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17th March 2023

Before the downfall: Catching up with the Sam Alex Occupiers

In just a few short weeks, UoM Rent Strike’s occupation has taken on wins and defeats. Before it all kicked off, we paid the Sam Alex occupiers a visit to see what was occurring before UoM intervened.
Before the downfall: Catching up with the Sam Alex Occupiers
Photo: Maya Salgado Swabey @ The Mancunion

On February 19, the occupation of the Sam Alex building and the (senior management) John Owens building ended. The ‘main occupation’ has moved to the Simon building, after “UoM security called Greater Manchester Police, falsely alleging that they were assaulted by the students,” according to UoM Rent Strike.

The occupiers believe that “security lied to the police, prompting a disproportionate number of police officers being dispatched – six vehicles.” The suggestion that security overplayed the risks the occupiers posed is reinforced by the fact that upon arrival, the police assessed the situation and then refused to assist security. 

I interviewed the occupiers of Sam Alex, when the occupation had just got underway. This was when the “F**s and D***s Unite for Strikes” banner was hanging proudly from Sam Alex, and a cardboard cut out of Boris Johnson was being mockingly exhibited from a John Owens window. 

Once inside the occupied room, I noticed the familiar signs of an occupied space: anarchist graffiti, zines on policing, and doughnuts.  I met J, Z and B, who are three of approximately 50 students who had occupied the Engineering building, the Samuel Alexander building, and the John Owens building. 

The occupier’s demands were (and still are):  £1,500 for every student from the university to keep up with inflation, that the UCU demands are met, and that the rent strike demands are met. 

The occupation and the rent strike movement are closely allied. The rent strike movement is demanding a 30% reduction in future payments, 30% compensation on October rent payments, and a guarantee that there will be no rent increase for the three next years.

The Sam Alex occupiers had seemed confident that they would reach an agreement with the University. When I expressed my doubt that the University would agree to their demands, when not even the teaching staff were being properly paid, they reminded me of the success of the 2020 Owens Park rent strike- in which Z participated.

The 2020 rent strike during lockdown was the most successful student rent strike in UK history. With only 12 students occupying the tower, their protest made national headlines and won the University of Manchester students £12 million in rent compensation.

Another reason they were hopeful was that, this time, the rent strike and occupation coincided with national strikes across various sectors. The sense of disenfranchisement with the current economic system was growing, this time not only in the typically left-wing student body. 

However, since then, the occupiers have left the John Owens building- which was the most disruptive and impressive occupation- and are currently occupying only three rooms in the Simon building.

They have received letters threatening disciplinary action in the Simon building- just as in John Owens. They showed me one and it’s filled with scary-looking words, which, they assure me, mean nothing without an injunction from the high court. 

Photo: Maya Salgado Swabey @ The Mancunion

These intimidating letters are not, however, the reason they left John Owens. Rather “they had achieved their goal; they had interrupted the workflow of the John Owens building. It was a collective decision, we are conscious of the mental health of those inside, the burnout was real.”

Looking forward, the newly occupied space is welcoming. Their section of the fifth floor, named ‘the Free People’s Republic of Simon’  is open to all students and interested visitors.

When I ask them if the occupation is the most effective form of protest, the Simon occupiers tell me that (despite the occupation leading to no meaningful dialogue with the University) they created “quite a lovely, inclusive space […] where they are always welcome to have some food, a chat, and a safe study space.”

I ask them if they would leave if the heating and WiFi were to be turned off- as it was in John Owens. They tell me the heating and hot water had already been turned off, but the WiFi won’t be, because there is “meteorological stuff” in this building.

Strategically, it seems as though they have picked a building that, while being a visible presence in the centre of campus, is also viable for long-term occupation. This occupation is also only one form of protest against the University. It began with the rent strike and the occupations created a visible face for their movement.

“When the rent strike began, the University refused to acknowledge its existence, they said it wasn’t real and there were no numbers of students who hadn’t paid their rent that was higher than usual, so we had to prove to the university that we were here.”

It remains to be seen if the occupiers and University can reach an agreement. There may be an escalation, on the University’s part, to evict the protestors. Although, I am told this is unlikely- as it won’t be worth the negative media attention it will bring to the University.

Media attention is something that the University of Manchester is wary of, especially after they made national news, following student protests over rent and accommodation conditions in 2020.

Another possibility is that the University will ignore them, and hope that the occupation will conveniently fizzle out on its own accord.  They tell me they are not going anywhere soon, and that all students are welcome to participate in their various political workshops or join them in the occupation.

To keep up with the latest news on UoM Rent Strike, click here or follow The Mancunion on TikTok (@themancunion).

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