Police: heavy-handed and widely condemned

University tops call cops

Inspiring and impressive. Yassamine Mather reports on the student protest camps in Oxford and the support they are getting from the staff and the town

Students in the protest camps at Oxford University are angry and extremely frustrated by the authorities’ response to them.

This is understandable in an institution where undergraduates and postgraduates are supposedly encouraged to take a critical view of the history of colonialism, slavery, racism, etc. What did university authorities expect when the same students see a real time genocide in Gaza carried out by the colonial-settler state of Israel? A genocide aided and abetted by the United States and its allies, including Britain, of course.

Did we expect them to forget everything they had learnt for the sake of future careers? Did we want them to be as dishonest and superficial as the Oxford alumni sitting on the Tory and Labour front benches? Did we wish that they had blamed Hamas for fighting back against 75 years of Israel apartheid and state oppression and the 17-year siege of Gaza?

I certainly hope we did not and how inspiring it is to see students in Oxford, Cambridge, London, York, Warwick, Newcastle, Edinburgh and in so many other places taking up a just cause.

Well disciplined

Oxford students have now set up a second camp, in Radcliffe Square - what they call Radcamp. Many of these students have lived in tents for more than two weeks now, often under pouring rain - and some of them combine protests with preparation for exams! They are on the whole well disciplined. I am always impressed by how mature they are in dealing with fascists, drunks and Zionists who try and intimidate them and create confrontation. They know how to de-escalate a tense situation and I must admit I have learned a lot from them.

Faculty and staff support for the students is also impressive - especially on May 24, when the students escalated their actions by staging a peaceful sit-in at the vice-chancellor’s office. Inevitably there was a range of views on this tactic, both among staff and students, but the fact that the university officers decided to call the police to arrest a group of unarmed young students protesting against genocide in Gaza was excessive and spectacularly backfired.

The police not only arrested students, they also violently pushed and injured other protestors as well as observers. The entire incident was filmed on mobile devices and by now has been seen by millions worldwide, damaging the university’s reputation. Many in Gaza have added their comments on social media platforms, showing appreciation for the support given by Oxford University students.

In various emails and social media posts, staff commented that calling the police contradicted Oxford’s professed commitment to the right to protest and its duty of care towards its students. In addition to the growing number of students in both camps, over 2,400 in the university as a whole, more than 620 faculty and staff members and 200 university healthcare workers have supported the protests - not to mention 14 local trade union branches,

While admitting that the protests have been “largely peaceful”, official administration statements also claim the protests create an “intimidating environment” for Jewish students and staff. This is totally false - it refuses to recognise the numerous Jewish students actually involved in the protests. The administration’s emails have also suggested that the protests make some in the Oxford community feel not just “uncomfortable”, but “unsafe”.

The best response to this has come in the form of an open letter from the Concerned Jewish Faculty at the university:

According to the university’s statement issued on Thursday evening, Oxford’s Palestine Solidarity Encampment has created a deeply intimidating environment for many members of our community, including our Jewish students and staff, and members of the local Jewish community. This is not our experience. It is also not our experience that the Oxford administration has been open to dialogue with members of the Jewish community who are supportive of the encampment: when some of us reached out to you recently to propose a conversation, you ignored our offer. We therefore object to the university’s reductive and misleading claims to speak on our behalf. The characterisation of Jews as a uniform mass with a single viewpoint is itself a common and insidious anti-Semitic trope.

We implore you to listen to - and learn from - our students who have been urging the university to reckon with its complicity in the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. In accordance with the university’s commitments to academic freedom and democratic governance, we encourage you to follow the lead of colleagues at the University of Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin, the University of York and elsewhere, who have chosen to engage in meaningful, good-faith dialogue with protesting students.


We have also seen impressive public statements by college authorities, such as this one by the acting warden in St Anthony’s, addressed to students:

I write with grave worry about the events in the university today and in particular about the involvement of the police in dealing with protestors. I have written to the vice-chancellor to express my concern about the deployment of the police and the damage to the relationship between the university and our student community.

We recognise our students’ right to lawful protest and for their voices to be heard ... Our paramount concern at present is for the safety and wellbeing of those of our students who were present at the protest and may have been hurt or caught up in police action. I also appreciate that today’s events, as well as the ongoing Gaza war, have caused serious upset and trauma to many of our students ... The college would like to offer every support to ensure the safety and welfare of all of you. Please know that we are here to support you and we urge you to contact us if you need any help.

Our students’ political courage and commitment to peace and against untold violence through peaceful action are admirable. I would like to take this opportunity to say that our governing body noted the Graduate Common Room recent “motion in solidarity with Palestinians and those affected by the war on Gaza” that expressed a commitment to “the right of people to self-determination and freedom from oppression and genocide …”

On May 26, Balliol College’s Junior Common Room passed a motion condemning the university for responding to the protests with violence and intimidation. They expressed “deep disappointment” with Helen Ghosh, master of Balliol College, criticising her signing of the university’s statement as an “attempt to ignore the college’s spirit”.

In an open letter, Hertford students expressed concern for those who experienced “police violence first-hand”, which they attributed to the university’s decision to involve the police, while hundreds of students have signed open letters directed at their college heads. (Interestingly, Thames Valley Police described what happened on May 24 as “a small peaceful protest in the city” in a statement that has since been updated.)

Common rooms

St Anne’s College Junior Common Room and Middle Common Room passed motions supporting Palestine and the “liberated zone” represented by the encampment, organised by Oxford Action for Palestine (OA4P) with a majority of more than 80%.

Overall, the mood among the majority of staff and students is very clear and senior administrators who spend all day looking at Excel spreadsheets have not woken up to this.

University protests are important not only because they express the views of a growing majority of the population against Israel’s genocidal policies, but also because in the long term they can harm the Zionist regime’s economy. In this respect the warning by the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians regarding any “investments held in both arms companies and Israeli settlements” is significant. Universities have been informed that making money from investment in companies that supply weapons to a state committing war crimes might be illegal. They have also been warned that university officers could face legal action in the UK and elsewhere as a result.

In official statements put out by the university, a lot of attention has been given to the claim that the student protest last week disrupted a telephone call the Oxford University vice-chancellor was making! In decades to come, when we look back at the genocide of Gazans, it is unlikely that anyone will be concerned about the vice-chancellor’s phone call being interrupted by a peaceful protest. What will be remembered is that Oxford students and staff were on the right side of history, while the administrators were either complicit in war crimes - or else they had no idea of what they were doing and where they stood on the appalling events unfolding in Gaza.