Students locked in at Deptford Town Hall as Goldsmiths responds to anti-racist protests

Deptford Town Hall. Pic: Victoria Smith

Students from Goldsmiths, University of London have been prevented from entering or leaving  Deptford Town Hall, which they are occupying as part of a protest, since Friday.

The Town Hall’s windows and fire exits have been blocked, prompting concerns for the occupiers’ health and safety, while the students associated with the protests have been threatened with legal and disciplinary actions.

Over the weekend, the staff at Goldsmiths have issued a letter of concern about the treatment of students to Pat Loughrey, Warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and Dinah Caine, Chair of Council.

“To our minds, this is pedagogically and ethically unacceptable, especially in light of Goldsmith’s commitment to ‘liberate curriculum’ from white supremacy, the first stated aim of the current Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy.

“These actions are a flagrant violation of university strategy in light of these aims and are excessively punitive as compared to actions taken in past student protests.”

“To deem students ‘trespassers’ when raising issues of racism and discrimination in a university that happily pockets fees of upwards of £9,000 per year (and more for the many international students affected by racism on campus) is reprehensible. That students are effectively incarcerated, with fire escapes blocked, at risk of both physical harm and exacerbation of mental health issues only adds to the disbelief that a university that prides (and markets) itself on radical ideas and commitments to social justice would curb the lawful right to protest on its own campus.”

Evacuation procedures ‘satisfactory’

Earlier The Senior Management Team at Goldsmiths issued a statement calling for all occupiers to “leave immediately” and to stop using “ladders or similar equipment to access the building”.

They also said in the same statement released later on Friday: “The Fire Brigade team you [the occupiers] called to the building earlier have not only confirmed that our evacuation procedures are satisfactory, but they have also instructed us to call the Police as soon as we witness the deployment of ladders or similar equipment.”

Students began occupying Deptford Town Hall after anti-racism protests broke out on Tuesday afternoon.

The Grade II listed building has been evacuated and remains temporarily closed. E-mails informing students of the provisional closure of the Town Hall were sent by Goldsmiths to “ensure the safety of students and staff” on Friday. The building is regularly used for lectures and seminars.

Protesters’ banner. Pic: Victoria Smith

Waves of protests erupted on Tuesday afternoon after Hamna Imran, a Goldsmiths Student Union’s candidate for Education Officer, faced discrimination and attacks of racist nature during last week’s election.

Imran’s campaign posters were reportedly ripped apart and tagged with graffiti mocking her accent, whilst her banners were damaged and taken down.

Incidents were reported to Goldsmiths’ Hate and Reporting Center, without any immediate follow-up.

Hamda Imran lost the election, triggering severe discontent amongst students.

‘Unfair’ results

Fiona Sim, a friend of Imran, fellow protestor and Anthropology and Media student, explained to ELL: “A lot of students felt the election results were unfair because they never thought to pause or postpone the election to give Hamna a fair chance.”

Protesters’ meeting. Pic: Victoria Smith

As more students rallied in support of Imran, the movement evolved into protests denouncing racism, homophobia, the isolation of international students at Goldsmiths, as well as the College’s lack of acknowledgement of these issues.

“We want to make them aware that students of colour have been angry, have been frustrated, have been building up a lot of stress, trauma and anger for years and years now,” says Sim. “It was all coming to a front with the latest scandal, with a high profile election that’s so widespread on campus. It’s the fact that it can happen to a candidate and still not be taken seriously when it’s supposed to be a democratic election when a university is supposed to be a free and fair place.”

‘Not negotiating’

Students have been occupying the Town Hall’s Council Chamber overnight, leaving at least five people every night. Goldsmiths’ senior management officers have since evacuated the building and been assigned temporary offices in the Caroline Graveson building.

Negotiations with protesters have begun, as well as discussions regarding the mistreatment of cleaners and security staff at Goldsmiths. Another protest, raising awareness for these issues, was held in February.

“It’s not only about the BAME issues. It’s not only about the curriculum not being diversified, or the fact that teachers are all white; it’s about the whole environment at Goldsmiths,” said Sim. “It’s about how students feel they can interact with each other, it’s how many students feel like they can’t get the mental health support they need, they can’t get the physical support they need or the financial support they need, so they end up dropping out of the system.”

“When you look at the cleaners, when you look at the security guards, the majority are black, Asian, or Latino, people of colour basically. You see them and the way they are not treated to the same degree as other members of staff like lecturers or administration staff.

“If cleaners and security guards, people who look like us, can’t even be given sick pay, pension pay, holiday pay, if security can’t even sit in the canteen and eat food without getting harassed by the member of staff telling them they can’t sit there, what future does it show to students of color who are studying here and are going to leave and get jobs. What prospect does that give us? What image is it giving us about how we are treated, or how we’re going to be treated, not just by this university, which is supposed to be progressive, but by a world that is much crueller, much harsher, much more violent than this university.”

A Goldsmiths’ spokesperson told The National Students that steps would be taken to “build on our existing support for the 40% of our students who identify as black, Asian or ethnic minority.”

“Steps include establishing clearer protocols for our hate crime reporting processes and developing a mandatory training package for all student-facing staff on issues of diversity and race awareness.”

Goldsmiths has also promised to invest £100,000 in support services for students, including additional specialist mental health and wellbeing staff.

To John Dior, a final year Music Computing student, the situation is anything but new. “When I was in my first year, the third years were having the exact same conversations that we’re having now, and they remembered when they were in their first years, the third years were also having the same conversation we’re having now,” he says. “From my experience, it’s very much an institutional thing. It’s swept under the rug.”

Deptford Town Hall Council Chambers windows. Pic: Victoria Smith

Grace Gortadello, a first-year Sociology student, said: “The moment I joined Goldsmiths, I thought at least there’d be a minimum, just the bare minimum, of acknowledgement of the situation on campus.”

“People of colour in general, including myself, are here to try to experience life on campus but every time we face hostility, knowing that we will at some point, we have no one to talk to.”

Gortadello describes herself as a “black token”, with the role to “break down racism to every white person on campus with no support from the university, the lecturers or their departments.”

“The moment we face racism, face to face, on a direct scale, we are asked to go through mediation, which is a process where people of colour are emotionally abused by white people because we are forced in a room with only white people because there is no mediator of colour,” she says. “It is the lack of acknowledgement that endorses violence.”

The protesters have made it clear that they demand change.

In a Anti-Racist Action Occupation Manifesto issued to Goldsmiths’ Senior Management, protestors call for new measures, including the removal of the four statues of “known colonisers and the slave ship”, in-housing of its cleaning and security staff, a reinstatement of the scholarships for Palestinian students, as well as an “institution-wide strategic plan on how the university plans to tackle racism and the realities of life as a BME student at Goldsmiths” to be launched before June 2019.

“If they don’t make changes, they are showing that Goldsmiths sees blacks and Asians, and every single BAME as dirt on the ground. If they can’t even bring cleaners and security in-house to ensure they get the same rights as everyone else, or the white lecturers, then they are showing that they do not care and that they will never care,” says Sim. “We’re not negotiating until we feel that they are materially and significantly responding to our demands.”

In its response to concerns raised by the staff at Goldsmiths, The Senior Management Team at the university said that they would open the building again by Monday afternoon if protestors were to refrain from “aggressive and threatening behaviour” and to enter and exit via the main front door.

They also said: “[I]t should be understood that it will take longer to formally respond to the demands of the occupiers given the number of demands enumerated and the complexity of some of them.

“We will, however, seek to respond as soon as possible.”

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