The University of Sydney has acknowledged many times that students have the right to peacefully protest. For 65 days that is exactly what students and supporters of the university’s Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) did — until dawn on October 25 when 15 police and 20 guards forcibly ended their protest.
The students had been protesting since the university informed students and staff on June 21 of its plan to merge SCA with the University of NSW’s Art & Design Student Centre and the National Art School in Darlinghurst.
This was followed on August 9 by an announcement that the university planned staff cuts of up to 60% in the college, closure of the Ceramics, Jewellery and Glass studios, and the loss of the SCA’s historic Kirkbride campus at beautiful Callan Park in Rozelle. The university said the college would move onto the main university campus, where there is very limited space for studios, exhibitions or jewellery or ceramic teaching facilities.
After months of protests, mass meetings and failed talks with the University of Sydney administration, about a dozen Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) students began an occupation of the Dean's office at its Callan Park campus in Rozelle on August 22.
SCA students dropped a banner reading “Under new management” from an office window and barricaded the doors as staff left the building. The campaign is demanding the college stay at Callan Park; there be no staff cuts; the reinstatement of the Bachelor of Visual Arts (BVA) degree; and an independent review of the SCA's financial situation.
At 6.40am, 65 days later, students occupying the Dean’s office in the SCA building in Callan Park heard a loud banging on the door and shouts of “Get out! Get out!”.
Occupier Rachel Evans told Green Left Weekly: “They were shouting really loudly. I heard them run up the stairs. I locked the door but they had a key. They opened the door and 10 cops came into the room where I’d been sleeping. I told them to back off and let me get my shoes, but they ignored me.
“Two security guards grabbed my arms and forced me down the stairs, pushing me from behind. They were recording the whole time.
“There was a pile of them. It was real intimidation, loud and aggressive. Then they got my friend and another occupier. They were refusing to let him get his medication out of the bathroom.”
Che Baines, an occupier and former Arts student, told Green Left Weekly she “started hearing banging at the doors — specifically the front doors” early in the morning.
“About 15 police officers and 20 security guards came in yelling that the occupation was over, that we were trespassing and to not question them,” Baines said.
The occupiers were told not to argue, with police yelling that they had “30 seconds to comply otherwise disciplinary action would be taken”.
Baines reassured police that “it’s just us — please calm down”.
“I was trying to get my medications that I need in the morning,” she said, “and I had to argue and fight with them to let me get them.”
Baines said the police showed disregard for property and the safety of the occupiers, especially as they were compliant and outnumbered.
“We weren’t even allowed to stay on the grass in front of the space,” she said. “We had to cross the road and then they started just carrying out all our stuff.”
“They threatened us with legal action if we went back in,” Evans said, “and threw paper work at us that said if any protesters occupy again or remain on university lands after being requested to leave they could be fined, suspended or expelled.
“They want to intimidate us, but SCA at Callan Park is where art students should be.”
Security guards then proceeded to tear down protest banners and artworks from around the campus, in what one occupier described as “unnecessary intimidation tactics”.
The university confirmed that police had “escorted a number of students” from the SCA campus.
A spokesperson for the university said: “The University of Sydney has repeatedly affirmed the right of students to protest about proposed changes to the Sydney College of the Arts.
“The protestors have refused a number of polite, informal and then formal requests for the university to relocate personal possessions. As a result, the university has reluctantly taken action to remove the protestors from the building.”
Baines said: “It’s clear that this means the university will go to whatever means necessary to protect its precious image. The spiel they give about respecting the right to protest is obviously false.”
Baines said that that despite being shaken, energy among the group remains high: “This is now time to regroup, and refocus. The occupation was such a show of strength and endurance.”
The campaign to save SCA will keep fighting to keep the art school at Callan Park. A rally will be held at 5pm to show our campaign will not back down.