People power: from backpacking to student protests

December 15, 2020

Collage created by Barnaby with image from Pixabay and fences protest photograph by Manchester university student

Barnaby Fournier reflects on his journey of discovery, before and during the pandemic

I remember very well the first time I started to become concerned about coronavirus. It was towards the end of January this year while I was travelling in Vang Vieng, Laos. My friend Emily, a Kiwi (New Zealander), pointed out that the fatality rate from coronavirus had just overtaken the death toll from the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus first identified in China.

Being in Laos, a country that borders China, meant that I was receiving countless messages from worried friends and family. However, until about mid-March, my travelling experience was unchanged. The partying, cultural visits, moped driving, jungle trekking and kayaking all continued.

Unease set in the night before my flight to India. Sitting in a food stall with my Dutch friends, Niels and Carmen in iPhnom Penh, Cambodia, we heard breaking news of countries shutting their borders left, right and centre.

I started to get anxious that India would shut down while I was mid-air. To my great relief just hours after I landed, French nationals (I’m French) were barred from entering India.

The next two weeks in India were amazing, spending time again with my friends Christina and Andrew, who I’d met previously in Thailand. Although I experienced the Holi festival in all its bliss, visited the majestic Taj Mahal, they were clouded with anxiety, uncertainty and stress.

We could have been stranded in India for two months, under one of the most stringent national lockdowns

It was on 16th March when the French lockdown was announced. The last five months, which had been the best of my life, were over. My travel family at the time, in Varanasi, Northern India, composed of three Americans, two Frenchies (including myself) and three Brits. We made the decision to make our way home.

Hot and stressful days followed, as we clambered on whichever form of transport edged us closer towards Delhi, taking coaches, trains and cabs. Finally we arrived and the passport officer looked me straight in the eyes and told me I was lucky to be on the last of a handful of flights to London.

If we had made the decision to return home only a few hours later, we would have been stranded in India for two months, under one of the most stringent national lockdowns, where foreign nationals were barred from even stepping outside of their accommodation.

The next three months of lockdown back home in London were frustrating and difficult. I had not seen my friends for over five months already, so knowing they were all at home, some only a few hundred metres away but out of reach, was so hard.

I spent lots of time resting, reminiscing and making my travel scrapbook. During lockdown and the summer months that followed my anxiety heightened. I was uncertain if it would be possible for me to start at Manchester and have an actual university experience.

My travel family, in Cambodia

September came around pretty quickly, and all was going ahead. I was excited and apprehensive about moving into my flat at Oak House, Fallowfield campus, Manchester. The campus, especially Oak House, is known to be one of the best student accommodations for partying in the country! It’s in fact one of the birthplaces of rave culture. But a very different experience was in store for me and my flatmates, with clubs (and now pubs) closed for our entire first term.

It’s been tough. As a member of the LGBT+ community, that all our venues, where we feel safe and make connections, were shut down. However, in a way, clubs being closed has meant that I have got to know my flatmates better, as it’s quite tricky to get to know someone in a club; you can’t talk!

Apart from going to the library and food shopping, I’ve probably left campus around seven times since starting at university.

It’s been weird and crazy times; everyone I know has been making the best of the situation. However, we’ve all suffered under the pandemic and lockdowns. It can get toxic at times. Students have been riled up and anxious, all cooped-up together. Our mental health has often hit an all-time low.

Tensions have built between students, security guards and the police.

Last month, we woke up to fences being erected around our accommodation with no prior warning. Confusion and anxiety rippled at unrivalled speed throughout campus. A protest was organised for 8pm that first night.

As the university continuously ignored our demands, we had no choice but to escalate our protests

The turnout was incredible; a real community sentiment began, rooting the foundation for future action. After a few speeches, we marched through campus and ripped down the fences. This had to be the most memorable event so far, the atmosphere was completely buzzing.

The UK is on the verge of experiencing its biggest student revolution of the last ten years, with more and more universities rent striking. Like many other students, I withheld my rent payment in October with a demand of a rent reduction. This is mainly because we are paying more than last year’s students with reduced facilities and experiences due to Covid-19.

As the uni continuously ignored our demands, we had no choice but to escalate our protests. The rent strikers began to occupy the disused tower accommodation block. I spent a night in there as well. After 13 days of occupation, the university caved in and offered a 30% rent reduction. This was a very emotionally-charged moment. We had won.

As a result of our campaigning, hard work and dedication to the cause, we had saved students at Manchester £600-£900 each, totalling £12 million.

We’d secured the biggest rent strike victory in UK history. As the days passed following our triumph, more and more universities started organising rent strikes: Sussex, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh, Goldsmiths and many more. Manchester students have been the catalyst for national action.

One of the main things I’ve learnt from my short time, at university is that People Power works. This massive protest, which has now reached a national scale, was started by only a handful of us.

I have always been into politics and a campaigner but never truly believed that action could ever change things. Clearly, I was wrong. I will never stay quiet again if I witness something I fundamentally disagree with. I will never stay silent if I believe something to be so utterly unscrupulous that it must change. I will never again stand aside!

Barnaby is a student at the University of Manchester, studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He is half-French, loves travelling and aspires to travel to every country in the world. Currently, he has been to 28 out of 196.

Barnaby is a student at the University of Manchester, studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He is half-French, loves travelling and aspires to travel to every country in the world. Currently, he has been to 28 out of 196.

Other work

Donate via PayPal

Exposure is an award-winning youth communications charity giving young people in north London a voice.

Please support us to continue our work. Thank you.