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Year 2009 No. 13, February 24, 2009 ARCHIVE HOME JBBOOKS SUBSCRIBE

Interview with an Organiser of the Oxford University Occupation

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Interview with an Organiser of the Oxford University Occupation

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Interview with an Organiser of the Oxford University Occupation

Over 80 students occupied Clarendon building of the historic Bodleian library at Oxford University on January 22 as part of a nation-wide wave of university occupations in support of the Palestinian people. That at Oxford had the added significance that Israeli President Shimon Peres had been invited to speak at Balliol College in November, and the college had established a lecture series in his name. One of the occupation’s demands was that the master of Balliol College cancels the lecture series.

As their blog at occupiedoxford.wordpress.com explains, “Students organised the sit-in after attending an emergency meeting in Oxford organised to discuss the war on Gaza and the precarious ceasefire. Members of the University entered the Clarendon building and sat down at 1200, British time, on Thursday 22nd January. Their demands were presented to University officials, and by 7pm the same day they achieved victory, putting an end to the occupation after reaching a successful agreement with the university.”

The occupation declared victory when the university agreed to: look to institute five scholarships to students from Gaza; ask congregation to consider its investments in BAE; provide surplus books and computers to the University of Gaza; issue a statement deploring the destruction of the Islamic University; and ask the master of Balliol college to reconsider the association of Shimon Peres’ name with the lecture series.

Workers’ Weekly Youth Group interviewed an organiser of the Oxford University occupation.


WWYG: How did the occupation go?

Organiser: The occupation was a huge success. It was the quickest and easiest action I have ever been part of organising, having been conceived and executed in less than 24 hours. It was also the shortest of all the occupations – our demands were met within a few hours.

It definitely felt like we were part of the beginning of something, in Oxford and nationally. As well as being part of the campaign in support of Palestine specifically, it was also to do with students organising and reclaiming the university as their own space.

In general, the methods students have been using in occupying universities around the country have put them into direct conflict with the university apparatus. They have exposed what that apparatus has become and the way universities function.

On the issue of divestment [from arms companies such as BAE that supply the Israeli military], the idea that our student fees are going there, that this type of investment is allowed, shows that profitability of investment has taken priority over basic ethical concerns, not to mention where students want their fees used. The occupations have put this into sharp relief.


WWYG: What support did the action get? What was the sentiment of the university staff and the local community?

Organiser: The occupation had the support of a number of different groups within the student community. It was organised in a non-partisan and collective manner, which was a major source of its strength. It brought a lot of people together, including those that were not previously involved in activism or involved in other things entirely. It had an organic, grassroots character.

Some of the staff remained in the building and we talked with them. Some were incredibly excited, others concerned for our safety at times. They were generally very supportive.


WWYG: What was the response of the university management?

Organiser: We dealt mainly with the Senior Proctor. The negotiations were very respectful, and we were satisfied with the results


WWYG: What other actions have been organised?

Organiser: After the occupation, we held a meeting the following week and have been meeting weekly since then. We divided ourselves into working groups to ensure our demands are followed through and to move on to other projects.

For example, the Proctor did not have the power to grant divestment on the spot, but he agreed to bring the issue before the relevant university body, so we’re following that process. We have also set up a group to liaise with other occupations.

Relating to divestment, a solemn protest has been organised for Wednesday in Oxford town centre, where we will dress in “subfusc”, our formal exam attire, and hopefully carry a mock-up coffin wrapped in a Palestinian flag in a staged funeral procession. The idea is to draw attention to the £1.7 million the University invests in arms companies which sell weapons to Israel – to show that our fees have funded what Israel has been doing to Gaza.


WWYG: How are students themselves summing up and reporting on their experiences?

Organiser: We won our demands so quickly that it has taken time to sink in. Spirits are really high, and we are positive about moving forward. We are developing a regular blog, to report on what we as well as students actually working in Gaza are doing. We have a number of exciting projects on the go.


WWYG: The government has been pushing for the so-called “war on terror” to be taken up in the universities, for example for staff to monitor students for “extremism”. Can you comment on this?

Organiser: This was definitely an action that attempted to reclaim our space. There have been a lot of lecturers and other members of the university community who have been supportive of our occupation and our demands and our rights as students as well.


WWYG: A lot of young people are disillusioned with the big party system. Do you see students organising and taking up politics in a new way as an alternative? Would you say that students need to become political themselves?

Organiser: Yes, certainly. It’s clear that students have reached a breaking-point. They have known for a long time that there are serious problems with the world, there has been a kind of cynicism, but students haven’t known what to do that would be effective and worthwhile. It has reached a point where this is too much.

There has been a combination of galvanizing factors, not only Gaza but the economic downturn and others as well. Also, students are now of a generation that has come of age under conditions of war; they have grown up with this. I think students have just decided that this is too much, we can’t let this happen. This is not the world that we want to inherit.

This feeling is starting to be manifested not just in dismay and withdrawal, but with activism, with strong opposition. There’s a feeling that change must be forced by us, rather than leaving things to elected officials and other actors who have changed little. There has been nothing in student activism in the UK in recent years like the energy we feel now.


WWYG: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Organiser: I would like to mention the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. Israeli apartheid is just as serious, if not more so, as many prominent South Africans who fought apartheid there have indicated. People really feel that this is a campaign that can be won, just as South Africa was. I think that drawing that link is really important.

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