students occupy for gaza: activism goes back to university

Taimour Lay looks at the recent wave of university occupations across Britain in protest at the Israeli attack on Gaza

When students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London shut down an on-campus MoD exhibition on January 13, the one-day occupation was seen as both a qualified success and a missed opportunity. But with the atrocities committed in Gaza creating a sense of outrage and urgency among thousands of people, what SOAS activists failed to carry through, other students resolved to achieve.


Two days later the LSE’s Old Theatre was under occupation and a day later Essex University followed. The major ground and air offensive, Operation Cast Lead, ‘ended’ on January 18 but from January 20-22, the second wave of occupations in solidarity with Gaza had begun in earnest: Kings College London, Birmingham, Sussex, Warwick, the London College of Communication, Manchester Met, Oxford, Leeds and Cambridge were all under occupation, communicating formally and informally, sharing tactics, drawing up broadly similar demands and settling in for the long haul. The immediate context of Israeli military aggression had broadened into a critique of the education system’s financial links with Israel and the increasing commercialisation of all aspects of university life. Success in one place emboldened the rest; clampdowns by the authorities generated a discontent that may keep growing.

By the last weekend of January – and just as the mainstream media were picking up on the phenomenon – Sheffield Hallam, Nottingham, Bradford, the University of East London and Queen Mary’s had joined in. And still it hadn’t stopped: on February 4 students at Manchester took the Simon Building at the heart of the campus and, one month on, at the time of going to pres, show no sign of leaving. In mid-February, students in Cardiff and Edinburgh were only just beginning. In total, 28 institutions had become part of a protest movement the scale of which few had anticipated.

But does the spate of occupations represent a genuine change in the basis for organising among Britain’s 2.5m students? What sorts of coalitions were built and how central was the organisational power of the SWP? What were the conditions in which some occupations succeeded and others failed? What was their political content? And how can a renewal of student politics be channelled into class struggle?

28 occupations – one model?

The occupations were characterised by their focus on demands for university condemnation of the Israeli aggression against civilians and educational institutions, calls for divestment from arms companies, and scholarships for Palestinian students. These three categories were met by universities in different ways: most were willing to make an anodyne statement expressing “regret” for the loss of civilian life (“on both sides”, most were swift to add), but the degree to which activists were able to extract genuine concessions on ethical investment and scholarships was dependent on attitudes towards negotiation and duration of occupation.

The model for occupation followed by the majority was not just coincidentally similar. It reflects the existing levels of activism at each institution: the typical make-up appears to have been a core of perhaps 40-50 people comprising independent socialists, SWP Students, greens, anarchists, and members of Palestinian and Islamic societies, bolstered by dozens -and in some cases, hundreds – more students prepared to engage politically in response to the shocking levels of civilian casualties in Palestine, combined with a longer-term frustration with expensive, bureauractic university authorities and an equally undemocratic and unresponsive NUS. That such a core group was able, in many cases, to maintain a strong hand in negotiations with the Universities was precisely because they were operating at the forefront of significant, and increasingly vocal, support from the student population as a whole.

The LSE occupation and others fitted this mould. Most activists recognise the role played by SWPers – but, while admitting to occasional tensions over political direction, deny that splits ever threatened the unity of the group. In Sheffield Hallam, for example, one anarchist activist spoke positively about the cooperation between the Anarchist Federation, StWC/SWP, Hands Off the People of Iran, Amnesty and the Islamic Society.

University clampdowns

The response of university authorities varied widely: from a willingness to negotiate and respect the occupation space to early and heavy-handed attempts to end political mobilisations before they could gather strength.  The most striking example of direct assault on protesters came at Nottingham University on Sunday February 1, day six of an occupation that had attracted some of the highest numbers in the second wave of mobilisations. An unusually large group of up to 100 people were sleeping overnight in a politics department lecture theatre, with 450-400 regularly attending events during the day.

Hicham Yezza says the university management had planned their attack carefully. “They waited until the Sunday evening when lots of people had gone home to shower and get supplies. We just didn’t expect them to make a move, especially as it was snowing so heavily. But at least a dozen West Midlands police and another 20 private security guards came in and dragged people into the snow. There were injuries: I saw the scars and marks on protesters’ bodies.”

Nottingham authorities are now pursuing disciplinary proceedings against those they believe were key organisers. “The university is trying to intimidate people. Letters have been sent out saying that they are under investigation and if people ‘come to their attention’ for any other issue in the meantime, they are going to get hit very hard.”

