OPINION: Is Solidarity Possible?
I support the movement to save the Sydney College of the Arts from closure. I feel that it’s important for me to say this, because Thursday’s rally was iconic but, if online commentary is anything to go off, also divisive.
Thursday’s protests were merely the most recent as protesters have continued to mount pressure on the university to reassess their controversial decision to close the SCA campus. This closure is in accordance with the University's strategic plan, where the SCA along with nine other faculties (including Education and Agriculture) will be cut to leave only six faculties by the start of 2017. These protests come off of a 45 day long occupation of the Dean’s offices at the SCA campus, in addition to year-long rallies to raise awareness and promote solidarity with the satellite campus. The occupation itself has long since exceeded expectations that it would last only a few days. The Dean of the SCA has also stepped down in response to the occupation.
So it would seem like activism is thriving, right?
Well, with tickets campaigning against “radical” politics seeing significant victories, in a toxic Student Representative Council election, it begs the question - is USYD shifting towards the centre? Or are students growing weary with the re-emergence of a highly politicised campus?
Pulp Media asked Riki Scanlan who said that the protests “successfully disrupted the University’s brand image” with a giant banner adorning the quad reading “U$$$$$$$$$YD IS KILLING ITS ART SCHOOL” (we have removed some $’s for length). The “embarrassment” of Thursday’s protests led to the university bringing in police on Friday to remove students who had camped overnight on the quad lawns, Scanlan added.
Another protester, Georgia Mantle, said that police merely watched as campus security “blew whistles” to wake sleeping campers, pushed people around and “literally herded us off campus”.
“We were massively outnumbered,” Mantle told Pulp.
As we’ve seen in other protests throughout this year, the University has often handled protesters by forcibly removing them and spiraling into damage control. It’s certainly one way for protesters to continue pushing for the changes they desire, and has been successful in other campaigns run this year alone. That said, the protests have their detractors.
Protests in support of the SCA have received criticism online - the occupation in late August saw one comment that “the dean needs to use the b&hammer (banhammer) and expel them from campus” (sic). The student who posted on the event page for Thursday’s protests (in the picture above) called them “empty feel-good” - which suggests current methods of winning hearts and minds aren’t working. They told Pulp Media that the “entire lecture theatre was completely unreceptive” to the campaign.
If we’re being dismissed as “empty feel-good” and our audience “unreceptive”, we need to repackage that message. At the moment students feel that the protesters were merely “whining about their degree being removed” and that the campaign was ill-informed, adding that they had been informed it was not being discontinued. That’s not the sound of someone ready to join the picket line.
For a campus which Let SCA Stay campaigner Bella Devine-Poulos calls “supposedly the most left-wing uni in Sydney”, it’s sobering to think that the student body might be growing moderate.
“The lecture disruptions weren’t necessarily as successful” and they received “quite a bit of backlash”, Devine-Poulos told Pulp. “I think that education activism on campus is generally pretty hard… [there] isn’t a great amount of political consciousness on university campuses”.
Another protester added that activism on campus became “niche” in the 2000’s, however said this was because activists “shied away” from bringing politics to students during that decade.
Having spoken with students who witnessed the lecture disruptions, it also seems as if a major concern is that the regularity of lecture bashes has now set some STEM courses back significantly. One student mentioned they “have lost about an hour… to various political groups, Honi tickets, and other protests”.
This past SRC election cycle was particularly bad in general. To recap, ‘Power’ (which ran Georgia Mantle for President) campaigned as activists against ‘Stand Up’. The latter ticket proposed a less "radical" SRC and prioritised advocacy. The campaign season got a tad ugly. ‘Stand Up’ won.
When Scanlan (who monitored and informed students of SRC voting totals as they were counted) was asked if they thought there was a trend in which factions were engaging and mobilising students, they said that election results didn’t “in any meaningful sense” represent this.
Is this then apathy on the part of STEM students?
It would certainly suggest so, but more an apathy drawn from the commitments of their degree rather than lack of political engagement. Students told Pulp that they would “love to be part of something like this”, or wished “all the best” to the protesters - their major concern was the act of lecture disruption in and of itself. This would suggest that rather than a shift to the centre, perhaps students (or at least STEM students) are growing weary of campaigns which slow down an already intensive degree. We need to reconsider how activist politics can engage with a diverse body of students studying courses of varying intensity.
Although there are some calling for a banhammer, it does suggest that there are regular students who, despite course requirements keeping them in labs rather than on Eastern Avenue, are sympathetic to the SCA campaign. Perhaps Scanlan is right in saying that “negative responses are invariably loudest over Facebook”, telling Pulp that they knew cases where lecture disruptions were applauded. It’s also telling that two Honi tickets in the past election ran with candidates from the SCA - an acknowledgement of how central the SCA campaign has been to campus culture this past year.
So what’s the best way to go forward? If bringing politics into the lecture theatre sours rather than engages students, it’s clear that we as students need to find new ways to engage one another in the issues that affect us and the structure of our university. We need to build bridges and communicate together so as to hold the university accountable. We’ve already come this far, haven’t we?