22 May 2024

Students at UK universities have been slower off the mark than their American counterparts in establishing encampments to publicise their campaign for justice in Palestine, but they are no less committed. Here is an excellent summary of developments at Oxford and a comparison of US and British campus activity in Mondoweiss.

‘We have reached unprecedented levels of support for Palestine on this campus’: a student on Oxford’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment

Gaza solidarity encampments have spread across Britain, inspired by the wave of student organizing in the U.S. An organizer at Oxford University discusses student demands and how the U.K. protests compare to U.S. activism.

In recent weeks, Gaza solidarity encampments have spread across Britain, inspired by the wave of student organizing in the United States.

Earlier this month hundreds of Oxford University students established a “Liberated Zone” at the campus, expressing solidarity with Gaza and calling for the school to divest from Israel.

Mondoweiss spoke with Amytess Girgis, a PhD student at Oxford and an organizer with the group Oxford Action for Palestine, about the encampment, the student demands, and how these protests compare to the U.S. activism.

Mondoweiss: What inspired the encampment?

I’m an American PhD student here at Oxford and it’s been very interesting talking to U.S. universities, coordinating with U.S. universities, and thinking about how to make our actions in the UK as effective as possible.

We put our encampment up here at Oxford at the same time as Cambridge, on May 6th. The momentum is tremendous and the coalition that we built at this university is absolutely unprecedented.

We’re also facing repression, but the difference between here and the U.S. is that that U.S. repression is far more visible, the violence is far more visible. Here, especially at places like Oxford which are such unchanging institutions for centuries, the way that they are trying to to battle us is much different. So far that’s largely meant doing strategic gymnastics to avoid us.

What did Palestine activism look like on campus before the encampment?

There’s a tremendously strong community for Palestine activism in the UK. I would say it’s among the strongest in the West and that is very much true of us too.

Long before October and there were multiple societies here on campus that have been consistently organizing for Palestine. However, there had not yet been a concerted divestment campaign in this way until October.

In the past seven months we have reached unprecedented levels of support for Palestine on this campus, but that support had been there for a long time. There’s quite a few professors on campus who have been part of that organizing for a long time and there’s continuity from the unions on campus and that’s certainly helped. Then you have London being far and away the largest Palestine activism hub in in Europe has been a huge asset as well. We have people going back and forth to London all the time for events, for rallies, to chat and work with organizers.

How has the university’s administration reacted to the protest?

The administration’s reaction has been entirely predictable, but I was not expecting them to hold out on negotiations for this long.

So for context, the encampment has been up for two weeks and it took them nine days to even put out a statement. They didn’t respond to any of our direct lines of communication, despite the fact that we have met with them before.

They put out a very long statement that was quite empty and essentially said, “These are the reasons why we cannot meet the demands. We support free speech. The protests have been largely peaceful, we hope they stay that way.” That was basically the statement.

So, there’s definitely quite a bit of frustration. There’s quite a bit of anger and there’s a realization that we need to up the ante if we are going to get them to the table.

It’s really quite honestly been a surprise how long it’s taken them to sit down and talk. I thought they would try to combat us in different ways.

In the United States, we have seen a number of violent police sweeps. What has the opposition looked like there?

We have seen some of that happening at other universities across the UK.

Just in the last two days there has been a coordinated effort from police and from administrations to issue orders for camps to clear out and and those efforts will be carried out shortly.

A lot of that is a coordinated effort from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Last week he invited all of the chancellors of the main universities to Westminster to discuss this issue of protests on campuses and it was widely publicized.

So this is happening in the UK, but not on this campus yet. We have definitely been dealing with a few hecklers and some violence.

Unfortunately last week we had an attack. There’s a statement about it on our social media. We kept each other safe. We had to deescalation tactics in place but it was actually it was it was pretty alarming. On top of that the surveillance state is hard at work, so there have been a mass increase in cameras and security walking around. Every now and then a couple of cops swing by and try to be friendly, that sort of thing.

So, we are being highly monitored.

Is there any anxiety about the protests dying down as a result of students graduating this month?

One of the most difficult challenges about organizing at these schools is the term structure and the graduation structure.

The way it works is that there are 3 eight-week terms with six-week breaks in between. The first commences in October, ends in December and then you’ve got one that runs from January through March and then a break from the end of April through June. So, this makes it incredibly difficult to gain momentum.

However, in this particular context it is working in our favor because we finish quite a bit later than U.S. universities. We are well aware that there’s a global imperative to keep momentum and to keep eyes on Gaza.

As far as graduation, Oxford and Cambridge are decentralized and dysfunctional so most people graduate between six months and a year after they actually complete their degrees. There is no centralized graduation, there is a college system at these universities where people graduate in small batches by college and by the type of degree that they have.

I just had a friend who graduated last week with a small group of 200 people and she had finished her degree last May. So on one hand it makes it incredibly difficult to coordinate something centralized, but on the other hand there are some fun opportunities to scatter some things throughout different weekends.

So, we are entering graduation season for many people, and there are events happening pretty much every weekend. They’re just much smaller.

Can you talk about the specific demands of the protesters? I assume the context is somewhat different based on the U.S. government’s very specific relationship with Israel.

Our demands have largely been the same, but you’re right that the context is different.

While Oxford finances are incredibly opaque, we know that they have money that is connected to the Israeli genocide and occupation. We have six demands that are available on our social media. It involves disclosure, an overhauling of the university’s divestment policy which currently limits some “illegal weapons”, but not others. Also, boycotting Israeli apartheid, stop banking with Barclays, which is a specific bank that’s complicit in all of this. Finally, we’re calling for Oxford to contribute financially to Palestinian-led rebuilding efforts in the South Zone.

So obviously all of these echo the same demands that are in the U.S., but the context is a bit different. First and foremost, the endowments in the United Kingdom are not even a drop in comparison to the mass amounts of money at universities in the United States.

Oxford and Cambridge are the only two universities in the UK that exceed $1 billion in endowments. Individual colleges have their own endowments, which adds up to about $8 billion. Keep in mind that over 30 colleges are part of Oxford.

My alma mater at the University of Michigan is $15 billion and that is a teeny-tiny drop compared to private universities.

Huge amounts of money at play. But we’re also very aware of the role that we’re playing is pressuring the UK government in the same way that you know American college students are trying to do.

We have been getting a lot of press coverage. People see us as a more peaceful protest, compared to others. We find it so interesting because the reason that the United States has seen these violent reactions is because of the militarization of the police there. Some might think the protests here look different, but there have been debates about how to go forward. There are certainly desires to escalate and disrupt. The schools here operate in a decentralized way and we’re up against the imperial core. There are different forms of protest and the framing of “peaceful vs. non-peaceful” is a distraction because we’re not talking about Gaza.