Yezza believes that protesters were making connections between Gaza and political relations and power dynamics more generally. “This [the conduct of the university] was just another example of the senior management refusing to engage with people, to listen to students. They’re obsessed with sponsorship money and private investment. It takes time for a collective mindset to develop in reaction to this.”

The clampdown at Sheffield Hallam that same weekend was no less harsh. Students agreed to end their sit-in when threatened with the use of force and a court order – but the university reneged on the deal, reserving the right “in principle” to suspend ringleaders. Two Student Union activists, who have been outspoken campaigners for governance reform and were involved in the Gaza protests, are now undergoing disciplinary procedures.

Mark Harrison, an independent leftist, was one of the organisers at Manchester Met which went into occupation on February 4. Over 100 students occupied an engineering faculty building and the university post room. A core of 35 activists was supplemented during the day, with at least 20 sleeping overnight. He says that the senior management of the university adopted a no-compromise position from the outset. ”They weren’t letting new people and food in, and they weren’t engaging in negotiations. They flushed us out by the weekend that way.”

But Harrison hopes the occupation has provided momentum for a new kind of politics at the university: “I’m standing in the student elections this year and there’s no way that a left candidate would have been able to before this. People are realising how undemocratic the Student Union is – there’s not even going to be a proper student council next year. This has been a start. Most of us have three years to keep the pressure on.” Activists are doing just that, with protests planned in March to democratise the student union.

Birmingham students are still seething about the response of the authorities when an occupation of one room in the Arts building on January 22 was met by the immediate warning that students were in “breach of the peace” if they did not leave the building. During negotiations the entrance to the room was breached by security guards and police making it impossible to maintain a secure hold on the space. Outside the building the dozens of protesters walked a gauntlet past two police vans and numerous police cars.

When universities reacted with negotiations, activists were in nearly all cases prepared to stay significant periods of time, but this seems to have been driven by a ‘demand’ focused strategy so that spaces were handed back once the authorities had offered face-saving combinations of words. Occupations ranged in durations from just one day (Oxford, Bradford, Birmingham), to two or three days (Manchester Met), one week (LSE, Cambridge, Sussex, Leeds, Nottingham, Queen Mary’s), ten days (KCL, Warwick) to two weeks or more (Strathclyde, Manchester University). At Manchester’s marathon occupation demands have been used, but protesters are placing more emphasis on the inherent value of occupying itself, the creation of an alternative space for activism and discourse.

Victories ‘declared’ and concessions won

While nearly all of the 28 occupations declared ‘victory’ at some stage, some had won more concrete concessions from the authorities than others. In fact, there was a marked trend of occupations apparently ending too early, to the regret of activists unsure that their demands had really been met.

At Oxford, the occupation of the Clarendon building by 80 activists lasted only seven hours, ending after a vague promise on January 28 from the Proctors (a separate authority to the University administration itself) to “raise issues” of investment in arms companies at the University’s Council and “to send a letter” to the Master of Balliol College “drawing his attention to the protesters’ concerns about the proposed title of alecture series inaugurated by (Israeli President) Shimon Peres.”

Juliette Harkin defended the decision to leave. “The demands we made we will continue to work on and campaign for, but it takes time. Yes, there was a hardcore prepared to stay. We did seriously intend to stay. We’d brought in food but the majority decision of those present was to leave.”

Other occupations’ success was a function of limited demands: the agreements for “reviews” of university investment policies and “in-principle” commitments to the establishment of scholarships for Palestinian students ­- as at the University of the Arts and Leeds, for example – paled in comparison to the detailed and apparently binding concession won elsewhere. Goldsmiths’ occupation of Deptford Town Hall from February 11-13 won four new scholarships a year until 2020, two of which will be reserved for Palestinian students. The letter from Hugh Jones, University registrar, also included a commitment “not to take action against students involved in the occupation”, a guarantee which protesters at other institutions were not as careful to secure before ending their sit-ins.

An Autonomy and Solidarity activist at Goldsmiths commented afterwards that the coalition of protesters had been, on the whole, cohesive and democratic, and not dominated by the SWP: “For us, it is the act of occupying in itself that is revolutionary. This was borne out by the staggering change of perspective that all the occupiers underwent, with ideas and actions that had previously seemed ‘radical’ being (democratically) voted through by larger and larger majorities as time went on; and by Thursday evening, we were debating the different paths to social change and the makeup of a fair society.

