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Au’Guest’ Blog post - I came to Brighton to try and change the world

Written by Fiona Martin, co-founding Director and Head of Employment Law at martin searle solicitors as part of the Wired Sussex guest blog month

My decision to enter the legal world was influenced both by my love of Brighton and radical student politics.

I arrived at Sussex University in 1985, aged 22, with two children aged one and three, a very unflattering spiky haircut and high ideals. I was supporting the miners during the strike and had spent time at Greenham Common protesting against nuclear weapons.

In my first week at Sussex, hundreds of us occupied Barclays Bank to lodge our protest about their financial involvement with the apartheid government in South Africa and I remember thinking “yep, this is why I came.”

In my first year, a group of us known as “The Collective” decided to stand in the student elections against Labour as the revolutionary left. A memo from a member of the Administration referred to us as “the pinko, gay rights, single parent activists!”

Out of the five of us, Alan and I were elected. After only being in the position of VP Welfare for three months, we learnt that there were to be student cuts and direct action was required. A library sit-in turned into a march to Sussex House, the heart of the university, where we occupied the main administration building. As this contained the Post Office and Barclays Bank their businesses were brought to a standstill.

As we were not affiliated to any main party and had anarchist tendencies we did not “control” the occupants. Consequently, the Vice Chancellor’s offices were broken into and files were removed, some of which showed that the administration had illegally monitored activists. This resulted in further bad publicity for Sussex University when this was reported on national television.

One vivid memory is when he anarchists took a fancy to the Vice Chancellor’s robes and, with accompanying dogs on string, donned the robes and ceremonially distributed degree certificates to all and sundry. Unfortunately for us, these robes were extremely valuable and we were later fined for this - the total bill was more than £70k which in 1986 was a lot of money.

Eventually we were evicted by the police and 48 of us were disciplined for our part in the occupation. We sought the assistance of Brighton Law Centre and a wonderful solicitor called Peter Polizzi represented every single one of us.

We all somehow managed to hang on to our student careers and fines were issued, but my colleagues and I spent the rest of the year speaking to other Unions, encouraging them to occupy and collecting donations. Every single person’s fine was paid by using these “bucket collections”. Indeed, the fine bankrupted our union and we kept our activities going by using this money to fund our activities. It also got rid of loads of red tape and bureaucracy. If anyone needed money we just asked them to help themselves from the latest bucket.

At the disciplinary hearings there was a scary moment for Peter Polizzi when a fellow member of The Collective was, without any prior warning, accused of being the activist who had been seen on national television standing on the university roof in a balaclava burning an effigy of the Vice Chancellor in a set of the aforementioned, very expensive robes. At this point Peter turned round to him in the middle of the meeting and said “Please tell me you didn’t, did you?” Fortunately, they had got the wrong student.

I consequently decided that if I wanted to continue to be a political activist I needed to know a bit more about the law and sought Peter Polizzi’s advice. He told me that it was a bad idea, that it was a stressful occupation and not to do it. Unfortunately, Peter died of a heart attack at the age of 31, less than a year later. In true form I did not take his advice and here I am.

Whilst I agree that it is a very stressful occupation, for me it is a vocation and one in which I can “make a difference”.

I have also been able to stay in Brighton rather than move to London so I could bring up my children here. I still have a great affection for Sussex University and I truly believed that we were doing the right thing by taking action to protest against cuts to education.

Obviously the cuts have gone even deeper and had tuition fees been in place at the time then I, as a working class single parent, would have been unable to go to university and eventually qualify as a solicitor

"It is probably no surprise to my friends that I have chosen to work and campaign around equality and diversity issues. I enjoy working with digital media companies as I come across entrepreneurs who really want to be inspiring, best practice employers.

I set up our Digital Media HR Group in partnership with Wired Sussex in 2010 in order to encourage the sharing of information and best practice amongst this business community.

Brighton is different from every other place I know. Sharing, caring, and being part of the community is also how we do business. Long may it continue!"

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