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 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