“To win what appears to be a concrete victory in just 29 hours is a clear vindication of direct action. Moreover, the general feeling at the conclusion of the occupation was that direct action had proved itself so effective that our demands were seen as too timid, and that our action had been too brief. Through the smokescreen of student politics and bureaucratic wrangling, some of us caught a glimpse of an emancipatory form of participation: But why settle for a glimpse?”

Another site of significant gains was Strathclyde University, where the occupation of the McCance building by 50 students lasted from February 4 -21. By the end of the second day the university had already agreed to terminate its contract with the water-supplier Eden Springs – an Israeli -owned company operating in the West Bank.

Cardiff students were part of the second wave of occupations in mid-February, almost one month after direct action had begun at SOAS in London. What is remarkable is the length of the occupation (just three days and two nights) in relation to the demands met: Cardiff University agreed to end £209,000 worth of investment in, among others, BAe systems and the infrastructure arm of General Electric.

Sebastian Power was part of a predominately Green Party campaign for divestment at Cardiff. The outrage over Gaza created a momentum which activists used to pressure the university with demands focused almost exclusively on investment in arms companies. Again, the pattern is of a ‘core’ group of 30-40 protesters, with significant mobilisation by the SWP, with larger numbers of independents attending sporadically. Power said that “politics” was carefully framed in order to include as many people as possible but at the expense of broadening the message. “The support for divestment ballooned and that’s when the SWP came in but we made it clear this wasn’t a ‘political campaign’.

“We learnt a lot from the other occupations,” Power said. “We were in touch with a lot of people at other places and so we decided to use a lecture event [on ethical investment] to suggest an occupation.

“Students clearly saw the strength of the argument. We said to them, ‘Your tuition fees are going straight to General Electric!’ We were educating students and acting democratically. The student union is just a bureaucracy that wears you down and where it takes years and years to achieve what we did in just a few days.”

Manchester and beyond – a new kind of student politics

Six weeks on from the first mobilisation of students at SOAS on January 13, the occupation at Manchester University shows no sign of ending. The Simon Building remains an autonomous space for teach-ins, workshops (on direct action politics and non-violent resistance) and rallies. And it’s spreading out rather than looking inwards. A Union EGM attracted 1,100 people. A national demonstration is planned for March 3 to pressure the vice-chancellor, Alan Gilbert, who has threatened the occupiers with permanent exclusion from the University, to enter into substantive negotiations.

Beyond the last occupation, activists across the country are seeking to coordinate at a grassroots level to improve communication and support, synchronise national actions and provide advice to the next wave of occupiers. But now the Gaza crisis has faded from view, will students mobilise as effectively on the cost of fees or the commercialisation of university space? And who will attempting to direct it?

The SWP called a “coordination meeting” in February, the base of which was questioned by some who didn’t believe the students actually involved in the occupations were present. With Workers Power calling for the “radical coordination of student struggles”, Education Not for Sale’s proposal for a new student union network alongside the NUS, and a number of activists not wanting to work within the bureaucracy of the StWC, the political landscape is as fragmented as ever.

February 25th saw around 700 students march through London in protest against top-up fees and demanding free university education for all. A Commune activist present came away disappointed: “The bulk of those attending were either from Trotskyist groups and their peripheries or a bloc of people with anarchist flags. Although most of the speakers at both the start and end of the protest called for student-worker unity, and many of the slogans advocated support for trade union struggles, in fact there were very few workers on the demo, even from the ranks of the UCU or NUT, since there is in reality little integration between workers’ organisations and the student movement, even its left wing. Nor did working-class students from sixth form/FE colleges attend in strong numbers, although some are building a London School Students’ Union.”

But one of the more intriguing developments during the Gaza protest movement came when students at the Byam Shaw School of Art at Central St Martins went into a 10-day occupation demanding the reversal of course cut-backs and their representation by an elected student officer. No mention of Gaza: this was learning the lessons of the past few weeks, engaging in direct action against a chronically unresponsive institution. It suggests a road ahead: the possibility that the next phase of student struggle against top-up fees and privatisation of education – in the context of recession and rising graduate unemployment – will not be dominated by the supine compromises of the NUS, but driven by new coalitions of committed activists, swelled by the mass ranks of the disenchanted, who now realise that the universities – our universities – are there for the taking.

