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Reflections on the Student Occupation

Last Wednesday, a group of Nottingham students occupied a lecture theatre in the Law and Social Sciences Building on University Park. They unfurled banners, unpacked sleeping bags, and published a list of demands which they insisted should be met before they were prepared to leave.

Five days later, the occupation was over. After issuing a final warning, university security forcibly removed the students from the building. None of the students’ demands had been met. The University had not so much as entered into negotiations with them.

Reading comments on the Impact website and speaking to people around campus, opinion on the protest seems to be sharply divided. Those in support of the protesters believe the cause – aiding Palestinian civilians in Gaza – was a noble one, and that the University acted out of line by expelling the students from the building. Others think the protest was a pointless act of political posturing, serving to give a group of students the illusion that they were changing the world when they were merely disrupting the studies of their colleagues.

I want to present a different approach. I completely support the protesters’ cause, but I believe the way they went about achieving it was utterly counterproductive. I’m going to spell out what I believe the occupation’s aim was, and then I’m going to show you where I believe it went wrong in achieving this.

The Aim

The occupation was declared in sympathy with civilians in Gaza, many of whom died, were injured, or had their lives ruined by recent Israeli military action. I don’t think anyone can doubt that this is a worthy cause. It’s not about who’s right or wrong. Whether you believe that Israel is to blame, that Hamas brought this upon itself, or that the truth lies somewhere inbetween, the reality is that people on the ground are suffering and need all the support they can get. Anything that can help them, in this regard, is very much a good thing.

This is the logic that I think motivated the occupation, and I think if the students had focused more on this then they might have gone some way towards achieving something. Instead they have achieved very little, and raised awareness of the issue among other students while alienating the University as a potential source of support.

Here’s where I think they went wrong:

Mistake I: A Confusing and Unrealistic List of Demands

Upon occupying the University, the students issued a list of eight demands. The list can be seen in full on their website (http://occupationnottingham.wordpress.com/demands/). For now, I will give you a brief summary:

(1) That the University should issue an official statement condemning recent atrocities perpetrated by Israel in Gaza.
(2) That the University should host a podcast on its staff and student ‘portal’ to address errors of information previously posted, and should host the recent DEC charities appeal on behalf of Gaza in protest at the refusal of the BBC and Sky to broadcast it.
(3) That the University grant a minimum of ten fully-funded scholarships to Palestinian students from Gaza University.
(4) That the University provide academic aid to universities and schools in the Gaza Strip, by, for example, donating old books, computers, and other surplus equipment.
(5) That the University remove the Starbucks coffee outlet from the Hallward Library.
(6) That the University cease investments in companies directly or indirectly complicit in human rights abuses in Gaza (for example, arms companies selling weapons to Israel)
(7) That the University ban all such companies from university premises (specifically recruitment events) and that the University phase out research programmes in collaboration with such companies.
(8) That there should be no legal, financial, or academic repercussions against anyone involved in the protest.

These were the demands on the protesters’ website. In my opinion, they are very muddled. They present the University with a number of changes it could not realistically be expected to implement, with the result that the more sensible demands are left by the wayside in the process.

When it comes to helping people in Gaza, demands 3 and 4 are the key ones that could have made a difference. They would have provided real support to Gazans, and gone some way towards helping the situation out there. Perhaps to these the protesters’ might have added other ideas, such as setting up a university fund towards reconstructing academic institutions in Gaza. In the end it didn’t matter. The problem was that the demands were ill-thought-out in almost every other area.

Let’s take demands 1 and 2. They request the University to issue a statement against Israel, and to host a podcast in support of the Palestinians in the conflict. There are two problems with this. First, the University is an academic institution. Its role is to foster debate, research, and learning. As such it is not explicitly a political institution. To expect it to make political statements is unrealistic, since the university’s job is rather to encompass the length and breadth of opinion wherever possible – and from all sides. It has to remain politically neutral. More importantly, though, it’s hard to see what good such a statement would have done anyway. Do the protesters imagine that Israel would care if an English university issued such a statement? Do they imagine that they’d change their policies as a result? Getting the UK government to issue a statement might be effective, but it’s hard to see how getting Nottingham University to do so would have a similar effect.

