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‘The only language the university speaks is money’: pro-Palestine students now facing eviction

A possession order brought by Bristol University to evict the protest camp has been rejected – but only until further hearings on 19 July.

Photos: Bristol Occupy for Palestine

Reports

On Friday 5 July, Joe Burns, 23, a student activist from the protest group Bristol Occupy for Palestine, walked down the steps of Bristol Civil Justice Centre flanked by solicitors. 

For over two months, the group have been positioned in a tent encampment in the University of Bristol’s Royal Fort Gardens, aiming to prompt the university to sever its links with Israel-linked arms companies.

But earlier that week, the university’s senior management filed a possession order to legally evict the students involved. 

On Friday, that order was rejected by the court, for now at least, postponing further hearings until 19 July. 

Joe, serving as the encampment’s legal defendant, remained defiant. “Collaboration with arms manufacturers selling and developing weapons, with full awareness of the atrocities these weapons are used to commit, implicates us all,” he said. “We will not stop until the university divests from Israeli genocide.”

Protesting students have been camping in Royal Fort Gardens since May. Credit: Bristol Occupy for Palestine

The encampment follows similar movements across the US and UK, protesting university ties with arms companies, particularly those involved in exporting weapons to Israel. Since 7 October, Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza has claimed over 35,000 Palestinian and 1,200 Israeli lives.  

Some university protesters demand diverting university investments away from the defence sector. At many research universities, though, arms industry ties run deeper, with partnerships between universities and the defence sector tailoring the academic output of engineering departments towards the research interests of arms companies.

At the University of Bristol, the pressure group Demilitarise Education has reported the value of these partnerships as over £92m – making it the fourth largest university recipient of money from companies with arms industry affiliations in the country. On top of divestment from the defence sector, Bristol Occupy for Palestine have demanded full disclosure of these partnerships – and the termination of those linked to Israeli arms. 

Moving past a standoff

The attempted eviction of the encampment marks the latest development in a turbulent year for student protesters at the University of Bristol. On 8 March, eight students occupied the university’s Victoria Rooms building. After little response to their demands from the university, they moved to 5 Tyndall Avenue, the building that houses the university’s senior management team offices.

The standoff, which the protesters documented live on Instagram and TikTok, lasted 27 days, with food being passed to the group as they watched their university lectures online. The group eventually vacated when they were also served a possession order.

The university’s vice-chancellor Evelyn Welch spoke with the protesters after the occupation. But the protesters weren’t happy with the outcome: Welch, they say, refused to take their demands seriously, allegedly telling them that ‘the Suffragettes set the vote back a few years’ – a line that has since become infamous. 

The Cable asked the university about this point and a range of others, but it declined to comment on any specific allegations while legal proceedings were still ongoing.

From 19 March, a different group of students barricaded themselves inside the university’s flagship Wills Memorial Building. They stayed there only five days, but say they caused the cancellation of various high-profile university events. 

Miles*, 22, tells me the most recent encampment aimed to continue the momentum of these occupations, but marked a recognition that “at this stage our movement wasn’t big enough to have the impact we wanted”. Instead, he says, “the encampment aimed to shift the movement’s approach to a more open, enduring form of protest that could involve the wider university community.”

Beginning with eight people on 1 May, the encampment grew to a group of around 25 tents and encompassed a broader network of approximately 300 people.

Finding consensus

At the encampment, key decisions were made by consulting this entire group during nightly 6pm meetings and deliberating until a consensus was found. At that time, Miles remembers, “None of us really knew each other very well, and there were lots of divergent opinions, so meetings could go on for hours. But it ended up unifying two or three activist groups that had spent years being judgemental of each other.”

Joe and Miles describe a mixed response from passers-by. On one hand, “angry young men” coming home from bars and clubs on the nearby Triangle often hurled late-night abuse in their direction. But on the other, many university employees offered words of support as they travelled between classes, and local businesses donated food and camping equipment. For two months, they have had a hot meal delivered by nearby restaurants and residents every single night.

Protesters say the university has refused to directly communicate with them throughout the encampment. On some mornings, Welch would walk past and wave – but that was that. 

This meant all university communications with the students happened via Welch’s university-wide email updates, which have broadcast the saga since it began. “This played to our advantage in the first few days,” says Miles. “When Evelyn kindly informed the entire student and staff body of our presence here, we gained a lot of new recruits.”

