Occupation shuts James Admin Building

If the Nov. 10, 2011, occupation of the Principal’s office in the James Administration Building and protest outside felt like a volcanic eruption, the five-day occupation of sixth-floor offices in James that began last Tuesday, Feb. 7, seemed more a moderate earthquake with a series of aftershocks. Both events revealed fault lines in the McGill community on a number of issues, including what is and isn’t tolerable when it comes to expressions of dissent on campus.
A student protester (wearing party hat) talks to McGill Security personnel on the first day of the occupation of the James Administration Building. The occupation ended peacefully five days later. / Photo: Sam Reynolds

Police evict 6th floor occupiers

By McGill Reporter Staff

If the Nov. 10, 2011, occupation of the Principal’s office in the James Administration Building and protest outside felt like a volcanic eruption, the five-day occupation of sixth-floor offices in James that began last Tuesday, Feb. 7, seemed more a moderate earthquake with a series of aftershocks.

Both events revealed fault lines in the McGill community on a number of issues, including what is and isn’t tolerable when it comes to expressions of dissent on campus. And the most recent occupation, which played out over several days when most of the University went about its normal business, also revealed new divisions. Some people expressed agreement with the cause, while others spoke out in vigorous disagreement with the tactics employed to support it.

Last Tuesday, at about 10:45 a.m., a group of nearly two dozen students, many of whom had participated in the Nov. 10 occupation of the Principal’s office, entered the sixth-floor offices of the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) and declared that they were having a “retirement party” for Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson, whose resignation they demanded.

Staff, some of whom were visibly upset by the arrival of the occupiers, gathered their belongings and left. Mendelson, who had not been in the offices when the protest began, arrived and tried to persuade the occupiers to leave, without success. Offices that enter onto the central reception area were closed and locked and Mendelson and the rest of the staff left.

Meanwhile, at the main entrance to James, a larger group of protesters tried to enter the building, but were held back for a time by McGill Security personnel. Eventually, this crowd pushed past about four or five Security staff and entered the first-floor lobby. The crowd, which at some points numbered up to about 60, was contained in the lobby and prevented from using the stairwell, while elevators were disabled.

Referenda controversy

In addition to Mendelson’s resignation, protesters also demanded that the University recognize the results of two student referenda conducted last November about the status of radio station CKUT and QPIRG, the Quebec Public Interest Research Group at McGill.

Those referenda had returned positive results, but Mendelson had maintained from the outset that the questions were problematic in that they asked two things in one question: “Do you support CKUT continuing as a recognized student activity supported by a fee of $4.00 per semester for full-time undergraduate students, which is not opt-outable on the Minerva online opt-out system but is directly refundable through CKUT, with the understanding that a majority ‘no’ vote will result in the termination of all undergraduate funding to CKUT?”

A crowd of studentsoccupies the lobby of the James Admin Building on Feb 7. A group remained overnight but a lack of washrooms forced them to leave. / Photo: John Kelsey

Did the Yes vote refer to the continued existence of the organizations or to changes in the procedure under which students could opt out of paying the fee? At present, students may opt out of some fees online – a system put in place in 2007 to streamline the procedure for students to register their desire to opt out. CKUT and QPIRG, citing the need for stable funding, have argued that the online system makes it too easy to opt out and was seeking to return to the old system.

With occupations on the sixth floor and in the lobby, the building was evacuated and the nearly 300 people who work there in a wide variety of functions were forced to seek other space or work from home. The office of the Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations), which processes grant applications and provides other support to faculty and students, was displaced, as was that of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, where, for example, students can turn in their theses.

Other functions in James include the Media Relations Office, offices of the McGill Reporter, Planning and Institutional Ana-lysis, Finance and Administration and, of course, the Principal’s and Provost’s offices.

Both sides settled in. The protesters on the sixth floor live-streamed their occupation for a few hours. They had brought food and sleeping bags and were intending to stay, they said, until their demands were met.

The University responded that it would not negotiate demands with people who were, in effect, holding at least part of a building hostage. Associate Vice-Principal (University Services) Jim Nicell established contact with the occupiers and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an end to the protest. It was decided not to ask police to intervene, but to try to encourage the protesters to leave the building.

The lack of washrooms on the first floor became the first problem for the protesters who stayed in the lobby overnight. As they were not permitted to go up the stairs to washrooms on higher floors, the occupiers had few options. They chose to leave en masse on Wednesday.

Other measures were progressively employed to try to encourage the sixth-floor occupiers to leave. These included denial of wireless Internet service, adjustments to the heat and ventilation system that made it stuffy in the building and the loss of power (emergency lighting remained on in the hallway outside the offices and the glass panel in the outer door ensured it was not pitch black) so cellphones and laptops could not be recharged.

Food became an issue. Protesters were told they could leave the premises any time they wanted to go and eat, but that they would not be allowed back in the building. Numbers began to dwindle slightly.

By Wednesday, the occupiers managed to get access to an outer window when, at the conclusion of a negotiation session with Nicell in an office off the central area, they refused to leave, though they had earlier promised to do so. When they later tried to send a bucket down on a rope outside the building, Security personnel on a lower floor cut the rope. But by Thursday night, with the help of students gathered outside the east side of the James Building, a makeshift rope and pulley was rigged up and a considerable amount of food was hauled up to the offices.

Deal reached with CKUT

Meanwhile, CKUT reached agreement with Mendelson on a deal that had been in the works with both organizations before the protest began: the University would recognize the results of the November referendum as an expression of support for CKUT’s continued existence, but the radio station would have to go back to a referendum for a question on making its fee not opt-outable. QPIRG, which had been in talks on a similar arrangement, did not agree, but offered to negotiate further so long as occupiers were part of the negotiation. The University maintained its position that it would not negotiate with occupiers.

Also on Friday, access to the sixth-floor washroom the occupiers had been using was cut off, while cases of bottled water were delivered to the area to guard against dehydration.

Still, the occupation continued.

Finally, the University asked for help from the police to bring the occupation to an end. On Sunday morning, about half a dozen police officers joined Security personnel in going to the sixth floor and informing the students, by now numbering only nine, that they would have five minutes to gather their belongings and leave. If they left peacefully, they would not face trespassing charges from the police.

So they did.

Catalyst for discussion

The occupation “has sparked a lot of debate and a lot of passion within the McGill student body,” said SSMU President Maggie Knight. “The reason that we [students] have seats on Senate and the Board of Governors is because of occupations, so there are some students who feel strongly about that. Obviously there are other students who feel that it was not an appropriate use of tactics, or that it was juvenile or that the messages that were communicated about why were not clear. SSMU Senate caucus (the undergraduate senators) discussed it and the decision to use the satirical Maoist hate blog – the Milton Avenue Revolutionary Press – was not an intelligent one, in terms of actually communicating the concerns to the community. But it’s clear that it’s created a greater level of discussion about tactics and student grievances and how those should be addressed so … hopefully we can capitalize on the discussions raised to move forward in a better direction.”

Undergraduate Senator Matt Crawford, who participated in both the Nov. 10 and Feb. 7 occupations, said. “I think a legitimate point is the role of student government and its ability to arbitrate over its own issues and lack of clarity. I mean, I have complete faith in the administration and its ability to make decisions, but I feel that it would have been more appropriate if it had gone through normal channels at SSMU, rather than an immediate administrative decision (on the referendum.)

“I mean, they are right about the referendum: it wasn’t a clear question – or at least we could argue that it was not a clear question; I think there are people who could argue the other way.”

As for whether the occupation accomplished anything, Crawford said, “I think this is a good opportunity for a campus dialogue about the nature of student governance and the role students play in decision-making to be increased.”