What do the 2011 mobilisation against tuition hikes, McGill University’s abusive reversal of a student referendum result in 2012, and a 2016 report from the University’s Board of Directors claiming that climate change does not cause “grave social injury” all have in common? They all showed an increased student involvement in campus politics, but more importantly, they led to the student occupations of the McGill administration building. During your time at university, you’re going to be increasingly frustrated by the administration, and in your struggle, the idea of occupying the administration building might cross your mind. The McGill Daily sat down with members from the 2012 6Party and the 2016 Divest McGill occupations for you to learn from their mistakes and their successes. Here is a step-by-step guide to help you decide whether occupation is your best option. Hopefully you now have a better idea of how to occupy the administration building, and this information about past occupations will inform your activism. Good luck!
Republished from QPIRG’s 2018 School Schmool.
1. BUILDING UP
To decide to occupy the administration building, you first have to have a clear contention with the administration’s behavior.
- 6Party: The administration decided to illegally cancel the results of a very tense and critical referendum on QPIRG McGill and CKUT’s existence, for unclear reasons. Allies of QPIRG and CKUT occupied the building for 5 days to reverse the ruling and ask for the resignation of the then Deputy Provost Student Life and Learning (DPSLL) Morton Mendelson.
- Divest McGill: The administration’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) claimed that climate change does not cause “grave social injury” as a response to Divest McGill’s request that the university divest from fossil fuels. CAMSR’s report argued that divestment was therefore unwarranted.
You need momentum to claim that people are backing your action.
You can build support by:
- Receiving overwhelmingly positive referendum results over a question supporting your struggle (6Party + Divest McGill)
- Pitching tents in front of the McGill administration to inform the public about the subject (Divest McGill)
- Collecting signatures and endorsements from student groups, professors, and departments (Divest McGill)
Make sure your occupation happens at the right time:
- To mobilise people and retain the administration’s attention, it’s always best to do it mid-semester.
Determine why occupation would be the most appropriate recourse.
- The 6Party member interviewed reflected on whether occupation was the most appropriate action for this kind of space. She thinks occupations are more useful when they repurpose or reclaim spaces. One example of this is protesting the closure of a café by taking it over and turning it into a cooperative.
- Have a decent amount of people working on it. Divest McGill had seven people doing the bulk of the planning.
- Work on your team dynamics: the 6Party member interviewed told me that toxic dynamics killed the cohesion and drive of the occupation. Divest McGill, on the other hand, thought about the potential physical problems that could arise during the occupation and worked on getting the team to know each other beforehand. Make sure your group has an awareness of anti-oppressive practices, and a knowledge of group dynamics and collective care.
- Plan for food and equipment: do a Costco run and get food, sleeping bags, menstrual products, books, laptops, clothes, board games, anything to get you through the days of the occupation smoothly.
Things to keep in mind when organizing.
- Use code names: Divest McGill always referred to the operation during planning as the “pizza party” — nothing suspicious about a pizza party, is there?
- Use diversions: During their occupation, Divest McGill publicized their upcoming diploma returning ceremony as a distraction. They were able to multitask because they had about 40 active working members, which isn’t the case for most student groups.
- Don’t use your McGill email. Assume that it can be accessed by the administration.
- Use encrypted messaging applications if necessary, like Signal.
Decide on your demands:
- Divest McGill decided their demands as a group beforehand. The 6Party member interviewed regretted that 6Party came in with no clear demands, and therefore had to think of them on the spot, which is not optimal for a productive discussion.
- The hardest part of settling on demands is finding a balance between what would be optimal, what students would rally behind, and what the administration might accept.
- The Divest McGill member interviewed regretted that 2 of their 3 demands were too easy for the administration to accept (releasing testimonies from experts claiming climate change did not cause grave social injury, and holding community consultations on divestment). The administration was able to kill the momentum by granting these two demands and ignoring the most important one, which would have forced the administration to recognize that climate change does cause “grave social injury” and thus push them to divest. The member interviewed wished their demands were bolder, like asking directly for the university to divest from fossil fuel.
- The 6Party’s demands were bold (asking for the referendum results to be valid again and for the resignation of the DPSLL), and although none of them were granted, the member interviewed expressed that the demands could have been even broader! In her opinion, the result had more to do with the administration’s antagonistic attitude of the time than the demands.
Plan for an exit routes and a worst case scenario.
- What will you do if none of your demands are met? How will you make sure this defeat doesn’t kill the momentum of your movement but instead makes it stronger? How will you talk about your occupation?
Getting in is the first challenge, and we can’t tell you how people did it, otherwise the administration would shut down those options! You’ll have to figure that one out, but there is a history of rad administration building occupiers that will be able to help!
Make media a priority and use it wisely!
- The 6Party suffered from an unplanned media strategy. Divest McGill, on the contrary, designated 2 occupants as spokespeople whose tasks were to communicate with the outside world. They also managed to get a journalist from the McGill Daily to come with them to liveblog the experience, and were contacted by many news outlets around Montreal once the occupation started. Media serves to give your occupation digital presence and to let your demands be known.
Team dynamics and roles
During the Divest McGill occupation, everyone had a specific role:
- 1 person took charge of negotiation with the administration
- 1 person was the security liaison, who was aware of the code of conduct and what they could be reproached for
- 2 people managed food
- 2 people took care of the media
- 2 people were camp counsellors: they provided emotional support, and entertained everyone — this was especially critical because an occupation is an emotionally trying time
Know your rights:
- Technically, what you are going to do is against the university’s code of conduct, since you will be impeding on the normal functioning of the university. The code of conduct is incredibly broad in its definition of what can be considered a misconduct.; Divest and 6Party bet on the fact that unless you are actively harming someone, security agents cannot touch you. Make sure to tell agents that they can’t touch you if they approach you—6Party did that successfully.
Prepare for the administration’s intimidation tactics (the following allegedly happened during previous occupations):
- Playing with temperature: turning off ventilation, making the room stuffy or turning off the heat during the winter
- Leaving glaring neon lights on during the night and making it difficult to sleep
- Cutting off access to the bathroom
- Cutting off power
4. AFTER THE OCCUPATION
Disciplinary actions and intimidation.
- Divest McGill did not suffer any retaliation from the administration. This wasn’t the case for the 6Party occupants; actions were taken by the administration against some members, dismissing a floor fellow partly for his participation in the occupation, and the member interviewed alleged that she and other members were followed by McGill security agents after the occupation, and that she was intimidated by the head of security who approached her to say that he had her name and picture on file.
Think about after care.
- Both the 6Party and Divest McGill people interviewed said that the time after the occupation was also difficult: people fell sick and felt physically and emotionally exhausted. One interviewee suggested that others provide the occupants with emotional and physical support for a few days or weeks after the occupation.