With regard to points 6 and 7, I think matters are a bit more complex. There’s certainly a strong case for the University to end investment in arms companies, but to me it’s a broader issue than the Israel/Gaza conflict. The University does not have an ethical investment policy. Period. If you want to campaign for it to have one, then that should be across the board – ending investments in arms companies all around the world (as well as, perhaps, tobacco companies, unethical food sourcing companies and so on). This is an important issue, but it’s one mostly separate from the Gaza conflict, and affects areas far beyond there. As such, it should be campaigned for on a separate platform to the campaign to get academic aid to Palestinians. Moreover, since these aims are much harder to achieve than points 3 and 4, trying to pursue them at the same time lowers the chance of anything getting done at all.

Finally, we have point 5 of the demands – to remove Starbucks from the Hallward Library. This is a very strange demand in this context, and linking Starbucks to the Gaza conflict (through the CEO’s support for Israel) seems tenuous at best. This protest was supposed to be about helping people on the ground in Gaza, and using that as a platform to attempt the removal of Starbucks from the university library seems to completely miss the point.

The result of the above is a very broad and wide-ranging set of the demands. The campaigners appear to have lumped two other student campaigns – encouraging an ethical investment policy for Nottingham, and removing Starbucks from campus – with the cause of helping civilians in Gaza. This has been to the detriment of the whole project. The students aimed for everything, and as a result achieved nothing. The demands left the protest likely to fail from the start.


Mistake II: Not Approaching the University First

But let’s imagine that the protesters had a more focused set of demands, and that these were aimed specifically at helping Gazans right now. What could they then have done to ensure success?

An important step would have been to approach the University before staging a sit-in. Believe it or not, the University is not out to get you. It respects the opinion of students, and listens to what they say. If you don’t believe that, then you probably haven’t been here long enough to see the changes here that I have. University officials are actually deeply worried about low student satisfaction, and it’s something that holds them back in the league tables year after year. They do listen to your views.

Furthermore, the University does have resources that could help people in Gaza. It wouldn’t be too difficult, as the protesters suggested, to send surplus books, computers, and other equipment to Gaza. It wouldn’t even have been too hard to set up a funded exchange programme for Gazan students.

Why, then, did the students not seriously ask the University to do this before staging a protest? Why didn’t they arrange a meeting with David Riley and others to try and see this achieved? With enough support, and consistent dialogue, I believe the student protesters might have seen some of these demands met. If the university refused to meet them, and without good reason, then it might be the time to protest. But why protest if you don’t have to?

Instead of this, the students tried to cajole the university into doing what they wanted, and thus made their task many times more difficult from the outset. There’s nothing wrong with resorting to protest, but at least give dialogue a chance first. You might be surprised what you can achieve.

Mistake III: Occupying a Key Room

Finally, the student protesters opted to occupy one of the most important lecture theatres on campus. I know the Law and Social Sciences Building, and B62 is the most important lecture theatre in it (there is only one other room of even comparable size in the building). This department houses lectures for students of politics, law, sociology, and a number of other subjects. It’s also an important room for special events – careers talks, lectures from visiting professors, and so on. It’s clearly quite important to the working of the University.

I’m aware that the protesters offered not to disrupt proceedings in the room, and I don’t disbelieve this. I just can’t take it very seriously. If a crowd of people with banners and placards is sitting at the back of the room, could a lecturer really deliver a class as normal? Who do you think the students would be paying attention to? Perhaps more importantly – and since the room is host to a number of important career events – do you think the university wants its guest speakers to have a crowd of protesters distracting them?

I think this is unlikely, and I’m not sure the protesters believed this entirely themselves. In any case, there were better solutions. The students could have picked a smaller, and therefore less important room. They could have also picked one in a more prominent location. Perhaps a small room in the Portland Building might have worked. Even the Atrium, maybe? Doing this would have meant less disruption, and would have seen more students rallying to the cause since it’s a more public area. It would also have prevented the University from removing students on grounds that they’re disrupting education. Ultimately choosing a better room would have increased the chances of success for the protesters

Conclusion: Trying to Hold a Gun to the University’s Head?

And this, really, was the problem. The protesters seem to have believed that they could occupy an important university location, and that in causing such trouble for the University they could see a wide range of demands met. If it wasn’t aimed at causing some disruption for the University, then I see no reason why they expected the University to even care.

