Oxford Action for Palestine

Miyo Peck-Suzuki

The police have been regular visitors at Oxford’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment since we set it up outside the Pitt Rivers Museum on 6 May. The university’s vice-chancellor, Irene Tracey, says they are there to ensure our safety. The cops try to keep up the illusion with chit-chat. Was it cold last night? Will we be around for much longer? How did we manage to source so many tents? But answering these questions would tell them which, and how many, of us are sleeping at the camp; who has been organising what; and what we are going to do next. When they ask about the weather, I say: ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

On 23 May, seventeen protesters were arrested as they tried to stage a peaceful sit-in at the vice-chancellor’s office in Wellington Square. They were prepared to stay for as long as it took for the vice-chancellor to agree to meet with us. They brought sudoku books, games, crochet materials and novels. But the police arrived within the hour and told the protesters they would be arrested unless they left immediately. Everyone agreed to go, but the police arrested them all anyway. One of the students involved caught it all on video.

More than a hundred people hurried to Wellington Square to support the arrested students, including students who were not involved in the encampment, faculty and local residents.

For over three hours we sat in the road, arms linked, blockading the police van which held our friends. ‘Forty thousand people dead,’ we chanted, ‘you’re arresting kids instead.’ Two cops were laughing. I recognised them; they’d been among the encampment’s ‘frequent fliers’. Eventually the police moved in to remove us. Videos show them dragging people out of the road by their feet. One broke a student’s glasses across his face, drawing blood. Another threw a nineteen-year-old undergraduate to the ground so hard that she was later diagnosed with concussion. An elderly woman who scolded the police for their overreaction was knocked over; a clip I saw the next day showed her lying on the pavement.

Since then there have been no more faux-friendly questions at the encampment. Instead the police are finding ways to let us know they are watching. An Egyptian friend of mine was stopped and questioned for walking near the university’s administrative offices late at night. ‘I recognise you from the protest,’ the officer said to him, though he had not been protesting. A second camp was established at the Radcliffe Camera on 19 May. It is constantly circled by police. ‘Oh look, it’s the gobby one,’ an officer said when he saw a protester away from the camp. Another officer recently approached one of the students who’d been arrested, addressing him by name. When they recognised two of us sitting near Wellington Square an hour before the start of a rally, the police walked over and filmed us, holding the camera a foot from our faces. But the university still insists they are there to protect us.

On 23 May, senior administrators sent out an email condemning our ‘threatening and violent actions’, claiming that Oxford Action for Palestine ‘have not been transparent about their membership nor whose interests they represent’, and expressing disappointment that we have not used the ‘many formal and informal channels’ of communication available to us.

The email astonished us. Various student groups have repeatedly tried to use both formal and informal channels of communication at the university to make themselves heard. Members of the Oxford Palestine Society and Rhodes Scholars for Palestine have chased meetings with the vice-chancellor and other senior administrators after launching student petitions. At least twenty-three Junior and Middle Common Rooms – college student bodies – have passed motions expressing support for the encampment and its demands. Students have been in touch individually with members of the senior leadership team to urge not only for divestment, but also for greater communication between the administration and its students who stand against genocide. The message is always the same: wait. Can Gaza wait?

Describing us as ‘violent’ puts us in greater danger as we continue to sleep out in tents. By claiming they do not know who we are, the university’s senior leadership have renounced their duty of care. The university has indicated to our aggressors, whether that means the police or the passersby who call us terrorists, that it will do little to protect us. On the many occasions that our encampment has faced hostility and harassment, the university administration has offered no comment. The university says its own security services are reporting on our welfare, but they have never spoken to us either.

There were no arrests in 2010 when Oxford students occupied the Radcliffe Camera to protest at rising fees. As far as I can tell, the administration did not call those students ‘violent’. Most of them were white. Our protest, against the mass murder of Palestinian Arabs, is fronted by students of colour. Last Tuesday, the university’s sovereign assembly, Congregation, met to hear answers to questions that some of its members had pre-submitted about the university’s investments and its plans to support the rebuilding of higher education in Gaza. As faculty entered the Sheldonian Theatre, identity cards in hand, at least two professors of colour were subjected to more rigorous checks than their white colleagues.

The accusation of ‘violence’ deflects attention from the reason our protest escalated: the university’s repeated refusal to speak to us. It implies that we crossed a line and deserved what we got. But what did the alleged violence consist of? The university has accused the protesters who staged the sit-in at Wellington Square of ‘forcibly overpowering’ a secretary on their way into the vice-chancellor’s offices, which they all strenuously deny. To have been in the administrative offices on 23 May was no doubt unpleasant, even scary. But does shouting and barricading doors make a protest ‘violent’?

These debates also distract from the reason we are protesting in the first place. The day after the sit-in, the International Court of Justice – no radical bastion – ordered that ‘Israel immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in Rafah, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that would bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.’ Two days later, Israel killed 45 people in Rafah, many burned alive, when they bombed a tent encampment for Palestinians they had already displaced.

As many political theorists and historians have shown, policing at home and colonial violence abroad have always been closely intertwined in Britain. The Thames River Police, founded at the end of the 18th century, were originally funded by the West India Planters Committees and West India Merchants. Their mandate was to protect colonial plunder as it reached English shores on cargo ships. And there are direct connections now between Israel’s war on Gaza and police violence in the West. US police forces send their officers to Israel for training. They employ security companies such as Instinctive Shooting International, which promises training ‘from the most elite Israeli counterterrorism forces’ and offers lessons in managing ‘civil unrest and riots’. As the Palestinian feminist theorist Nada Elia has pointed out, when ISI claims that its methods are ‘field tested’, the field they are referring to is Palestine.

The Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, has declined Freedom of Information requests to disclose whether it sends its officers to train in Israel, citing national security concerns. Even so, the relationship between the Met and Israeli security is not a secret. High-ranking Met officials – including Cressida Dick, Alistair Sutherland and Mark Rowley – have spoken at the conferences and summits hosted by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), an Israeli think tank which offers consultancy and training by ‘the most senior veterans of the Israeli military, intelligence and security establishments’. The home secretary (at the time foreign secretary) James Cleverly spoke at the ICT conference last year.

The university administrators’ claim that they do not know whose interests the protesters represent is genuinely perplexing. They must not realise how close their rhetoric skates to an antisemitic dog whistle. This is especially unfortunate given that the administration has, so far, refused to acknowledge the Jewish students involved in the encampment, or how often those students have been subject to antisemitic harassment. In its 23 May statement, the university claimed the encampment had created ‘a deeply intimidating environment’ for ‘our Jewish students and members of staff’. A letter to the vice-chancellor from concerned Jewish faculty pointed out that ‘the characterisation of Jews as a uniform mass with a single viewpoint is itself a common and insidious antisemitic trope.’ Is it really so difficult to believe that Oxford’s students, like other students around the world, are trying to represent the interests of Palestinians – their interests in survival, safety, dignity and self-determination?

There is a small – shrinking – window of time for Oxford to make its choice: divest from companies that are complicit in Israel’s assault on Gaza or add this genocide to a long list of colonial mea culpas. At the very least, our protest means that when the time comes – as it surely will – for Western institutions to account for how they acted in this moment, Oxford cannot claim that it didn’t know any better.