On 2 December the students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (soas) ended a twelve-day-long occupation of their library, when the School management accepted their demand for full and free access to the Senate House Library, the central library of the University of London. The occupation, although opposed bitterly by a minority of students at soas itself, was an event that attracted a tremendous response, both in Britain and abroad, of solidarity and concern.

This academic year, it was decided by the School management, that only 680 tickets to the Senate House Library would be given free of charge to students, while the rest would have to pay an annual fee of £70. Given that there are over 2,500 students at soas, the pattern of distribution was to be at best erratic, and at worst discriminatory towards the under-graduates. The soas management explained that it was forced to abandon free provision of library tickets for all students because of the higher charges instituted by Senate House itself, and because the poor state of the School’s finances obliged it to find a way of paying for the new charges. The great majority of students were shocked by this announcement since free library access has always been an elementary component of university study. While soas has an excellent research library, students valued access to Senate House facilities since the central university library stocks many titles used in course teaching. After a successful demonstration organized by the Students’ Union, the management called for an open meeting of staff and students to discuss the issue. Two things became evident at this meeting. First, that while the management was immersed in the language of supposed economic rationality, within the context of ‘budgetary constraints’, the students were arguing from an entirely different premise. They made it clear to the management that they were well aware that there was a national crisis created by cuts in the funding for higher education, and hence in the School’s budget, but that this only strengthened their determination to defend free access to academic libraries and decent standards of education. Secondly, though neither party uttered the word ‘politics’, it soon became obvious in the course of the meeting that, while the management was trying to confine the debate to the details of how Senate House could deal with its funding difficulties, the student body was constantly trying to bring out the underlying issue of resistance to the commercialization of education. One of the most prominent placards in the demonstration, for example, read ‘we are students, not consumers’. The meeting proved inconclusive since the language used on either side indicated very different levels of outlook and aspiration.

On 20 November, two days after the meeting with management, the Students’ Union called an Emergency General Meeting. Union meetings are often sparsely attended but this time two hundred students came, the largest turnout anyone could remember. A representative from the executive body of the National Union of Students (nus), which had earned notoriety for their support of the recent introduction of fees, addressed the gathering. She explained that she did not support the nus position on fees and urged the meeting to assert students’ fundamental right to education and free facilities. However, no urging was necessary. When the Union proposed the motion that there was no ‘further viable recourse other than non-violent direct action’, an overwhelming majority passed it, giving a formal go-ahead for the occupation of the soas library.

Since students were protesting at exclusion from Senate House it needs to be explained why the soas library was chosen as the site for protest. The Senate House library was ruled out in the first instance, as it was the soas management that was deemed to be responsible for the decision to restrict access. It was argued by some at the meeting that the administrative sections of the School should be occupied, since it was a protest against the management. During the demonstration on 18 November, though, the management had closed down the bar as their initial response to any form of action within the School. It was thus feared that if any part of the School other than the library was to be occupied by students, then the management would most certainly close down the library. In this situation, the occupation would lose the support of the general student body. If the library itself was occupied then it could be kept open and running.

In comparison to the students’ movements of the 1960s, this occupation was clearly different in both perspective and tactics. First, the students here had a very modest objective, and were not preparing to change the world. What was interesting, however, was that the trajectory of the movement, the day-to-day interactions, the solidaristic ethics of those few days, actually pushed certain questions to the surface that were much broader than the Senate House issue. Secondly, the 1960s movement was often informed by a rejection of ‘bourgeois education’, and hence there were few efforts to maintain or actually run such tainted institutions. In the case of the soas occupation, though, no such ideological agenda existed, and it was believed that it would be better and more empowering to take over the library and keep it open for general use by students rather than to close it down with all the disruption to study that this would cause. Those who supported the occupation understood that peaceful and cooperative methods would build support for the protest and put greater pressure on the management to abandon the Senate House charges and restrictions.

As the occupation began, the students moved into the library, and the library staff, in support of the occupiers, left their desks and moved out. The management immediately shut down the central computer system, shut off the lifts, and closed down the bar. Within an hour the Pro-Director issued a leaflet stating, ‘I strongly recommend that you do not enter the library as all emergency services are suspended in this area’. That very afternoon a case was filed against the ‘offenders’ and Court Summons were posted at the library entrance addressed to ‘persons unknown’. If the management was swift in their punitive reaction to the occupation, the students were even swifter in their response to the situation. Within fifteen minutes of taking over the library, an ad-hoc committee of three students was selected who were given responsibility for the overall running of the occupation. The powers conferred on this body were significant. Although the Union had originally issued the call for the occupation, the occupiers, as a body, did not accept the pre-existing Union hierarchy and chose their own representatives. The Union President was retained as one of the committee members, but the other two students were not even a part of the executive. Furthermore, it was decided that, in the event of any negotiation with the management, the ad-hoc committee could only represent the students’ case to the management but were not permitted to take decisions on their behalf. In other words, they were merely to carry back to the students any offer made, and the student body as a whole would take decisions on a direct democratic basis.

So from its very start the occupation had various distinctive features. First, it rejected the commercialization of education. Second, it guarded against bureaucratization of the protest movement, or its cooption by a Union leadership that would be susceptible to management pressure. Third, the occupation was run in a highly democratic manner: no member of the occupation was allowed to take any decision about the future without it being discussed in the presence of all, and then voted upon. These arrangements in no way signified that the movement was disorganized. It was agreed that there were to be three meetings a day to decide the plan of action. The first one, held every morning at eight, decided on the change of rota, and the allocation of shifts—who was going to be at the front desk and the door, and a team for the re-shelving of books used by the readers. Another meeting at eight in the evening decided on similar plans for the night. The third meeting, held at one in the afternoon, while School was in session, was to decide matters beyond the organizational, where broader issues about the future of and political justification for the occupation were discussed. There was thus, from very early on, an implicit understanding and separating out of questions, organizational and strategic, and the fact that the latter was allotted to a time that ensured maximum participation indicated the democratic inclusiveness of the occupation.