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Students Mustn't Fear Civil Disobedience

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Tim*, an articulate student who travelled to Sussex from the West Country, has been part of the occupation of Bramber House for a few weeks. A tired girl who's had just a handful of hours sleep over the past few days is patently emotional as she leans against a buddy, mumbling.

I peer over the balcony and off to the side, anticipating the imminent ripple of a thousand angry voices over the concrete below. Our comrade, well-versed in keeping up morale, consoles her tired friend quickly. We all continue watching and waiting for the approaching demo.

Tim* can't remember exactly how many days he's been here now. Shuddering beneath a thick dressing gown, he tells me he'd been inspired by Sussex students and lecturers who've taken a clear lead above other Universities by organising robust resistance to cuts, privatization and redundancies. Like me, he came to experience it first hand and take the spirit back home.

Our motivations are those of every other demonstrator who came to Monday's protest. Roughly seven weeks ago, Sussex students occupied Bramber House and spread out to other buildings across campus, calling for an end to privatization, cuts and job losses. The national demo they led on Monday was a resounding success, electrifying the student movement ahead of what could be a sultry summer of anti-cuts, anti-privatization protest.

This isn't simply about the 235 Sussex staff losing their jobs, but the insidious, unaccountable nature of political decision making about universities. The essence of Occupy Sussex is creating a space where alternatives can be imagined - pause to think for a moment how the flagship Tory mantra "There Is No Alternative" specifically discourages debate about the absent merits of their radical restructuring programme.

Between managers, students and staff there's no discussion, even though the latter two have tried everything to initiate one at Sussex. Academia is supposedly a sacred space for truthful dialogue. Yet managers and politicians sidestep fundamental questions about their agenda for our universities, whilst facts about changes are obfuscated. Change on this scale without any dialogue from decision makers is simply dictation, making Occupy Sussex's civil disobedience absolutely necessary.

Monday's march began in library square and we congregated - congregated literally, as there was a funny, reworded, tongue-in-cheek Lord's Prayer against VC Michael Farthing - around a platform for lecturer and student speakers. After a protest-wee in the swanky SU building I lost my pals amidst a booing mass, who were hounding a seemingly well-meaning Labour MP Katy Clark, guilty of representing a party with a terrible record on opposing the cuts.

I slipped off to find the Bramber House occupation and found my way in past the world's most docile private security contractors. Stepping inside the conference room after two kind occupiers let me in, I had the acute sense of trespass, not against the property guarded jealously by 'the University', but the political space painstakingly defended by students. It has become part of the fabric of their lives. They were as welcoming as you can be after seven weeks of frenetic activity, and helpfully guided me to a hot drink to protect me from the elements whilst out on the balcony.

Posters, flyers and instructions tacked to the wall read like a history of Occupy Sussex. Debates, festivals, workshops, planning sessions and high profile speakers have been arranged to create safe, invigorated spaces for discussion and it was the most thoughtful, truly educational place I've yet visited in university society. For 'criminal' action this is conspicuously decent, civilised, inspired and forward thinking.

The fuzzy line between law and legitimate protest demands the serious, reflective attention of the student movement, lest the hard work of civil disobedience with legitimate ends degenerate in to aimless destruction. Even though notorious acts of yesteryear, like the awful fire extinguisher antics at Millbank, were pounced upon by the press to conflate the entire student movement with life-endangering, unthinking violence, we must not be scared to continue building a sophisticated resistance to this government.

"Today was different," said Sam, a postgraduate Sussex student, "Normally protests just involve some shouting and then everybody stops smashing the system when they get bored and cold, or people smash shit up, the police kick off and things just go backwards."

Outside Sussex's management building, pieces of window pooled on the floor and files were torched by a small few - a woman was also led unconscious near a crowd of fidgeting uniforms - but in the afternoon "most people sat in Bramber House, peacefully discussing things, organising with the trade unions, actually doing something. This is bloody brilliant."

I agree with Sam.

Needy Uni kids with large but unstable egos will always try and drown out the political message with banal debates about criminal law and moral axioms. If you try taking a small act of literal destruction, like burning files, and point to its possible symbolism as a metaphor for what the coalition is doing nationwide, then dictionary definitions and bourgeois morality is trotted out to try and squash you, but the idea of student protest as pointless, ineffective and a gateway to rampant criminality is sinister only when we believe it and keep schtum.

By collaborating the amorphous people power and direct democracy of Occupy-style movements with the organisational solidity of the trade unions, something resembling a united front may emerge over the coming months, to fight for Bramber House's manifesto of a 'Paradise Reclaimed', as one banner put it: a democratic University system which serves society, not business.

*not his real name