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Student sit-in after police eviction: celebrity visits, more protestors and an upgrade

Until the police burst through the door, Tuesday morning at the Hetherington Research Club was indistinguishable from any other.

It was the 50th day of the student occupation. The old club had been seized in protest against Glasgow University’s proposed cuts to courses such as nursing, languages, archaeology and adult education.

On Monday evening, a weekly pub quiz had been held as normal.

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Students sat in the downstairs bar under banners welcoming all to ‘Free Hetherington’. Green tea flowed. In the entrance hallway, a list showed the spectrum of organisations declaring solidarity with the protest, ranging from a local taxi driver to a Palestinian refugee camp.

Fewer than normal students had slept over that night. Normally 10 protesters spend the night on mats in the upstairs bar. On Monday night, only seven bedded down. At 10.20am on Tuesday one of them, Lauri Love, a 26-year-old physics, maths and computing student, opened the door to several members of university security. They informed Love that an eviction was about to take place.

With the battle lines drawn, six students retreated upstairs while Love dashed out to alert other students. Within an hour, hundreds had gathered, sitting in the doorway, preventing those staging the sit in from being removed. As the numbers escalated, the police were called. Students claim up to 80 police officers and 28 vehicles arrived. A helicopter hovered overhead.

The eviction was turning violent. “There were four or five officers per person,” said Love. “People were being dragged and scraped across the ground.” Some students suffered dislocated shoulders and concussion. Arrests were made for obstructing police and breach of the peace. By mid-afternoon, the eviction was complete. The protesters’ home lay empty. Its windows were being boarded up. The electricity and water was disconnected.

But the hundreds of students milling outside decided “this wasn’t the end of the day”. According to Love, “spontaneously” the students turned and marched on the university.

The main university buildings lie across the road from the Hetherington. One student estimated 500 students advanced on the quadrangle. The police were powerless to stop them. Within the hour they had occupied the senate floor. “We might have been evicted, but we just got upgraded,” said Love.

A letter was drafted demanding the resignation of the principal Anton Muscatelli. As the evening drew on the senior management group, the part of the university overseeing its cuts, made concessions. It agreed there would be an inquiry into the evictions and that Muscatelli would attend an open meeting.

At 10pm an American protest singer David Rovics arrived to do a gig for the sit in. Both Scotland’s National Poet Liz Lochhead and singer Billy Bragg have visited.

Shortly before midnight the head of university security approached the students with an offer: if they agreed to leave the senate floor, they could return to the Hetherington.

“It was an unprecedented victory,” said Patrick Orr, a 20-year-old languages student. “By showing the amount of widespread support we have, it’s re-energised the occupation.”

The days that have followed have been a blur for all involved. More students have come forward to join in. The Welcome Wall has doubled in size due to the volume of people signing it. Even film maker Ken Loach popped in on Thursday to have dinner and show support. Emboldened by their success on Tuesday, at Friday’s open meeting with Muscatelli, chaired by rector Charles Kennedy, the students booed and called for the principal’s resignation.

“Things have definitely changed,” said Love. “I don’t think we could have imagined that something as dramatic as us occupying the senate would happen. Maybe in retrospect we should have done that on day one. This had changed the game.”

But their success hasn’t just attracted positive reactions. The sit-in has polarised the student body. Some factions have openly intimidated the protesters. In the early hours of Friday morning several male students tried to storm the Hetherington. One protester was badly beaten and hospitalised by what seemed to be a bunch of drunken ‘jocks’.

The university appears to be accepting the presence of the protest, “as long as it remains peaceful”. It is dealing with the protesters, and issues such as garbage collection and plumbing. A spokeswoman said: “The university is also in constant dialogue with the Student Representative Council, the democratically elected voice of the students.”

For now, both students and the university seem to bedding down for an uneasy bout of co-habiting.

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