Why I chained my neck to a ladder

October 31, 2014
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Very early on Wednesday morning, Joshua Tynan and I embarked on a cold and nervous journey into Melbourne Uni. It was strange in many ways, not least because we were limiting our fluid intake with rigid attentiveness – but also because we were carrying a backpack full of heavy D-Locks and chains, a box of high-vis vests, and some hard hats. I was also frantically reading the lyrics to Whitlam’s 1972 Campaign Song, “It’s Time”, and using every bit of willpower I had not to throw up on a crowded commuter carriage.

After receiving some legal advice from qualified members of our support crew, Josh and I entered the Future Students Information Centre and locked ourselves to a ladder by our necks, intending to stay, as we repeated to all who asked, “indefinitely”. No bathroom breaks, no water, no movement.

We did, however, have almonds, which became an unintended campaign image for the day. Scared, excited, hopeful, worried and inspired by all who were there with us, we took up our places on the hard floor.

Outside, a bizarre dance party took place as our fellow protesters began chalking drawing, trumpeting, beat-boxing, singing and handing out information. The joyous atmosphere of the street and our incessant tweeting of lock-related puns made the event rather more fun than I thought it would be.

After five uncomfortable hours, half a box of almonds and an astounding media response, we voluntarily unlocked and headed outside to sunlight and freedom of movement (both of which are beautiful, beautiful things).

Although this account seems simple, it’s part of a direct student action which has taken shape over the last month from the first occupation at Monash, to the second at La Trobe, and now at Melbourne Uni.

These peaceful demonstrations are part of our campaign against Christopher Pyne’s proposed deregulation of uni fees, which would make uni inaccessible to those without socio-economic privilege. We find this legislation unacceptable. The fact that those supporting this deregulation benefited personally from a free tertiary degree leaves us sick with rage.

Those are our broad reasons for why the movement is happening right now beneath the government’s feet.

Our actions extend, however, beyond the #FreeEducation hashtag and the astounding social media responses. They affect you now, because it’s your turn.

The deregulation of university fees is something that will affect you, or if not, the lives of those with whom you live and study. They are the ones you must fight for. These lock-ons are not just expressions of our personal frustration – they are a call to action and what happens next is bigger than us. There have been three occupations in three weeks, each gaining more extensive media coverage than the last. This is momentum, students of Australia. As a movement, we’ve taxied, we’ve approached the runway, and we’ve lifted off. It’s up to you to keep this flying.

We’ve moved beyond marches and rallies, my fellow young Australians. It’s time now for creative protests. It’s time to organise meaningful action that moves towards an Australia you’re proud of, not one controlled by those who will disregard the poor and those in need of protection. It is worth noting that the Go8 universities have been complicit in the deregulation of fees. Do not stand for this.

Direct action is within your power.  It’s an effective tool that can be used if students mobilise students to peacefully protest the actions of authority figures who disregard the needs of the people they represent. In lieu of governmental leadership, we must turn to each other for support to bring about real change in our own lives and in the lives of future students.

I chained myself to a ladder in a state of complete fear and doubt. Consider those feelings conquered. Students of Australia – do not fear to challenge authority that lets you down and do not doubt your own power. Act and we will stand together in our fight to make higher education a birthright, no matter your economic position.

Margaret Dunleavy

Margaret Dunleavy studies Arts majoring in History at the University of Melbourne, and tweets at @invisibleink34.