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Students for Palestine Won’t Be Intimidated

Kendall Gardner

As Rishi Sunak agitates against student encampments, an organiser at Oxford tells Tribune that their global movement for Palestine only grows more determined.

The student encampment movement that began in the US has spread around the world despite government and police intimidation.(Photo by Laurel Chor/Getty Images)

Interview by
Francesca Newton

If Joe Biden’s pause on certain weapons shipments to Israel over the invasion of Rafah lead us to hope something is shifting in the US, the ongoing violence on its university campuses is a reminder of the forces that remain ranged against believers in a free Palestine. Students and staff seeking their institutions’ divestment from weapons manufacturers and other companies complicit in mass death and displacement have been suspended, arrested, pinned to the ground, tear-gassed, shot at with fireworks and rubber bullets. At Columbia, the first encampment site and an institution which has worked the anti-Vietnam War protests of 1968 into one of its foundational myths, police broke through a barricade with a chainsaw before hurling in stun grenades and ‘accidentally’ letting off a gun.

Despite all that, the encampments have continued to expand, both in the US and as far afield as Tokyo, Melbourne, Amsterdam, Alberta, Kuwait City and Buenos Aires. On 6 May, Oxford and Cambridge launched their encampments together, the first such joint action in their histories and two UK university protests in a list that now numbers 15.

In an Al Jazeera interview since watched tens of thousands of times, politics PhD student Kendall Gardner explained the demands the Oxford campers are making of their university: disclosure of financial investments; divestment from arms firms and other companies complicit in Israel’s occupation, apartheid, and the current genocide; a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and of Barclays bank; and a commitment to a Palestinian-led rebuilding of the Gazan higher education sector, since the Strip’s 12 higher education institutions have been partially or completely destroyed in Israel’s bombardment.

To anyone who believes universities should deal in education rather than destruction, these demands seem sensible, and the encampments themselves a peaceful, powerful way to make them visible. Yet to a Tory Party desperate to set themselves against the pro-Palestine movement — not to mention left-wingers and Muslim people generally — as an ‘enemy within’, the encampments are also being eyed as a chance for confrontation. 

As Rishi Sunak calls higher education leaders together to consider a response, Gardner — who is also my colleague at Vashti Media — speaks to Tribune about the looming threat of police violence here in Britain, the weaponisation of accusations of antisemitism, and the power of the encampments to point towards a better world.


How did organising the encampment come about? How did students get involved? What’s the makeup of the group involved like, and what brings different people to the encampment?


We are engaging in a chain reaction: this global movement that started in the United States with the brave students of Columbia. A lot of the actual camp logistics came out of that global movement. There’s been so much coordination from campuses who have been doing encampments before us. It’s so inspiring to see how these little towns — and we are basically governing a community — have sprung up on campuses around the world, and how students are collaborating to teach each other: OK, here’s how you de-escalate with police in different countries and cities, here’s how you deal with camp governance, here’s some ideas about how to deal with risk level for different people, here’s our on-boarding process. 

This type of organising has been going on at Oxford for a long time; we just didn’t have the critical mass that those US universities did. So when the encampments started, we wondered how we could do it with the small community of people that we have actively had coming to Palestine-related events throughout the year. I have been shocked by the way we were able to mobilise so many people so quickly. I think this is truly a historic moment for that reason — it’s a flashpoint in which you can mobilise a huge amount of people in a short amount of time. 

So it was actually pretty simple to get people involved. It was initially word-of-mouth and a lot of one-to-one onboarding, one-to-one outreach to people who were trusted, and then there was a dividing of people into different working groups to deal with the things that needed to happen before we could go up. The amount of work has truly been awe-inspiring. I’ve never been a part of something this chaotic and large.

The group itself: we have tons of Jewish students, tons of Muslim students, Palestinian students, Arab students, white British students. A big contingent of our campers is people from the climate movement, which is really cool. People come to camp for a lot of different reasons. Obviously the main one is a commitment to Palestinian liberation and horror at what’s been happening in Gaza; this movement has been a way for people to feel like there’s actually something they can tangibly do. We have people from all age ranges, across the university, PhD students and undergrads — one of my students is in the camp. We have staff: my supervisor has been involved, my department’s been involved. It’s a very wide range, but what brings us all together is a commitment to Palestine.


Have you had contact with encampments in the US? How have they inspired you? Are there other historical movements that are inspiring you?


The encampments in the US have been so great about sharing details with us. Columbia was doing Zoom calls throughout their occupation to teach other campuses how to do them. We got a lot of logistics stuff from Harvard, Stanford, UCLA. We’ve also been in touch with the other universities across the UK; we’re all coordinating together. 

Obviously we co-launched with Cambridge, and that is really historic for us — our two universities have never done something like this before. It’s a great example of how important this moment in time is, how important this movement is, that we were able to come together and do this. We keep in touch with them throughout the day about what’s going on in their encampment and how we can support them. 

Obviously within the Oxford context we’re very inspired by Rhodes Must Fall and the protests against the Rhodes Trust that happened here and in South Africa. We’re also inspired by the Fees Must Fall protests, and of course the broader anti-war movements that have been happening in campuses around the world for decades. Of course, the Vietnam protests come to mind. It’s really cool to remember that we are part of a historical legacy: this is a lineage of campus activism, this isn’t a one-off moment. It really shows the role that students have in bringing about discourse change.