9 thoughts on “students occupy for gaza: activism goes back to university

  1. Hey guys

    Thanks for quoting us…btw just for the pedant’s record, that communiqué is an official A&S document ratified by the group, not just the thoughts of “one activist”. :)


  2. actually some of it was taken from jims personal account, and some from the communique.

    For the pedant’s record.

    secondly to the cardiff occupation, how was it not political?


  3. Well, exactly. By ”not political” in this context i think he meant building the campaign without explicitly articulating socialist/left politics – he wanted the university’s arms investment to be treated somehow as a single-issue campaign, divorced from broader questions about privatisation and capitalism. That kind of approach may prove effective tactically in some narrow circumstances but i doubt everyone involved in Cardiff felt that way. He may also have meant ”political” here to mean ”driven by sectarian left groups’ priorities”.


  4. The Sussex university occupation also demanded that there be no reprisals against students, which management agreed to:

    “No reprisals

    The University acknowledges the constructive approach adopted during the protest and in particular the students’ commitment not to disrupt teaching, to preserve the quality of the teaching environment , and to respect the views of other members of the community. The University reaffirms that protest that is lawful and not in breach of the University’s Regulations will not result in action being taken against any student or students involved.”


  5. From Richard Seymour’s blog:
    I was sorry to hear yesterday that Hicham Yezza has been jailed for nine months. Hicham Yezza was arrested and held last May for a period of six days, alongside student Rizwaan Sabir. The incident provoking this farce was the appearance of an ‘Al Qaeda’ training manual downloaded from the US government’s website on Hicham’s computer. It was in fact material for Sabir’s MA dissertation, and the only reason a fuss had been made was because some snitch, instead of asking Yezza about it, reported it to the university authorities who assumed the worst and called the cops. As neither the detention nor the raids on the pair’s homes resulted in disclosures about terrorist plots, no charge could be made and the pair were released. But having made fools of themselves, the police were not prepared to let the matter lie. The next best step for them was to hold Yezza at Colnbrook detention centre. Police said that Yezza, as an Algerian national, had neglected to have his visa stamped since 2003, and he would have to be deported. Although Hicham was ready to fight the matter in court, the police and government sought to fast-track the deportation in this case. They failed, largely due to protests and legal challenge, and instead decided to charge him under the Immigration Act. The court found him guilty earlier this month of “securing avoidance of enforcement action by deceptive means”. In mitigation, his lawyer pointed out that he would undoubtedly have had his stay prolonged had he applied. The judge gave him nine months in jail anyway. The words ‘stitch up’ come to mind. It is hardly unlike the police to try and dig dirt on an innocent man whom they have unfairly harrassed (or shot to death). That is apparently the normal way they do business. So this looks like an attempt to compensate for a PR blunder by pillorying someone over what is, in fact, a pretty trivial offence.


  6. [pedant number 3: just to clarify, Autonomy&Solidarity are an anarchist group – that wasn’t explicit in the piece]

    really good article – though to add one thing we kind of privately felt (as well as feeling empowered) was well… a bit silly. This was at the end of the day, very ‘student politics’. It was very different where the students faced repression, like nottingham. We went on one student demo after this, but then after that was just so Student Grant ya boo embarassing, decided to go back to what we were doing first – being part of the class struggle in general, not “students” – “and workers”. Students *are* workers. This isn’t europe, we have no special role in the social struggle.

    We’ve since started an LCAP branch with locals and held a Student Workers Rights talk with a IWW and T&G (as it was then) organisers. Several of us are already caseworkers for LCAP too. I think the role for socialists is to try not to ‘radicalise’ the students who occupied (which to most groups means ‘recruit’) but to apply any of the best organisers and tactics to the struggle regionally. I’d rather see Gaza as the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than a specific, Palestine nominal revolt. Here’s to occupations against fees, campus privatisation and… the sky’s the limit!

    Nice one Communers, always worth a read.


  7. This isn’t europe, we have no special role in the social struggle.

    Hi Sandy, can you explain what you mean by this please?


  8. Also, can we draw any formulaic lessons from the wave of occupations? Has the softness of the adminstration, broad campus or faculty support, or militancy and numbers proved to be the most important factor in determining victory or defeat? Have those Vice Chancellors prepared to stragle, forcibly end or ignore occupations been able to do so?

    Props to Sheffield:

    Some Sheffielder has compiled a useful list of things won by the various occupations…

    And who is this: ?


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