uni’s offer of a 2 week rent reduction without consulting us- this is actually not very much at all- it amounts to around 5% of the whole year as opposed to the 40% that UoM Rent Strike demand. And seeing as the uni are sending students home 2 weeks early, plus students had to isolate for 2 weeks, then 4 weeks rent reduction should be the bare minimum (MMU gave students 2 weeks rent back for their 2 week quarantine).
The uni instead of sitting down to talk with us, has just been trying to use intimidation tactics. Obviously the whole thing with the fences that went up overnight that students felt caged them in, and tore down. Then we’ve had, during the occupation, huge security guard and police presence on campus. On the first night of the occupation, a peaceful socially distanced protest had been planned at the foot of the occupied tower- this was called off because organisers were threatened with fines from police, and even though there was no one there protesting (students were banging pots nd pans out their windows and doorways in support instead), the uni still called the police on its own students, there was a huge police presence harassing students, and riot vans.
Then the other night the awful incident with the security guards racially profiling Zac, shoving him up against the wall, saying he didn’t look like a student and that there had been a lot of drug dealers about. The next day we recorded a security guard at the door of our occupation saying he doesn’t know of any white drug dealers.
The uni basically just keep making one mistake after another and blindly pushing on, refusing to meet with us.

0161: What are the goals of the occupation?

Hannah: The 40% rent reduction for students in halls. But also no more staff redundancies during the pandemic, increased medical and food support for students in terms of self-isolating and increased funding for student mental health services, the option for no-penalty early release from housing contracts (the uni have actually met this one!)

0161: That’s great, that you’re already seeing some victories. What would you say to people wanting to support you or get involved?

Hannah: Firstly thank you so much to everyone who has been supporting already! There’s been an overwhelming level of support- people bringing food, supplies, everything we could need or wish for, as well as loads of messages of solidarity from all over the country. How people can help us bring us food – we’re taking as many donations as possible because if it doesn’t all get eaten we are passing it on to 0161 Community for the foodbanks.
Also if people want to show solidarity it’s really nice when they make signs or banners, either to hang out their windows or to bring to us to hang out the tower windows. Send us pictures of them too (@9k4what? MCR)!

0161: Finally, how’s life in the occupation?

Hannah: Good! Pretty exhausting and busy, but it’s quieted down a bit and I’ve got a routine. Cold shower to wake you up in the morning, a nice breakfast of things people have donated (fruit, porridge, sometimes pastries) and a morning meeting where we all discuss new developments, what’s happening today and who’s doing what. Then I’m able to get some Uni work done in between banner making, phone calls with the press, emailing uni management and the SU etc. We have a big meal together in the evening, people have donated us big pots of really nice home cooked food – it feels so lovely and homely eating something that someone’s mum’s made thinking of you- and we try to have an hour or so where we don’t talk about strategy and demands and organising. But that doesn’t really work and we always end up talking about our next move and actions.
The atmospheres really nice in here, lots of people didn’t necessarily know each other beforehand, but have made really good mates over the past 10 days. We’ve shared a lot together and we’ve learnt a lot from each other, I’d say we’ve made each other stronger in the fight.

The occupiers have also proactively engaged with working class organisations like 0161 Community, donating food and supplies. Making sure that their campaign stays tied to working class struggle will help to connect the student’s fight with the struggle of our wider communities.

It is gratifying to see a sensible response to the abuses being committed by the universities that has not descended into conspiracies. 0161 offers it’s solidarity and support to the occupation at Owens Park Tower, and to all working class people suffering in the pandemic.

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