What elements specific to the Oxford context have you had to consider in your encampment?


The rebuilding of the Gazan higher education sector from a Palestinian-led perspective is very important from the Oxford side of things. The university has already made, to me, extremely troubling gestures towards the rebuilding of Gaza. This university has been so involved in colonial atrocity that there is no way in hell Oxford should be leading the rebuilding of anything. Oxford should be funding and supporting Palestinians and rebuilding how they want to rebuild. That’s something that’s really really important for our context. 

Oxford and Cambridge are the two largest endowments in the UK. Even then it’s nothing compared to the US campuses — that’s another important thing about how these protests are contextually different. However, I think what Oxford does provide is a rhetorical turning point. In some ways, we’re like the world university. When people think of famous universities, Oxford comes to mind around the whole world. To me, that means the victories we can achieve at Oxford are ripple effect victories: they have this rhetorical and discursive importance that might even be more important than the materiality of divestment, and we are thinking about that at all times.


Have you been in touch with people on the ground in Gaza? What has their response been?


Some Gazan journalists came recently. They filmed footage of us to take back and put in Palestinian media and it was really emotionally intense. Also, because I’ve been so public-facing, I’ve been receiving messages from Palestinians and from Gazans. 

It’s such a reminder of why this matters. That this is why we have to stay. Because the people that we’re doing this for: they see us. And they care. For me, I don’t care about anything else. I’m doing this for the people of Palestine, for how it makes them feel, for how I can support them. If even one person in Gaza sees our encampment and is given hope, that’s the only confirmation I need for everything that I’ve done.


Rishi Sunak’s recent meeting with university leaders suggests the UK government could put pressure on the universities to disband the encampments. In the US we’ve seen how violent that’s turned at the hands of the police. Are you worried about police violence (or counter-protester violence)?


The meeting is unacceptable. If anything happens, it’s going to be Sunak’s fault. I am worried about what the UK government is going to do. We are led by genocidal fascists, and they want to enact violence upon us — I’m under no illusions that they won’t do that, even though it’s not the US.

The UK obviously has a different history of policing to the US, and I think in some way it’s led to this discourse that the UK encampments are more peaceful or docile, but that’s entirely because of government response. There’s nothing different about the encampments here from the encampments in the US. The only thing that makes an encampment peaceful or otherwise is whether the cops decide to come and enact violence against the students.

I’m aware that it’s very different here to the US, but there’s no guarantee that it will stay different. There’s no guarantee that it won’t become violent. Our campers know that, and we’re already strategising about what we’re going to do. But I’m committed to keeping the campers safe. I’m accountable to my community members. And so deciding what that looks like if that moment comes is something that we’re actively thinking about. We have strategies for every possible escalation and outcome, but it’s terrifying.


You’re a Jewish student leading one of these encampments. How do you respond to the argument that they make Jewish students unsafe?


This week we hosted a teach-in on antisemitism and anti-Zionism. A lot of people don’t know how to talk about antisemitism because of the way it’s been intrusmentalised and weaponised by Zionism, so being able to have a conversation like that out in the open, accepting questions from the community and explaining things as a panel of a few anti-Zionist Jews, was so important. 

Some Zionist Jews came, and we gave them the microphone and let them talk. We heard their experiences. But the first thing they said was, ‘This camp is antisemitic, because I believe that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.’ And we said we’d already explained why we didn’t believe that. A lot of de-escalation was happening.

But it makes me really sad. We let those people into camp. They were with us. I asked one of them if they felt unsafe there and the response was no. There was no threat to their safety at all. There was disagreement, for sure — but in no way, shape, or form was anything going to happen to them. 

To say that those students were unsafe when there are no universities left in Gaza, when Rafah is being destroyed, when we are watching the final stage of a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing — it’s ridiculous. I hate being associated with it. And I wish people would take seriously the challenges to this conversation, because there is a way to detach these things [antisemitism and anti-Zionism] — but no one’s interested in doing it, because the media and the UK government are getting exactly what they want from the conflation. They’re using the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition [of antisemitism] to keep supporting Israel. It’s so obvious. 

As activists we have to keep pushing forward. We have to realise that this is going to continue to be a talking point and a problem, but it can’t distract us from what we need to be doing to free Palestine.


What has the response been like from the university so far? What has the response been like from the public and the media?


The university has still not reached out to meet with us. This week we disrupted the vice-chancellor’s awards ceremony, and two members of sympathetic staff hand-delivered our demands to her [Professor Irene Tracey, Oxford’s VC]. She has not said anything to us. That’s a problem. 

I think they’re going to try to play a war of attrition and wait us out. We can’t let that happen. We have a responsibility to make our camp and our movement impossible to ignore. That’s something that we’re actively thinking about.

But they’re playing nice. I’ve had my college reach out to me and ask about my welfare, which is great. In terms of faculty, the support has been fantastic. We have faculty on-site supporting us at all times. We have an amazing faculty statement with 350 signatures on it, faculty helping people with their welfare needs. 

The local Oxford community is also amazing. We have so much food. Our needs are being taken care of in a way that is so beautiful. We ask for something, and people from the community just come and bring it. It’s beautiful, right? This is what the world could be like. We could just do this for each other.

That’s part of what the encampments are — this radical space gesturing towards something better. A better world. Obviously that’s not the point. The point is Palestine. But Palestinian liberation and a better world are inextricably intertwined.