“Kiwi John” has been an occupier at the Free Hetherington since late April. This article by him tells how he got involved, what he did and what it meant to him.
It really started with “cheesecake cake”. A friend had been telling me I should go to “the Free Hetherington” for weeks (it was “amazing”, apparently) but I’d never really found any reason to go. That changed when I saw a “baking a cookery demonstration” advertised – and it was free! And they were willing to teach me how to make “cheesecake cake”, whatever that was. And they were open to non-students, even non-students who had graduated from one of Glasgow’s “other universities”! Baking was one thing I’d always wanted to learn, but never quite found the time for. So that was the reason I first went to the Free Hetherington.
So I found myself – slightly nervously, to be honest – walking up to a building I’d been in only once or twice before. It was very different: instead of the imposing aura of academia it was covered in brightly covered, home-made posters. People clustered round the front step, smoking roll ups and chatting. Someone welcomed me, then a few more. All smiles, nothing to be scared of! I asked where the baking demonstration was and someone led me downstairs to the kitchen. I learned I could bake (and I learned that “cheesecake cake” was a cake topped with a cheesecake – obvious, really, now you come to think of it…)
After that I kept returning to the Hetherington. I got to meet plenty of new friends, and bumped into a few old ones too. I got involved in more than one “campaign” – I adapted my new baking skills to be an effective tool in the struggle to save courses and to support striking public-sector workers. I saw films that touched my heart, chatted with activists from around the world, and witnessed incredible creativity. I learned I was braver than I thought, I learned that I could do things I didn’t think I was capable of, and I learned that people working together can achieve amazing things. Truthfully, I kind of knew much of this already. But until you see things put into practice – until you actually find yourself doing something you’ve only ever read about – you somehow don’t really believe it’s possible.
Talking to other people I realised that many people felt the same – most people had thought “the occupation” was only going to last a few days. No one seriously expected to take on a centuries-old university with a multi-million pound budget – and win. All that theory, all that reading, couldn’t really be right. But we learned – together – that there was strength in numbers. We worked with members of the university staff, trade union members, members of the wider community. We worked with activists throughout Scotland, throughout Britain, and from further afield too. Gradually we learned that we could make the occupation endure – with help, of course, with donations from supportive members of the public, with practical pointers from shop stewards and sympathetic lawyers. Gradually we began to think “maybe we can win?” The university began to back-pedal on some of the planned cuts. Nothing to do with the occupation, of course (of course!), it was all due to a new budget estimate!
And you know the rest. The occupation became the longest student occupation in British history. It was part of a campaign that secured several important concessions from Glasgow University. It loved cake. And now it’s going to live on – as part of an ongoing struggle for a society built on fairness, progress and compassion.