“They can't threaten us” - interview with an Owens Park Tower occupier in Manchester

Joe Molander talks to an occupier in Owens Park Tower

Joe Molander
23rd November 2020
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Students at the University of Manchester have been occupying Owens Park Tower, demanding rent cuts and better treatment of students. One of the occupiers - Hannah - agreed to speak to Joe Molander.

When did you first occupy the building?

We came in at about ten or eleven in the morning on Thursday [12 November], without breaking in: we came in through an open window. We secured all the doors, and put our legal notice on the doors saying we have a right to be there.

What are your aims for occupying the Tower?

We want Nancy Rothwell [Vice Chancellor at the University of Manchester] to listen to us, and actually speak to us. We want an actual sit-down meeting where we can get across our message to the management. Some of us are also on rent strike. I’m here with 9k4what, so I’m not a rent striker, I’m here in solidarity with them. Some of their demands are 40% reduction in rent for this year, no-penalty early release clause on tenancy agreements, and better security.

We’re not gonna stop kicking up a fuss until we get through to the University. I don’t think they can threaten us and shut us up. We wanna sit down and talk about it, and strategy, and how these things are gonna be implemented. We wanna be listened to and have a dialogue, instead of having them just try to appease us.   

What aims do you think the University are more likely to listen to?

This isn’t off the back of any negotiations yet, but I think that it’s more plausible that renters will get released from their contract without penalty. I think with the discussion about rent reduction, it’ll be likely that we’ll ask for 40% and they’ll try and haggle us to a lower percent, but I’m really confident. We’ve seen so much media attention, and we’ve seen that the uni management are scared. If they won’t come and talk to us, at least they know we’re here.

What’s the response been from other Manchester students?

It’s been brilliant. We’ve had students from all over halls constantly bringing us food, bringing supplies, and bringing paints and sheets to make banners. We’ve got a WhatsApp chat where we can coordinate what we need. Even if it’s just “ah, shit, we’ve run out of Sellotape”, there’s gonna be someone who’s got some and can drop it off to us. A group of politics staff have actually come outside to show their support and hold up banners. We’ve had lovely emails from staff, we’ve had emails from alumni, and we’ve had support from unions, like the UCU (University and College Union) and Unison. Unions from all over the country, different universities as well. Local businesses have also been sending us food.

Do you have a label for what you’re doing? Direct action, or civil disobedience, for example?

Direct action.

Previous student protest movements, like the Iraq War protests, or the Occupy movement or the movement not to raise tuition fees, didn’t get much done. Do you think that you’re doing something that they didn’t?

I don’t know. We’re on TikTok and Instagram. There’s such a great history of student action that it’s hard to find a concrete difference in 2020. This all comes as part of a wider movement against tuition fees, 9k4what in particular. I feel like there’s a lot of public support for students. The whole coronavirus crisis is unprecedented, to use the word everyone’s using. Nothing’s happened like this before. I think that is an opportunity to push for more drastic change. We’ll see.

Footage has emerged of a student being racially profiled. Is it hard for you to stay on-message and discuss tuition fees, and rent strikes, and talks with Nancy Rothwell, when there are clearly lots of other issues to be concerned about? Or does all that seem connected to things like on-campus racism?

I think they’re connected under the bracket of education acting like a business. Whether this comes in the form of tuition fees, or rent, or hiring out security guards from an agency, so they aren’t directly employed by the uni. It fosters an “us vs them”, “students vs security” mindset. It all comes under the umbrella of how the uni treats students.

The fence which was erected seemed like – if nothing else – spectacularly bad optics. Are you guys careful with presentation and how you’re going to be perceived?

Yeah, I think so. At protests, we’ve been socially distancing. The Tower is huge: it’s a feature of the skyline in Fallowfield, which means it’s seen from everywhere. A lot of that was about optics, like getting banners out to grab people’s attention. It’s also really important for a movement not to alienate the people in the city that you’re living in.

Do you worry that support from far left organisations, like socialist groups, will scare off more moderate students who might otherwise support you?

No. I think that this is a very political question, and it is socialism at the end of the day. As long as they’re fighting for these things organically and genuinely, in a heartfelt and honest way, then I’m absolutely not worried.  

The University of Manchester rent strike can be found on Instagram.

The University of Manchester branch of 9k4what is on Instagram and Twitter. The movement also has a Newcastle branch, which is also on Twitter.   

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

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AUTHOR: Joe Molander
Head of Current Affairs and co-founder of The Toon Lampoon. Politics, interviews, satire and the Courier's leading authority on frosted tips. @JoeMolander on Twitter and full portfolio available on Muckrack.

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