Jordana Belaiche, BA Poltiics
I am surrounded by the warm dim light of the Brunei Gallery. It looks exceedingly different to the polished corporate space that I remember, a space dedicated to showing off SOAS’ wealth – generally used for events including symposiums, landmark anniversary exhibitions and various cultural events and discussions. The gallery is the public, official face of SOAS, events there are even supported by the British Council.
That was until October 6th of this year when students claimed the space as their own. Having to surrender the space to a gaggle of students with a passion for justice is surely bemoaned by administration, whose leaked plans to eradicate 184 courses permanently from the curriculum are the main cause for agitation.
Leaflets for all kinds of causes litter tables by the windows which are plastered with anarchist symbols and defiant posters rejecting course cuts. A large banner declaring an end to racial profiling in the light of Prevent measures is strung between two pillars that have lost their shine in favour of student artwork.
Poems hang upon a back wall of the ‘chill out zone’, where familiar hammocks reside and a small cordoned square serves as a study space complete with printers. There is a quiet, respectful hum and despite the lack of protesters present (most have departed for now to pursue a day of study) it is evident the space is charged with an intensity to continue the cause.
I am told that at the occupations inception there were as many as 60 students and though the numbers have continually dwindled since its instalment, those remaining are determined to go on.
The occupation has six main demands, none of which have as yet been addressed by SOAS administration. Instead Management has stated that negotiations will commence following an immediate termination of the demonstration, whose end does not seem yet to be nigh.
Other than opposing the pressing issue of course cuts, which sparked the demonstration and could mean that entire degrees are swept away entirely, the group has other core demands. These include no potential job losses due to cuts and outsourcing, a call for more devolved powers within SOAS to allow the governance structure to become more democratic, an immediate implementation of the Academic Boycott (BDS) which was voted upon with an overwhelming majority of 73% in last year’s referendum and an end to the Prevent strategy.
“The occupation has six main demands, none of which have as yet been addressed by SOAS administration”
Further information and expansion of these demands, which, it is repeatedly stressed, are non- negotiable, can be found on the Soas Anti Cuts Tumblr page. Despite the coherent and reasonable nature of these requirements, a backlash from management has included passive aggressive updates to the FAQ page on the SOAS website, demeaning the occupation to a ‘sit in’ and commenting on the ‘negative impact’ the occupation is having upon the entire School.
This reporter cannot justifiably find support for this claim, considering the communal atmosphere of the occupation and the reason behind its installment. While the relocation of the Undergraduate Open Day is cited by Management as having a negative impact upon critically minded students perusing a university renowned for its activism, the occupation states they should be “grateful to the occupation for increasing application numbers of critical-thinking prospective students”. This is from a statement released by the occupation after Management took increased steps to shut down the occupation by removing Wi-Fi and electricity from the space, and turning the air conditioning on full blast.
Regardless of the punitive measures of SOAS management, the occupation continues to be highly democratic. There are daily General Assemblies in which grievances are dealt with, changes are agreed upon and steps for future measures of the movement are voiced.
While the relocation of the Undergraduate Open Day is cited by Management as having a negative impact upon critically minded students perusing a university renowned for its activism, the occupation states they should be “grateful to the occupation for increasing application numbers of critical-thinking prospective students”.
Due to protesters determination to create a purely equal space these meetings can ‘go on for hours’, as one calm, tolerant student informs me. ‘There have been concerns’ they tell me, when asked about other students reluctance to join occupy, ‘about being captured by cameras’ and identified by omnipresent SOAS administration, ‘but the cameras are out there’ and she points to a world beyond the glass where less hardline folk mill about.
This particular point is of some note when considering the danger students have been put in previously when conducting such activism; in prior demonstrations students were indeed identified and subsequently the emphasis on remaining anonymous is integral to this particular operations success.
The space has been host to several other occupations;in both 2009 and 2012 SOAS4GAZA occupied Brunei for several days. In 2009 direct action was taken in response to an exhibition that was to be held by the Ministry of Defence to show support with those in Gaza and in 2012 to press former SOAS Director Paul Webley to condemn William Hague’s statements surrounding the situation in Gaza being primarily due to the fault of Hamas.
The latter occupation ended upon the news of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas- it is unlikely a ceasefire between the staff and students of SOAS and the directorial board will appear as rapidly.
The use of the Brunei gallery in the past to host SOAS occupations is evidence in itself of students’ continuing drive to activism and passion for the causes they champion- it also certainly explains the appearance of Palestinian groups being hosted in the space over the past weeks to arrange talks and the numbers of pro-Palestine stickers and pamphlets at the occupation.
Yet never in its history has an occupation been incited as a result of actions that threatened the very life of SOAS’ key specialist courses; now more than ever perhaps drastic action is the best way of vocalising disapproval of management’s’ questionable choices.
In keeping with the utopian ideals of the occupants, there are strict and democratically decided rules about how this safe space operates- with tolerance and respect for others high on the agenda. There is no ‘racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, transphobia or prejudice based on ethnicity’, there are even ‘anonymous boxes’ in the toilets to allay student fears should they wish to report anything without naming and shaming or repercussions.
The Occupy SOAS movement is in essence a utopia. A microcosm of what SOAS might be, what it could be, were it to be a truly open and democratic space where all views were heard, respected and discussed.
“Yet never in its history has an occupation been incited as a result of actions that threatened the very life of SOAS’ key specialist courses”
The students at the occupation ought to be proud of their endeavours even if this amounts to little in respect of their initial aims; they have resiliently fought to provide a safe political forum that blends creativity with activism. Sketches of nudes illustrate another wall, ‘from the life drawing class we had on Saturday’, as do other art pieces created by the occupants, mostly displaying anti capitalist slogans in bold prints.
The space was also host on October 15th to SOAS musicians and the Ceildih band whose short set firmly established the occupation as an artistic as well as activist collaboration. If you haven’t already frequented the occupation, now is assuredly the time to head down, it’s certainly well worth a visit to maintain support for a worthy cause.