IssueMarch 2009
Feature by Tom Bennett

Over the past month or so, in the wake of Israel’s brutal bombardment of Gaza, the UK’s student population has witnessed a widespread political awakening. Campus occupations or sit-ins have been staged at some 20 universities around the country, by hundreds if not thousands of students, demanding action to help the people of Gaza and an end to the complicity of UK educational institutions in Israel’s crimes.

On the evening of 28 January, around 200 students had just finished watching Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land as part of a film series at the University of Nottingham. An anonymous letter was passed to the chair of the discussion session, stating that a number of students had decided to initiate an occupation at Nottingham, and inviting everyone to be a part of it. Around 80 students then moved to occupy an adjacent lecture theatre.

During the first evening, a set of demands to be issued to university management were discussed and drafted in a large group meeting. This was a lengthy process, but essential to ensuring that everyone had a say in the aims of the protest.

Demands included donating educational equipment to Gazan universities and severing university ties with companies that arm Israel.

How it was done

Tasks were shared out among “working groups”, who looked after aspects such as food, media liaison, and publicity. These groups held open meetings, run on consensus principles, to ensure that everyone could get involved in the aspects of the occupation in which they were most interested.

These groups fed into larger general meetings, again run on consensus principles. For many it was the first time they had witnessed a form of cooperative, inclusive decision-making working on this scale. The organisational structure evolved and developed as lessons were learnt, experience was gained and circumstances changed.

For an undergraduate, the occupation was a unique experience, with everyone living, sleeping and working together, eating communally and participating in discussions and decision-making.

The occupied lecture theatre temporarily became an autonomous space. A genuine sense of solidarity and understanding was felt between everyone involved. There was also a keen sense of belonging to something larger, a(n) (inter)national movement. The solidarity that developed between occupations at different universities was a great source of strength. Unfortunately, here at Nottingham, university management refused to engage with the students.

On Sunday evening, four days in, university management decided to forcefully evict the occupation. This stands in stark contrast to the way that the majority of other universities dealt with similar situations.

Nottingham once again distinguished itself in the field of repression. This was a very regrettable and disappointing course of action by the authorities .

From my perspective, it was very inspiring to see many new or “non-activist” students getting involved with this protest. The gravity and momentum of the occupation drew in many people who had never before made that leap into the realm of political action.

In this sense, the process has had quite a catalytic effect, with new campaigns and a more prominent movement emerging from the ashes of the occupation.

Many students are now working for post-occupation progress, in terms of action from the university to help the people of Gaza.

It is still unclear how successful these endeavours will be, and judging from the way university authorities dealt with the occupation, we can be reasonably certain that there is still a battle to be fought.

What we can be sure of is that this action has greatly elevated the Gaza issue in the consciousness of the student population and served as an empowering and inspiring experience for the many students who took part.