In the fight for a free Palestine, student activism must lead the way
With a ladder and flares in hand, we made our way to the Liverpool Guild of Students, the students union of the University of Liverpool where the National Union of Students (NUS) 100th year anniversary conference party was being held.
It was the night that rapper and Palestine activist Lowkey was supposed to perform, having been forced to cancel due to ongoing attacks from Union of Jewish Students against him and marginal support for Palestine and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement within the NUS.
Hurriedly setting up the ladder on the side of the street, we carried banners declaring “You can’t shut down solidarity” and “No apartheid on campus" up the side of the student union building and onto the roof.
Despite the rush of adrenaline and nerves, we were committed to our goal: to reach the roof and stage a protest, and to take a stand against the silencing and censoring of speakers, artists and students committed to the liberation of Palestine in the student movement.
"Of late, decolonisation has become a popular buzzword. But we must remember that it is not a metaphor, and it requires us to go beyond performative solidarity and mere theorisation"
As the last of us reached the roof, the student union security had already surrounded us, aggressively tackling one of us to the ground while the others shouted insults and abuse in an attempt to intimidate and maltreat us. We tried to assert our right to stage a protest, but were escorted off the premises swiftly.
Despite the short-lived nature of our protest, we had nonetheless achieved a small act of defiance against the ongoing attempts to repress Palestine solidarity on university campuses, and had succeeded in expressing a small part of a larger phenomena - the commitment of British students to enacting concrete solidarity with the anti-racist, anti-imperialist cause of Palestinian liberation.
Of late, decolonisation has become a popular buzzword. But we must remember that it is not a metaphor, and it requires us to go beyond performative solidarity and mere theorisation. For all the talk of decolonisation at the NUS, anti-colonial activism on campuses requires concrete action, and a commitment from students to decolonization as a material process enacted through our own activism.
Our protest action targeting the NUS conference was situated within a broader context of accelerating encroachment upon student political organising by both universities and the British government.
The Secretary of Education has illegitimately pressured many universities into implementing the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism, a definition now disputed even by some of its own drafters for its use in shutting down criticism of Israeli Apartheid and Palestine activism.
These attempts to pressure universities into adopting such definitions having immense ramifications in the stifling of education, pedagogy and research around Israeli apartheid.
At the same time, the UK government has been attempting to push through a Higher Education Freedom of Speech bill, which leaves the interpretation of what constitutes academic freedom to the government, the same government which supports silencing, censoring and banning opposition to Israel's settler colonial and apartheid regime.
The ongoing platforming of supporters of Israel’s apartheid regime, such as the Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely at the London School of Economics last November and a colonel in Israel’s occupation forces at The University of Warwick in 2019, ironically invited to talk about Israel's aid programmes for Syrian refugees within the Occupied Golan Heights, attests to the institutional complicity of our universities.
Campuses have become increasingly hostile towards students resisting and protesting such displays of institutional complicity with racism, colonialism and apartheid, as we ourselves experienced with the aggressiveness of student union security during our own action, exposing the ongoing hostility toward anti-apartheid Palestine solidarity activism.
All of us involved in the action have faced attempts to silence or repress our solidarity with Palestine on campuses. From threats of intimidation from lawyers for Israel for passing BDS motions, to student unions monitoring and censoring pro-Palestine speakers and events on campus, the widespread attempts to repress Palestine solidarity activism have become the norm rather than the exception for students involved in anti-racist and anti-imperialist activism.
Student organising will not be curtailed by such attempts at coercion, silencing or censoring. Actions like ours are examples of how far students are willing to go to show concrete solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation against apartheid and colonialism.
In fact, attempts at censorship and intimidation against student Palestine activism, from campuses to the state-level, attest to the tangible expressions of resistance and solidarity students are able to mobilise.
"In fact, attempts at censorship and intimidation against student Palestine activism, from campuses to the state-level, attest to the tangible expressions of resistance and solidarity students are able to mobilise"
The ongoing complicity of many universities in Israeli colonialism, apartheid and the arms trade at large remain ever-present. It is now with these increasingly present threats that the force of student direct action has never been more important.
This is why we climbed the Liverpool Guild of Students to stage our protest: not only against the censorship of Lowkey, but also as an expression of resistance against the ongoing repression of Palestine student activism across Britain.
While universities continue to speak of "decolonising" while investing millions of pounds in arms companies, private security and racist colonialism in Palestine, it is as ever the job of students to hold them accountable. Our protest won a small victory in showing how far students will go to stand against oppression and we will continue to organise on and across our campuses collectively.
Now is the time for students to turn words into action and to push for Palestine across our campuses and to tell the government and our universities that you can't shut down our solidarity.
Kieron Turner is a PhD student at the University of Sussex researching BDS direct action activism, with a focus on decolonial theory and praxis. He is also an organiser with Palestine Action.
Hamza Rehman is a Masters student at the University of Warwick focusing on capitalism, nationalism and race. He is also a student activist organising on Palestine and BDS.
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