But you can’t hold the University to ransom. It just isn’t a viable solution. They’re more powerful than you, they have a responsibility to ensure students’ education goes ahead, and they will never, ever allow a precedent to be set for disruption resulting in demands being met. Trying to do this is futile, and will not work. And, as the protesters saw, it did not work.

And the result, ultimately, is that no help has been sent to Gaza whatsoever, and that the chances of the University doing this in future are now very much reduced. When all is said and done, this is what matters. If you’ve failed in getting support for the people who need help out there, then you’ve ultimately failed in your objectives.

These students had a shot at changing a few lives in Gaza for the better. They completely ballsed it up.

By Rob Barham

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12 Comments on this post.
  • James Sanderson
    4 February 2009 at 02:55
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    I wasn’t aware of the Starbucks in Hallward, must grab a coffee some time.

  • Mike
    4 February 2009 at 14:53
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    It’s very easy to criticise when you aren’t involved and after the fact. If you had these concerns, why didn’t you head on down to the occupation and voice them clearly? You would have been listened to and not simply because the occupiers were generous and intelligent conversationalists, but because of the way the occupation was run. All decisions in this occupation were made using consensus decision making, your voice would have been heard, because this is how consensus decision making works. The demands, for example, were written a line at a time by consensus, which took hours – you could have been quite clear at this time that they were in your view “confused”.

    “no help has been sent to Gaza whatsoever”

    This is false. I note that hundreds of pounds were raised for humanitarian relief in Gaza – to the DEC appeal and Medical Aid For Palestinians. This counts as “help” I am sure you will agree.

    “The result of the above is a very broad and wide-ranging set of the demands. The campaigners appear to have lumped two other student campaigns – encouraging an ethical investment policy for Nottingham, and removing Starbucks from campus – with the cause of helping civilians in Gaza. This has been to the detriment of the whole project. The students aimed for everything, and as a result achieved nothing. The demands left the protest likely to fail from the start.”

    Clearly, I don’t think any one of the occupiers believed all these demands would be met. The point is to make the request, then change with negotiations, the initial demands highlighting the scope. You seem to understand nothing of the way these things work. In addition, the occupation demands were modeled on occupation demands at other Universities, many of which have been successful.

    “[viz. ethical investment policy] This is an important issue, but it’s one mostly separate from the Gaza conflict, and affects areas far beyond there. ”

    False. The University of Nottingham recieves £29,133,566 from arms manufacturers, please see the Study War No More project for full detail. Amongst these investors, who also appear at career fairs are BAE Systems, who make targetting systems for F16 fighter and attack drones that were used in the recent bombardment of Gaza. Please read the following article published in the Guardian yesterday. Should the University really be involved with such corporations, when both the government and amnesty international find it difficult to stomach.

    “Why, then, did the students not seriously ask the University to do this before staging a protest? Why didn’t they arrange a meeting with David Riley and others to try and see this achieved? With enough support, and consistent dialogue, I believe the student protesters might have seen some of these demands met. If the university refused to meet them, and without good reason, then it might be the time to protest. But why protest if you don’t have to?”

    The University have been asked to do similar things for years. Simple fact is though, had they entered into constructive dialogue on day one of occupation, then it could have been over, as many of these occupations have been, in Oxford and Bradford, in a matter of hours. The University is “committed to dialogue” but absolutely refused it – there was a simple way for this to conclude. More on this, in the wider context of this wave of occupations, in a moment.

    ‘I’m aware that the protesters offered not to disrupt proceedings in the room, and I don’t disbelieve this. I just can’t take it very seriously. If a crowd of people with banners and placards is sitting at the back of the room, could a lecturer really deliver a class as normal?”

    The occupiers offered to remove all their objects from the room and maintain a token presence of two or three persons at the back of the class while lectures were on going. There would have been no difference between this and a few extra people sitting in on a lecture as regularly occurs. In addition, lecturers contacted the campaign to state that they found the room satisfactory and would continue to teach there. Your statement displays rather a lack of imagination, a few people sitting at the back actually happened at Sussex University and was absolutely fine.

    ” Perhaps more importantly – and since the room is host to a number of important career events – do you think the university wants its guest speakers to have a crowd of protesters distracting them?”

    Perhaps the University should not have links to the arms trade that provide weapons for bombing civilians if it doesn’t want there to be protests?

    “Even the Atrium, maybe?”

