Students take control – democracy in action
An interview with the people occupying Allende Park 1 (AP1)
“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.”
Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics (1988)
University has become a place of vicious financial cuts, decades-long underfunding, and increased rationalisation, while the spirit of emancipatory education, vivid discourse and self-development is slowly vanishing. However, this year is a year of student protests, not just in America, but also here in Hamburg. You might have heard of the recent occupation of the HWP that came as the result of proposed dramatic cuts to OE funds, from 30,000 to 12,500 Euro. Now, another building has followed, but the people occupying it have a much broader range of demands. Allende Park 1 (AP1), also known as the “Pferdestall”, has been occupied for more than a week now. Some may have noticed it due to displaced seminars or grumpy lecturers complaining about “students these days”, though only a few know what’s really going on at AP1 and what they stand for.
This radical month of May includes the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, the 73rd anniversary of the decisive defeat of fascism in Europe and the 50th anniversary of the student and worker uprisings in France and throughout the world. This occupation in Hamburg reminds us that the much-heralded ‘End of History’ is well and truly over. New forms of cooperation, collaboration and education are being put into action, breathing vitality into an increasingly neoliberal university, encouraging students and non-students alike to think critically and take control of their university.
To give more students the opportunity to find out what’s really behind this student occupation, our team of talented tbaJournalists had the unique opportunity of doing interviews with people who are now under the banner of the ‘Autonome Universität’ to gather some individual perspectives about the ongoing protest.
We conducted the interviews anonymously so as to ensure that the students would feel comfortable and free enough to express what it is they really think about the current situation.
What struck us most was the atmosphere on the first floor of AP1. With the sweet smell of cigarettes hanging in the air, our newfound welcome-desk-comrade immediately drummed up a handful of helpful people, ready to be interviewed. All of them seemed confident in what they were doing, standing up for their demands.
How did it start then? Although this occupation stands in solidarity with the HWP occupation, they are perusing rather more ambitious aims. As we were told, it started with only a few people discussing current issues on campus. Then more and more joined the discourse, feeling that “there was a movement happening”, and they started to think about how to best tackle the discussed problems. Occupying rooms is easy, at least initially, but it is also effective.
Our daily life in university is marked by underfunding. Overcrowded seminar rooms, a reduction in the variety of courses we can take, an abandoned empty skeleton of a dilapidated building known as the Philturm, and a whole faculty in exile are visual proof. This mix of students and non-students are using the occupied rooms to set a sign against daily life at university in which some things have clearly gone very wrong. One of those interviewed pointed out that university isn’t providing the needed space, metaphorically and literally, for its students and their studies. We are already dealing with enough pressure from exams and essay deadlines, not to mention the time we have to spend working to make a living in this increasingly expensive city. The way universities are run doesn’t only affect the time people spend on campus, but also eats up and bleeds into their free time. Often, students will even find themselves struggling to find any free time at all and to manage a proper balance to deal with all this pressure.
The APists also explained to us that “Students live in a bubble, being served without knowing under which conditions those people providing those services to us work.”
Whilst the movement draws attention to various problems, one of its core demands is better working conditions for those who maintain campus life for us students, like canteen staff, cleaning staff, lecturers and doctoral students. Phrases such as “temporary employment” and “exploited people” seem to lose their meaning when they are mentioned too often without any improvements or at least attempts for change. It is easy for students to look past the working conditions of university staff, but the people we interviewed expressed the importance in showing solidarity with them, not least because the poor working conditions “affect the relationship between staff and students”.
“The whole education system is messed up.” One of the interview students felt strongly about these injustices and complained about restricted access to education due to university entrance qualifications and the numerus clausus. “Education is as free as it used to be.” Don’t we all have a seminar which we only attend because they’re obligatory? Instead of listening to what the lecturer tries to convey we’re killing time by texting or looking at the latest cute cat meme- Where’s the point in that? Free development of character and mind is stuck between rigid hierarchies and elitism. Moreover, the students told us that universities are less focused on providing access to education, and more on “increasing the marketability of individuals”. They used the metaphor “educational factory”, depicting students as manufactured products freshly produced and stamped with bachelor or masters certificates. How much are we worth on the market?
Healthy politics is characterized by intense and engaging discourse, which includes heated debates. That’s what keeps us moving forward. The importance of working toward a consensus, so that every participant involved is comfortable with the decisions that are arrived at, was stressed by our interview partners.
“We don’t want to create a minority that is overlooked. Instead, we keep on discussing until we can all agree on something.” This is an exemplary form of cooperative living, which has created an honest and friendly atmosphere. The collaboration and organization at AP1 builds on mutual respect. There is no such thing as hierarchy here and yet it works, at least that’s what they told us with a diplomatic smile. Despite the absence of compulsion, nobody is ever forced to do a certain job, and their organization, though described as “chaotic but dynamic”, still finds many people willing to participate and take on work and responsibility. “The people here are taking on responsibilities because they see that there’s something for them to do, not because someone tells them ‘you have to do this now’.” This way, everyone can contribute in their own way, depending on where their strengths lie, rather than being forced. In contrast to a sense of being forced to participate, there seems to be a massive degree of intrinsic motivation that keeps everything moving.
While we were talking to the people occupying the building, not all of whom were students, we found that for them this wasn’t merely about university itself, but also about how those attending and working at uni are affected by it as individuals. We keep forgetting that life experiences cannot be contained with a curriculum. You cannot find a person’s personality on a certificate between printed letters and numbers. Yet it has become more and more common to reduce university life to a certification process. University is moving in a direction the people occupying the Pferdestall cannot support. Our university has fewer and fewer spaces for discussion, discourse, and experimentation. These are the sorts of places that the occupation of the first floor at Allende Park has begun to provide.
We need more movements like this one. It offers new access to education, diversity and vivid discourse, in other words; university as it is often imagined. There is another way. Just because we only know the system we live in does not mean there is no other possibility of shaping our university. One of the most inspiring quotes from the interviews was definitely: “Die Uni ist ein elitärer Scheißhaufen.” – short, yet concise. The protest questions authority, hierarchy and domination at university to open a dialogue for discussions. It offers an alternative for finding solutions to improve daily-life on campus. For the many, not the few.
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Richard Shaull (Intro to Pedagogy of the oppressed)
If you are looking for more open spaces in education or if you’d like to take a rare glimpse at what democracy in action actually looks like, pay a visit to AP1. Our Uni could use some more APists. Keep it up, comrades!
Naemi & Lena were listening to the sound of change in the air while preparing this piece.