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February 02, 2009
Writing about web page http://www.warwicksolidaritysitin.wordpress.com
Sit in Success
By Barnaby Pace
On the 12th of January a group of students at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London occupied a gallery suite. They were protesting the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the use of the gallery by the Ministry of Defence to recruit and display what the students saw as a sanitised one sided view of war. The occupation was peaceful, with the space reclaimed for teach-ins, lectures, workshops and exhibits. The SOAS occupation succeeded after two days, with the military no longer being allowed to use the room for free, or without consulting the students union in advance and the student occupation being able to use the space for further talks and exhibits for free. This action spurred students all over the country into action and inspired a movement.
In the wake of SOAS’s actions a wave of further occupations occurred. Nineteen have so far occurred at the time of writing, with occupations in SOAS, LSE, Warwick, Kings, Sussex, Oxford, Cambridge, Essex, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Queen Mary, Newcastle, Sheffield Hallam, Kingston, Salford, Bristol, Manchester Met and Bradford. The occupations and sit ins varied in their demands, in their stances on the Gaza conflict and their successes and failings, but student occupations on this scale have not occurred in decades.
I was fortunate to be involved in the Warwick Solidarity Sit In. We had our ups and downs, had moments of doubt, pain and anger but also experienced the joys of learning, reaching out and meeting beautiful new people and hoped that our actions could make a difference and change the world in some small way.
The Warwick Solidarity Sit in began on Wednesday 21st of January 2009, with a group of students walking into a lecture theatre, maybe just like they might on any other day. But these students had a plan, they saw the issues around them, a humanitarian crisis and a university not helping but being complicit in that disaster. Some students had known about the University’s links with the arms trade before; £2 million in researching military projects, promoting arms companies at careers events and refusing to exclude investing University funds in arms companies. It was known that many of the arms companies that the University was helping were selling arms to Israel among their many other clients of tarnished reputation. They saw that because of this their University was in complicit in the death, destruction and suffering they had seen in Israel and Palestine.
The students saw that there was too much variation in their opinions on the conflict to give a definitive position, but they found three defining principles that they could define their action by. Peace, Humanitarianism and the Right to Education, these basic statements informed everything that the sit in group did. The sit in was simple; stay in the room, educate people about the conflict and the issues, express our solidarity with other groups and those suffering in the middle east and try and persuade that University authorities to meet the demands. The group invited speakers, ran workshops and screened films and over time the group grew and evolved. People who had never taken part in a demonstration or a march before took an interest and came along. The Warwick Sit In gathered support, from students simply bringing packets of biscuits and their company, Student Union Sabbatical Officers giving advice, many messages of support being sent by student groups, trade unions, Political parties, academics and individuals from all over the world. The groups enjoyed support from such well known names as Tony Benn, Noam Chomsky, Vandana Shiva, Avi Shlaim and Peter Tatchell. The group put on talks from among many others, the CEO of Greenpeace International Gerd Leipold, founder of the Corner House NGO Nick Hildyard and local restaurant owner Manal Timraz. Possibly the most striking and best of all the speakers was Manal, a Palestinian refugee, former UN aid worker and somebody who has lost family in the recent Gaza conflict. It was incredibly powerful to hear her speak about the innate value of life and how we must look beyond the small differences between people but see every human being as a person with dreams, ambitions and a life to live. When you think about each individual whose life has been destroyed by war, not just the statistic, you are obligated to act to prevent any further suffering that you can.
The group worked day by day, working against accusations of being disruptive, due to the University moving lectures, against the group’s wishes, to other rooms around the campus. They worked against accusations of being aggressive, made by students who had never visited the space and taken time to visit the space where they would have been welcomed. They worked against accusations of partisanship or anti-Semitism for criticising Israel over other horrors in the world. This was probably the most painful accusation to students many of whom spend much of their time campaigning against the problems in the world, whether through anti-arms groups, anti-racism campaigns, amnesty groups and other campaigning groups. The students tackled these problems the only way that they could, by being as welcoming as possible to all, by laying out ground rules that allowed for free speech and fair discussion and prohibited any aggression, by helping students carry on their studies as free of disruption as possible and by taking all decisions using consensus methods and encouraging everybody to participate.
The sit in succeeded after nine days, after much publicity, negotiations with the university and using all the skills and resources available. The university had agreed to publish a public statement and sit down and negotiate seriously many of the demands. The group called an emergency general meeting of the Students’ Union. With only two days notice, more students attended than at any Students’ Union meeting in over a decade. Nearly four hundred students arrived, debated and celebrated the renaissance of student democracy. The sit in won the support of over 83% of students, which provided the sit in with a huge student mandate. The group is now continuing campaigning for the University to help in sending spare textbooks and computer equipment to schools and universities destroyed, to have the University support a series of high profile debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict and for the University to end its relations with arms companies that profit from the death and destruction in the world.
Despite these successes the struggle and campaign is not over, the university must still acquiesce to the demands, many students still do not know enough and there is still pain and suffering in the world and these must be worked against. Even though these aims are not yet fulfilled, the sit in campaign has succeeded in forging a movement, making new friends and in some small way helping deal with the problems in our world.