The encampment follows similar movements across the US and UK, protesting university ties with arms companies. Credit: Bristol Occupy for Palestine

Accordingly, the only interaction the students have had with the university officialdom was via campus security. Overall, guards made no major efforts to break up the camp. But, Miles claims, the camp experienced “continued low-level – and sometimes more serious – harassment and aggression” from university security services. 

On one occasion, the protesters say, a security guard came into the camp and shouted “Israel, Israel, Israel.” On another, they say, a guard told them “you should go back to your own country and protest – you’d get stoned.”

They also allege that certain security guards wear the ‘Thin Blue Line’ patch – a controversial badge sometimes worn by police and security officers which has been banned by the Met Police for its association with “hard-right” and white supremacist groups.

Welch’s emails have insisted it is not the vice-chancellor’s role to police academic research. “Our principles of free expression and academic freedom require us to remain impartial as an institution,” she wrote on 8 May. “Taking a position or stance on this, or any other conflict, can inhibit members of our community who want to speak their mind.” 

Protesters are unconvinced. “Evelyn spoke of the university’s broader need to be in impartial, but when you are receiving nearly a total of £100m from companies who are profiting from a genocide, you are not institutionally impartial,” says Joe. “Institutionally, you are very, very partial to the continuation of that genocide.”

Research contracts do not guarantee academic freedom, but the opposite, protesters argue. “With the increasing marketisation of the university, the idea of academic freedom is basically dead,” says Miles. “The university is reliant on research contracts and money from all sorts of companies.” 

Oscar Berglund, a senior lecturer in international public and social policy and UCU joint vice president at the University of Bristol, reiterates this standpoint. “The university’s official stance has been to basically not acknowledge these issues,” with its claims to impartiality, he says. “This is increasingly untenable as the plausible genocide continues – and is arguably against many of the core values of the university. I find this deeply disturbing.”

Berglund was one of over 400 university staff members to sign an open letter in solidarity with the Bristol encampment in May.

This did not dissuade the University from taking legal action against the encampment, with Welch announcing this decision by email on 1 July. “The behaviour of some [protesters] has become aggressive, abusive, and has involved allegations of physical assault and damage to property,” she wrote. “This has raised significant concerns over the safety of our community and our visitors, and has interfered with core University business.”

Students deny any allegations of wrongdoing, and say they haven’t been clearly informed of any specific incidents. The university, approached for further comment on allegations against the students, offered no further clarification. 

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Welch says the eviction is in line with the actions of “many of our peer institutions across the UK”. But Joe disagrees: “The demands we’ve made only seem unachievable within the context of this specific institution and administration,” he says. “While some encampments have faced eviction, others have seen massive cession to their demands and a willingness to have discussions.” Joe points to student victories at the University of York and the colleges of the University of Cambridge, where funds have been divested from Israel-linked arms companies.

Berglund agrees: “The University of Bristol markets itself as being in a city of protest. I’ve attended graduation ceremonies where honorary doctorates have been given to ex-students for their roles in protests and occupations. 

“The university loves the imagery of the pulling down of the Colston statue [but] its eviction of the encampment – clutching at completely unproven straws about the bad behaviour of protesters – is completely at odds with that,” he says. “Forms of direct action are completely valid ways of achieving social change that have been present in all successful social movements in history.”

While Friday’s court hearing rejected the university’s immediate possession order against the encampment, this has only postponed further legal action. If the encampment loses further hearings – as the London School of Economics’ encampment did last month – the university could claim back its legal costs, meaning Joe could receive a five figure bill. 

“Is it strange being taken to court by your university?” I ask. Joe and Miles shrug. “The university is showing that the only language it speaks is money,” says Miles. “The defence sector has that money. Palestinians don’t. It’s expected.”

The University of Bristol’s spokesperson said: “We support the right to freedom of expression and to engage in lawful, peaceful protest and understand the deeply held concerns that many in our community feel about the situation in Israel-Gaza.

“Since the encampment was set up, the University has treated those involved with courtesy, dignity and respect. Unfortunately, especially during the last few weeks, we have seen actions on campus that fall far short of our behavioural expectations.

“The encampment has become a focal point for some of these unacceptable behaviours, including we believe from people outside of the University. Some of this has gone beyond what is an acceptable expression of views, raising concerns over the safety of our community and our visitors and interfering with core university business. As such we have taken legal action to disperse the encampment.”

*Miles’ name has been changed to protect his identity 

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