By Lara Holly Gibbs, MA Gender Studies
On the morning of 23 February, a group of students began occupying the first floor of the SOAS Main Building where the executive offices and staff common room are located. On Thursday 3 March the remaining students were evicted by a private eviction company, nine days after the occupation began.
Throughout the occupation, students gathered on campus in support of the occupiers.
Sometime after 11 PM on Thursday 3 March, an unknown number of men entered the SOAS Main Building. Some entered the building through the balcony using a ladder. Several men were seen wearing uniforms from a company called Eviction Response Team, while others could be seen outside of the Main Building holding riot shields.
Occupiers were given the option to leave or told they would be ‘carried out.’ SOAS Solidarity Instagram live streamed the events and urged those nearby campus to come and support the occupiers.
A video posted by SOAS Solidarity (the group behind the occupation) showed a student being carried out of the Main Building. Students gathered and shouted ‘shame’ as the student was removed from the premises. The student filming the video was describing the situation and could be heard saying ‘there are people down on the floor and security are dragging them by their legs.’ By 1 AM, no occupiers were believed to remain in the Main Building. Statements from SOAS deny that any ‘injury or incident’ occurred during the removal, though SOAS Solidarity statements contradict this, saying that three students were injured during the removal.
On the first day, occupiers published a set of four demands of the occupation. The first called on management to ‘Accept, implement and advocate for’ UCU and UNISON’s demands. The second asked for demands of SOAS student and worker-led campaigns to be accepted, including English classes for the cleaning team and ‘the immediate removal of Adam Habib.’ Thirdly, occupiers asked to demarketise and decolonise the institution. Lastly, that there would be no disciplinary action taken against anyone involved in the occupation.
SOAS’s Chief Operating Officer, Khadir Meer, told the occupiers on the first day that they had until 5 PM to leave by peaceful exit. This deadline was extended to 5:30 PM, however after 7 PM, Meer told students that no action would be taken to remove students that evening but that a court order would be sought to guarantee their eviction. Security staff were stationed outside the occupation and student occupiers remained overnight.
At 12:19 PM on 24 February, SOAS management announced the closure of the SOAS main building due to a ‘health and safety risk.’ An email sent to students stated people were ‘planning to congregate on the stairway in front of the occupiers.’ A rally took place at 1 PM on the steps outside of SOAS that day.
The main building remained closed the next day. The SOAS Directors group’s daily email update said that the ‘occupation constitutes unlawful trespass’ and stated they were ‘continuing to pursue a court order.’ The email also explained that the occupiers could access toilets, however this would constitute leaving the occupation and students would not be allowed back in.
On 27 February, the Directors group published a response to the demands of the occupation. It included SOAS’s policy on student occupations, which stated SOAS ‘will not tolerate any occupation of its premises.’ The main building remained closed until Tuesday 1 March. It reopened after assurances from UCU, UNISON, and the Students’ Union that a rally in the stairwell would not take place. It is unclear what evidence SOAS had that a rally was planned for the staircase inside the building, SOAS Solidarity deny planning any rallies inside the main building but did host rallies outside, as has occurred historically at SOAS.
The main building remained open during the final 2 days of the occupation, but under ‘managed access.’ SOAS also announced extended library opening hours as well as additional opening dates due to ‘disruption to staff and students.’
On 2 March, the Directors group said they expected occupiers to leave by 5 PM and if they had not left that ‘they would be liable to being removed either through court order or under common law.’ SOAS Solidarity called on students to gather outside the Main Building steps from 5 PM onwards due to the ‘threat of eviction’ which they believed was an ‘intimidation tactic’ by SOAS.
Following the eviction and as of 9 March, SOAS Directors group announced that they would not be pursuing disciplinary action against those involved in the occupation on this occasion ‘as a gesture of goodwill.’ They also commented on the increased security presence on campus, saying that this ‘reflects the School’s commitment to ensuring normal operations continue without further disruption.’
In a press release provided to the Spirit by SOAS Solidarity, they stated that numerous ‘privately hired bailiffs and security guards’ gained access through multiple entrances including ‘the main entrance, side entrance and through the balcony using a ladder.’ They were observed wearing riot gear, such as ‘helmets and riot shields.’
SOAS Solidarity also maintained that ‘no notice was given’ for the eviction, nor were grounds provided as to how the removal was being able to be facilitated. SOAS Solidarity stated that the ‘occupiers were given 30 minutes to pack their things and leave before being forcefully removed’ and that the evictors refused to identify themselves to students. In their statement, SOAS Solidarity again stated that they ‘demand’ Habib’s ‘immediate removal, as per our original demands, and that students and workers of the university have choice over the appointment of future management.’
A statement from SOAS made available to the SOAS Spirit on 4 March 2022 and states that SOAS are going to ‘commission a study on the attitudes of students and staff to protests and occupation, and how these incidents should be addressed in future. Many say they speak for our collective community, yet none – including the Director’s Group – do so from an evidential base. We desperately need such an evidential base to influence the future management of such challenges.’
Full statements from SOAS can be accessed by students via email and full SOAS Strike Solidarity statements can be found on their social media accounts.
Photo Caption: On day one a banner serves as the border of the occupied space on the first floor of the main building. (Credit: Frances Howe)