On the 5th of June we were wrongfully arrested for trespass at Sydney University during an industrial action.
11 July 2013
To the university authorities of University of Sydney, Australia
In the honour of solidarity between the peoples of the world, from Honduras, we learnt of the abuses by police against university students and workers and other people who fight for better conditions at this University. These people had their rights violated: we demand an end to this repression.
We join our voices in calling for the respect of people’s integrity and for a liberatory education.
1. From the formal level of dispute to the submerged politics of work at the university
The industrial dispute at the University of Sydney currently represents one of the key conflicts involving higher education and the education economy more broadly in Australia. The acuteness of the antagonism at USyd is growing increasingly sharp. Over the past 24 months university management have made a series of decisions that have made university workers angry and lose trust. For example the handling of the library restructures since early 2011, the announcement of 350 job cuts across general and academic staff in late 2011 – early 2012, and most recently the approach to the enterprise agreement has created sharp antagonism leading into the bargaining of the enterprise agreement. A recent survey conducted by the university shows that more than 75% of respondents have no faith in the university management.[i] All of this represents good reason to be pissed off, and demonstrates its actuality. Yet it would be a mistake to think that all this anger is simply funnelled through the enterprise agreement, or that reaching even a favourable agreement will be able to resolve this anger. Whilst the dispute now is ostensibly focussed on the details of the enterprise agreement, beneath these formal dimensions there is a submerged world of the daily politics of work that is in fact the key terrain animating the antagonism.
It didn’t take long for the arrests to start at yesterday’s strike. Barely an hour into the day’s action, and an attack by massed riot police on the Carillon Avenue picket line had netted six people. No more than 45 minutes later, a further five were in police custody. Thus, within the space of two hours, the number of people arrested in the semester-long industrial dispute at the University of Sydney had tripled.
From the outset, the police were determined to make arrests. Cops on bicycles roamed around inside the university grabbing those that they could identify as activists. At the campus gates, the previous tactic of crashing into pickets and driving them off the road was abandoned in favour of dragging demonstrators into paddy wagons. Many observed police distributing photos of prominent organisers, several of whom were hit with bizarre and seemingly arbitrary charges throughout the day. One student, who had been consistently pummelled during previous strikes, was singled out for standing in the path of a bicycle for no more than a few seconds, arrested, thrown to the ground, then repeatedly stomped in the face. Others were charged whilst walking along footpaths outside university grounds. Another was arrested simply for swearing.
What follows here are five quick thoughts on re-imagining the university. Most of this is a simplistic reformulation of work done by colleagues of mine in the Urmadic University project*. These thoughts come in the context of the much welcome, exciting, and serious questioning of the university that has emerged during the recent industrial dispute at the University of Sydney. My hope is that these ideas might make a useful contribution to the ongoing discussions and moves towards changing the university.
On the morning after the May 14 Sydney University strike, I woke up to an empty house. It was 11am, my housemates had both left for the day, and the place was silent and completely deserted. For a few minutes I stumbled around towards the kitchen but then, suddenly overwhelmed by the events of the previous day, I sat down on the floor and started sobbing uncontrollably.
I’ve been on picket lines before, have screamed my lungs out at the cops, and have watched people get arrested alongside me, but I’ve never seen so much violence as I witnessed that day. Again and again and again, the police crashed into our picket lines with overwhelming force. Next to me my friends, people I had just met, and others who I didn’t even know, were shoved, trampled, choked, torn away and violently thrown to the ground. One student was punched in the head, another broke his leg, and another almost passed out after being placed in a headlock. Every time a car refused to respect our lines and tried to cross, the police would go on a rampage and attack us. Eventually, I lost count of how many times this happened.
Yesterday a picketer at the University of Sydney strike had his leg broken by police. Many others bruised, scrapped, and shaken. Despite this the pickets held strong all day.
To date, after four days of heavily policed striking, not one person on a picket has been arrested for violent behaviour, and yet picketers themselves have been subjected to escalating violence by police.
Clearly police are not here for our safety, and they are not simply ‘doing their job’. The pain they inflict supports the aims of millionaire VCs like Michael Spence who are willing to use violence against staff and students who are resisting policies that undermine their working conditions. Police attend strikes in order to hurt and intimidate us into submitting to further exploitation.
It is completely unacceptable that police are permitted to come on to our campuses and attack students and staff for peacefully picketing. They should be banned from all university campuses, just as they are in many other places around the world.
These are some notes on the issues surrounding the recent strike days at the University of Sydney – the institution where I work. I’m not so concerned with describing what happened at the strike as with some of the strategic questions about the situation at the university in the hope of creating some sort of ongoing, radical, worker and student collective action that might counter the neoliberal onslaught. I’m also not going to go into any detail about the crucial role of education in the Australian economy and what the neoliberal restructuring of higher education looks like, even if these are obviously part of the larger context surrounding all of this. Those articles have been written elsewhere. For the sake of some structure – so that it wouldn’t just be a collection of random thoughts – I have divided this into three constituent parts: the workers; the unions; and the students.
The ignominy of such an authority [as police], which is felt by few simply because its ordinances suffice only seldom for the crudest acts, but are therefore allowed to rampage all the more blindly in the most vulnerable areas and against thinkers, from whom the state is not protected by law – this ignominy lies in the fact that in this authority the separation of lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended.
And though the police may, in particulars, everywhere appear the same, it cannot finally be denied that their spirit is less devastating where they represent, in absolute monarchy, the power of a ruler in which legislative and executive supremacy are united, than in democracies where their existence, elevated by no such relation, bears witness to the greatest conceivable degeneration of violence.
Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence, 1921 (emphasis added)
While this passage was penned by Benjamin in the context of Germany’s fated Weimar Republic the analysis still holds true today, particularly in the context of the current industrial dispute underway at the University of Sydney.