    I am sure the University would have found fault with this, but if you are so clear you could have done this better, might I suggest you try and do it yourself. All that is required is to stay somewhere in protest for the people of Gaza.

    “But you can’t hold the University to ransom. It just isn’t a viable solution. They’re more powerful than you, they have a responsibility to ensure students’ education goes ahead, and they will never, ever allow a precedent to be set for disruption resulting in demands being met. Trying to do this is futile, and will not work. And, as the protesters saw, it did not work.”

    This occupation is not the only occupation – there are approaching 20 around the country and this number, I am reliably informed, will only continue to increase over the next few weeks (it’s difficult to keep track as they spread like wildfire). Of these occupations, a majority have negotiated with their respective University, and gained a number of their aims. Other universities have been open to negotiate while the occupation is on going with absolutely no problem. I link to the response from the University of Oxford, the University of Bradford (not to mention support from their union), the London School of Economics and Political Science (warning PDF), The University of Sussex, The University of Leeds, University of Warwick (also here), Kings College London, School of African and Oriental Studies, London etc.

    The impression you are giving is that this ‘sort of thing’ is wildly out of left field, and extreme (holding a gun to the Universities head is a fairly difficult to stomach metaphor given what the protest was about). The question you as a journalist should be asking is why, if a number of universities up and down the country are capable of reasonable negotiation and often capitulation to the reasonable, sane and humanitarian demands of protesters, why is our University any different?

    I hope that in the interests of balance, you will allow a representative of the campaign itself to publish on Impact’s blog.

  • Anonymous
    4 February 2009 at 21:11
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    Human rights violations occur daily in every corner of the world. Indeed many people consider that Britain is guilty of war crimes in Iraq and Afganistan. Many governments in the middle east have no human rights in practice and abuse human rights constantly. This is not our opinion but the opinion of bodies like Amnesty International

    Why then does the recent ‘occupation’ of the B62 lecture theatre highlight only the situation in Gaza ? A situation which all parties agree is at least in part the responsibility of Hamas for indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel without provocation and ensuring that their fighters are based in buildings occupied by civilians as a human shield. Why are only Israel and Israeli citizens the object of a campaign to force the University to cut its ties because of human rights violations?
    Anonymous
    Other human rights violations are not considered worthy of attention because they do not fit into the anti-Israeli agenda of fundamentalists whose true objective has been clearly and consistently stated from the President of Iran down namely to obliterate Israel from the map and drive all Jewish People from the area.

    The protesters therefore should make clear what their true agenda is so that those who are not committed to either side can make up their minds whether or not they believe that Nottingham University should take sides in this human tragedy and if they should take sides should do so on the side of forces that have proved time and again they actually have no respect for human rights.

    Forces which are happy to display on the Internet their complete contempt for human rights by allowing for example public hangings to take place on the street in those societies they control, by their condemnation of homesexuality and lesbianism, by their racist ethnic cleansing as exampled in Darfur, by their lack of free speech, their use of religious and security police to enforce their will, their indiscriminate suicide bombings etc etc etc.

    For the Protesters to try and gain their way by an alleged campaign in favour of “human rights” its seems unjust to focus ones attention purely on the situation in Gaza.

  • Anonymous
    5 February 2009 at 00:41
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    sorry…that didnt quite come out as i meant it too! I am not trying to link anyone in the occupation of B62 at all to fundamentalism….and realise the way i worded this may seem that way! sorry

    I am more just trying to say that human rights violations occur all over the world….in lots of different societies….and that these should be considered and presented more vocally. Students should be aware of them and not just think it is only Israelis and the situation in Gaza.

  • Tom
    5 February 2009 at 04:05
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    This articles completely sums up the problems I had with the protest (with the protest, NOT with the cause) in a way I am far too inarticulate to convey.

    The whole way the protest was conducted was antagonistic and should have been a last resort after more democratic and sensible avenues had been exhausted.

    I’ve always maintained that the beef people have with Starbucks is anti-corporate and anti-globalisation rather than an problem of ethics. During those protests I felt like mentioning to protesters with iPods that it was made in China by someone earning $60 a week, flown to the UK and sold at an unbelievable profit, which lines the pockets of a capitalist corporation and its stakeholders.

  • Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    5 February 2009 at 15:05
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    @ Tom : Good point!!! [“I felt like mentioning to protesters with iPods that it was made in China by someone earning $60 a week”]

  • Anonymous
    6 February 2009 at 17:02
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    I quite agree with the article. All in all the ‘occupation’ was a dreadful own goal for Palestinian solidarity. The only actual benefit for Gaza after the circus was that there was fundraising for Gaza relief – something they surely could have done just as effectively without antagonizing the entire campus.

    I am amused by the hubris of Mike’s reply though.

  • Anonymous
    8 February 2009 at 18:59
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    It’s all a bit one sided isn’t it? What with the heavily biased UK coverage of the situation, any student with a penchant for political posturing can easily come to the conclusion that Israel is wrong, murdering women and children, war crimes, etc. etc. And what with the massive attention the occupation on campus has been getting, this view is only cemented in the minds of every little middle class politico.

    Perhaps if news coverage were broader, reporting on the atrocities comitted on both sides, things might be little more balanced. This isn’t a case of pointing fingers, an eye for an eye etc., it’s about the increasing hatred towards Israel on campus, and thus the feelings of hostility towards Jewish people – unfortunately people are led to believe that Israelis and Jewish people are the same thing.

    There have been instances of Anti-semitism in universities all over the country, including LSE, Oxford, Bradford, etc. These all began in the same way as at Nottingham, a ‘peaceful’ protest, then leading to Jewish students becoming more and more uncomfortable amongst fellow students on campus. The “Israeli Problem” smacks a little of Hitler’s “Jewish Problem,” and we all know how that ended up.

    Perhaps it should be mentioned that all that could be hoped for is peace on both sides, something that supporters of Israel and Palestinians can all understand.

  • Jamal
    10 February 2009 at 11:00
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    I fully concur with Mike, author of the second comment on this article.

    Even notwithstanding the numerous basic factual inaccuracies in the article, the absurdity of its ‘criticism’ is compounded by the fact that decisions were taken consensually in the occupation. Yes, this means Mr Barham could have made the two-minute walk from the Impact offices over to B62 and voiced all the opinions in his article, ensuring that they would be taken into account when making decisions. Now, I wonder why he was nowhere to be seen?

  • Mike
    12 February 2009 at 12:21
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    Israel is wrong. But Israel is a state, a government. Israel is neither Jews nor Judaism. People are not lead to equate Israel with Judaism and anyone who makes this basic mistake is an idiot, and no pro-Palestinian activist would permit it, certainly not on this campus and in the wider community. There were a number of Jews involved in the occupation. Saying that the actions of peaceful protesters on this campus may conclude in the another Shoah is distasteful to say the least, absurd as a conclusion to say more.

  • Phil Whitehead
    14 February 2009 at 19:01
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    Mr. Barham, you’ve hit the nail exactly on the head. If the protestors were serious about doing something productive for the situation in Gaza they would have gone about it in a way that recognised the limited ability of the University to effect change, and concentrated on dialogue with the people in the university who actually could do anything. What the tactics of the occupation show is that either they are completely naive, or that they are not really interested in any positive steps the university actually could take, but just wanted to blow off steam and provoke a showdown with the university. It really does concern me that so many who profess to want an end to oppression in the Middle East think they need to disrupt the life of the university, hold our staff to ransom, and have all but sold out to radical Islam in their refusals to condemn Hamas/Hesbollah terrorism and corruption. Debate has been pushed to the margins by these kinds of people – whatever happened to being able to say that both the Israelis and Palestinians had legitimate grievances but had also committed atrocities to redress them? Why must the voice of moderation be silenced by raving zionists on the one hand and thinly-disguised apologists for Islamist terror on the other?

  • Peter Davis
    24 February 2009 at 11:53
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    “We condemn the firing of thousands of rockets into southern Israel over the past 8 years by Hamas’ military wing and other armed factions within Gaza.”

    “Our protest is humanitarian and against civilian casualties, and we therefore condemn the deliberate targeting of civilians on both sides.”

    From the website of the occupation – http://occupationnottingham.wordpress.com/

    Sorry, but where did you get the impression that these people ‘have all but sold out to radical Islam in their refusals to condemn Hamas/Hesbollah terrorism and corruption’. ‘Kinds of people’ – your complete lack of empathy for their stance betrays you despite your words that supposedly call for moderation.

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