On Wednesday 31st August, 13 University Gardens will be empty for the first time in seven months, and a space which has come to signify so much more than what is contained within its walls will come to an end. It’s hard to know how to feel about the closing of the doors, having been involved with the occupation since February, because while there is so much joy in having worked for something as a collective, there’s sadness in my own emotional attachment to that place.
Back in February, when a friend who was involved in planning the initial occupation urged me to come and see the Free Hetherington, I came bearing houmous (because everyone knows it’s the fuel of the Left!) and I didn’t know what to expect. I’d been involved in the Gilmorehill occupation before Christmas, but that was for a single night – this was indefinite. I don’t think any of us thought it would last the week; if you had told us that we’d be here seven months later, we would never have believed you. The day I walked through the door for the first time was the beginning of a long journey and the gateway to so many experiences I never thought I would have. I came for the evening and I stayed for days, a pattern which would be repeated endlessly in the coming months, because I found it so hard to walk away from the interesting people, the stimulating debate, and – yes – the fun that I found in the space.
I graduated from Glasgow Uni this summer after living in the city for four years, and the Hetherington was the first place I found where there was real community. It’s been a space where people from all sorts of different backgrounds (because, no matter what you think, it’s totally untrue to say the occupation is made up entirely of middle-class white kids) meet and exchange ideas and learn from each other – graduates, students, staff, members of the community, school pupils, and so many visitors passing through from so many places. Free lectures, poetry nights, discussion groups, and every late night (or early morning) that I spent debating, learning, or singing Solidarity Forever with guitars in the hallway – it was all held together by a community with common aims. We never all agreed on everything – we are socialists and anarchists and Labour party members and so many different hues of the unaffiliated, and above all that we are all our own people with our own experiences – but we were all working towards the same goal in fighting the cuts, and we found a way to do it together.
The Free Hetherington, though, was always more than that. Of course it was never perfect, but it still taught me at least as much as my degree. The Hetherington gave me so much courage. It gave me the courage to make a speech at a protest; it gave me the courage to refuse to shake Anton Muscatelli’s hand at my graduation; it gave me the courage to challenge sexist behaviour that I would have put up with before. Last week, I chased a man down the street to ask him why he dared to smack me on the arse as he walked past, and in the midst of my incandescent rage, I felt empowered and I knew the Hetherington had done that for me. In many ways, I think my involvement with the occupation made me a better person. It taught me a lot about working with people I might not always agree with, or even get on with, and it gave me an insight into the experiences of so many people I might never have met.
So yes, there is sadness in its end. But with everything we’ve achieved and with everything I’ve gained, it’ll always be with me as a significant experience in my life. I’ll take the Free Hetherington with me in the form of everything it taught me, in the the Free HRC tattoo I got from a visiting American, and in all the friends I’ve made. I hope that others have found the same kind of inspiration in what we’ve done as I have.