After more than two weeks, students occupying Goldsmiths building over Palestine conflict are in it for the long haul

Pic: Selin Oztuncman

After more than two weeks occupying the basement of a key building at Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest over the institution’s stance on the Gaza conflict, student activists today blockaded the doors and blocked entry, forcing the cancellation of lectures and closing administrative offices. Selin Oztuncman and Ray Bonsall report on a protest that shows no sign of ending

At the entrance of the Professor Stuart Hall building, located in the New Cross campus of Goldsmiths, University of London, a security guard is in positions. As you go downstairs to the ground floor of the building, an impromptu lecture is taking place about war and violence in Gaza.

.As the lecture continues, around 20 people are sitting shoeless in the lecture theatre, surrounded by sleeping bags where 20 students – on a rota- have been staying and sleeping since the occupation started on February 20. Posters proclaiming Palestinian rights are pinned up everywhere.

The occupation is making five demands of Goldsmiths Senior Management Team: a new statement from the college recognizing that the Israeli offensive is genocide, the protection of protesting rights, commitment to rebuilding Palestinian education structure, divestment from surveillance company Nice LTD and revoking the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which was adopted by the college several years ago. 

There are occasional visits to the occupation from campus security and building managers aren’t uncommon but all formal lectures and other teaching activities due to take place in the area haven been cancelled or moved elsewhere. However, a number of Goldsmiths academic staff have attended the protest and shown their support for the activists, as have the lecturers’s union, the University and College Union.

With free food and amenities provided to all “occupiers”, the main area is decorated with student artwork, testimonies and manifestos spreading the movement’s spirit. “A horizontal hierarchy” is established in running the daily life at the occupiers’ ground, as every detail, from task rotas to activity schedules, is equally distributed. 

New-comers and visitors are welcome to join in on the events or to observe the surroundings. ELL reporters were welcomed with enthusiasm when approaching the occupiers for interviews, but their hesitation with going on record was also notable. Most occupiers don’t wish to release their identities, which has also led to a ground rule of “no photos of faces or identifying features” to avoid being detected.

Four students at the site of the occupation, who wish to remain anonymous, said they did not want to be affiliated with an institution like Goldsmiths that claims to be “progressive” yet is taking no action to recognize a genocide and continuing to invest in Israeli-linked companies. 

One student said: “We’re all here for different reasons, but for me, it was the contrasting response by the government to the Ukrainian crisis and the Palestinian crisis. People have been offering their homes to Ukrainians, but that was sort of absent for Palestinians.”

Another student highlighted Goldsmiths’ complicity in their investments to Israeli-owned AI surveillance company Nice LTD, through the university’s “ethical investment fund”. “Universities should be for learning, accommodating students and funding research, instead of prioritizing profits.”

Although everyone has individual motivations to be present at the occupation, the common goal is to get the institution everyone is affiliated with, to stand on a certain side of history.

The occupation site’s view from the second floor of the media building. Pic: Selin Oztuncman
The five demands are written on a whiteboard in the occupation area. Pic: Selin Oztuncman

Occupiers also welcomed members of Goldsmiths’ Senior Management Team meet with them at the sit-in to address demands. SMT staff including the university’s warden, Frances Corner have attended the occupation to speak to the protestors. However, occupiers say that in both instances their address was insufficient and that the demands were “brushed off” without any concrete action.

In a statement, Goldsmiths said: “Senior Management Team at Goldsmiths join with international voices to call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire for all and a release of all hostages, and says that ending the war and finding meaningful peace must be the priority of all those in the region who have the power to bring about positive change.”

However, the occupiers say that whilst the statement is an improvement on previous public statements, the university has not gone far enough in acknowledging the occurrence of a genocide in Gaza. Corner allegedly acknowledged the genocide in her address to students but has this has not been publicly stated. 

Goldsmiths has offered to talk to the students about their demands but the protestors say they will not participate in formal discussions until the university makes a statement on its website. Students have also demanded full transparency, including a recording of the meeting as a condition for participation. Student protestors also disrupted a meeting of Goldsmiths council and academic board.

At the end of the second week of protests, on March 1, the Goldsmiths senior management team said it had agreed to some of the requests from students, including a programme of teach-in activities and that it would apply to become a university of sanctuary. It would also increase by from two to three the number of scholarships for Palestinian students and to financially support and create further links with higher education in Gaza. However, this did not appear enough to end the protest or deter the blockade that began on March 8.

Following other pro-Gaza protests on campus, early in February, the Goldsmiths management said they respect students’ right to protest, but have issued guidance on acceptable conduct, which includes staying away from the use of words and banners inciting hatred or acts of terrorism, being careful not to disrupt studies and damaging College property, allowing the university to film demonstrations and dictate where demonstrations take place.

Students said they were prepared for stay as long as necessary but have a long way to go to beat the 2019 occupation of another Goldsmiths building, Deptford Town Hall, which houses a number of adminisstrative offices, to protest over institutional racism and call for the removal of statues on the building which have an association with slavery. The protest lasted for 137 days until agreement was reached.

Editor’s note: This feature was updated on March 11 to reflect the statement issued by the Goldsmiths Senior Management Team.

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