Since the middle of January, a wave of university occupations in solidarity with the people of Gaza has spread across the country. Spurred into action following the barbarity of the Israeli massacre in Gaza at the beginning of the year, thousands of students throughout Britain have taken a stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine and demanded that their universities do the same.
The wave of occupations
Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London were the first to occupy: on 13 January, they took control of a Ministry of Defence exhibition on campus that was promoting the armed forces. Occupations at the London School of Economics (LSE), King’s College London, and Essex, Birmingham and Sussex universities soon followed, and, within two weeks, over 15 universities had staged occupations. To date, there have been 28 occupations in universities throughout Britain, and two similar occupations at universities in the United States.
The rapid and spontaneous spread of the occupations was aided by occupiers setting up weblogs and Facebook groups to promote their activities and keep others informed of successes and obstacles, inspiring students at other universities to take up the campaign themselves.
During all the occupations, the students utilised their occupied space to increase awareness of the situation in Palestine, through public meetings, film showings, and so on. This built up a mass of support for their campaigns on campus and, in the majority of universities, turned the campuses from havens of apathy, as promoted by the Student Union, to hives of political discussion, with students recognising that there is a world outside the boundaries of their university campus.
The majority of the occupations were successful in achieving a significant number of their demands, which have included: statements from various universities condemning Israel’s actions; disinvestment by universities from the arms trade; provision of scholarships for Palestinian students; support for fund-raising for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal for Gaza on campus; and pledges to send unused computers and other equipment to Palestine.
The occupations have also been a learning opportunity for all those involved, as, in many cases, the negotiations have continued well past the point where the occupations were ended, with the university administrations attempting to obfuscate or pull back from what was originally agreed.
Reclaiming the union
Support for the occupations came from far and wide, but from the National Union of Students (NUS) it was shamefully lacking.
At the University of the West of England, for example, the only sign of support for the occupation was a tray of coffees from a single NUS rep! At all the meetings held and events put on, not a single NUS rep attended, and, apart from individual comments, no effort was made by the NUS formally to speak with the occupiers or get involved with the campaign.
This failure of the NUS to engage with the occupations and with the ongoing campaigns is not confined to one or two universities, but is systemic and nationwide. The NUS, closely connected with the Labour party as it is, has for decades done little to protect students’ rights on campus, whether it be working on basic issues such as opposing the introduction of tuition fees and their continual increase (set to happen again next year), or advancing any opposition to Britain’s involvement in barbaric wars of aggression around the world.
When Wes Streeting, president of the NUS, made a statement to The Independent at the beginning of February that was vaguely supportive of the occupations, most people were taken aback, given his membership of Labour Students. However, this was short-lived, as it was quickly followed by another statement from Streeting clarifying the NUS position as follows:
“I do believe that student political activism is alive and kicking, and is to be encouraged, but I do not believe that these occupations have been the student movement’s finest hour.
“Students have every right to campaign actively and vocally on the situation in the Middle East, as well as wider political issues of the day, but all students also have the right to study in an environment that is free from disruption, intimidation or harassment. Where students are currently occupying teaching and learning spaces on campuses up and down the country, they are causing significant disruption to the education of their peers. Not only is this unacceptable, but it also undermines broader student support for the issues the protesters are seeking to highlight and they should reconsider their tactics.
“I also remain alarmed by reports of anti-semitism on too many of our campuses. While criticism of Israel is perfectly acceptable and many of the protesters have campaigned peacefully, there can be no justification for the kinds of incidents that have been recorded on our campuses and in our communities. It is the responsibility of us all to not only face this reality, but to challenge this kind of racism head on.” (‘Wes Streeting “misrepresented” by The Independent says NUS’, gazasolidarity.blogspot.com , 9 February 2009)
Streeting, hiding behind the excuse of not ‘disrupting or harassing’ students, makes clear where the NUS’s allegiance lies. Playing the totally spurious and utterly unsubstantiated ‘anti-semitic’ card against opponents of Israeli fascism just highlights his reactionary politics.
As occupation after occupation spread across the country, many commentators harked back to the days of the sixties, and even the eighties, when university students were much more politically active, asking whether the apathy of today’s students has now passed and whether these occupations have signified a change of the mood on campuses. It certainly seems that this has been the case, or at least that this campaign marks the start of an increased level of political activity on campuses.
Fran Legg, a founder member of the Stop the War Coalition at Queen Mary’s College, London, highlighted that: “This is going to go down in history as a new round of student mobilisation and it will set a precedent. Gaza is the main issue at the moment, but we’re looking beyond the occupation; we’re viewing it as a springboard for other protests and to set up a committee to make sure the university only invests ethically.” ( The Independent, op cit )
In the coming months, the campaigns on campuses will undoubtedly continue: raising money for Gaza, securing funding for scholarships and building on the support that the occupations galvanised.
Coordination between the university groups must also continue. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has already held a conference aimed at building the student campaign for Palestine. Another conference has been called in April by campaign group Education Not for Sale, aimed at bringing together those involved in the occupations for Palestine with other student activists, in order to discuss ways to coordinate actions in the future.
This resurgence of student activism is a very positive development. If the student movement continues to gain strength and experience, and if it manages to stay off the social-democratic path, it will be an important force for change.