How UK Universities Are Cracking Down on Pro-Palestine Occupations

From court orders and 'fire safety' regs, to academic sanctions and 'intimidation'.

by Christophe Domec

21 June 2024

A protester waves a flag outside the Royal Courts of Justice
Photo: LSE Solidarity Encampment

Around thirty LSE students chanted slogans and danced to the sound of beating drums outside the Royal Courts of Justice last Friday, just a short walk from their campus. Inside, a judge deliberated over whether to grant the university a possession order, empowering it to evict a month-long pro-Palestine occupation. “LSE, shame, shame. Stop investing in our name,” protesters sang out, as they awaited the verdict. 

When the first of three students representing the encampment emerged from the building, the crowd fell silent. And then it began to whisper. “I think we lost the case,” a woman said, eventually, over the hum. 

She was right: on Sunday afternoon the university served an interim possession order (IPO) on students – to chants of “40,000 people dead, you’re evicting us instead”. 24 hours later, on Monday, LSE became one of the first universities in the country to evict a student-led, pro-Palestine encampment.

IPOs were designed for property owners to remove trespassers or squatters. For universities, they’ve become a quick legal fix to remove protesters, without addressing their demands. “The courts are a way to silence us, while maintaining an image of neutrality,” Sadia Sheeraz, one of the students who defended the LSE encampment in court, told Novara Media. 

Around a dozen pro-Palestine occupations – sparked by actions at more than 80 US campuses (although students at LSE are quick to point out broader inspiration) – remain in place across the country, but universities appear to be cracking down harder on protesters. 

Encampments at Queen Mary, Birmingham and Nottingham universities have all also been issued IPOs in the past couple of weeks resulting in partial or total eviction.

Students at King’s College London now fear they could be next, with an emergency rally organised to defend their encampment on Saturday.

The LSE protesters chose to dismantle their encampment on Monday; it is a criminal offence to defy an IPO and, according to Ethan Chua, a Master’s student at LSE and press contact for the protesters, the group felt they couldn’t risk arrests. “Many of the students here are international,” Chua said. “For them, a criminal charge means so much more than for others. We aren’t ready to risk them losing their visas in the UK.” 

Instead, Chua said, students will now invest in alternative forms of protest such as a radical “sew-in” and read-in, where students are invited to weave a community quilt and hear passages from books detailing LSE’s history of radical student activism. While events of this sort will no longer be held inside the building they once occupied, the group will continue to demonstrate regularly on LSE’s campus, just outside now.

Stacked furniture in the LSE occupation, and banners reading 'London School of Exploitation'
Photo: LSE Solidarity Encampment

With a broad coalition of support from staff and students, protesters initially occupied LSE’s Marshall building on 14 May, after a report by the university’s Palestine Society detailed its alleged financial investments in arms manufacturing companies and companies involved in the war on Gaza. In the time they spent camped in the atrium, protesters began referring to the building – which is actually named after donor Paul Marshall, the owner of GB News and UnHerd – as the “Marshall Bloom building”, in honour of the American anti-apartheid activist who played a major role in LSE’s first major sit-in in 1967.

Ayça Çubukçu, an associate professor at LSE, working on human rights and global social movements, supported the occupation from the onset. She told Novara Media LSE used a number of different tactics to try to break up the occupation, including alleging it was in breach of fire safety regulations. In this context, the court order – another way to avoid engaging with protesters’ demands – came as no surprise. “LSE has progressively started speaking the language of unlawfulness, talking about ‘trespassing’ for example”, she said. “It’s all strategic.”

In a statement, LSE said: “On Friday 14 June the civil court granted LSE an interim possession order (IPO) to end the unauthorised occupation of the Marshall Building. This was applied for following careful consideration, including in relation to the safety of the protesters,” said the spokesperson.

“This decision was taken after exhausting all other options.”

Three students – Marral Shamshiri, Lizzie Hobbs and Sheeraz – agreed to be named publicly in the case, in order to speak before the judge on behalf of the encampment – their belief in the importance of arguing their side surpassing their fear of reprisals from LSE. “The strategy of the university,” said Sheeraz, outside the hearing, “was to utilise a bureaucratic procedure to deny us [the opportunity] to truly make our arguments in court.”

But in the end, their defence was ignored. “The only things the judge listened to concerned LSE’s property rights,” Hobbs said. “We find that particularly egregious given that the Palestinian people haven’t had rights to their land or property for 76 years.

“That’s the core of our movement and occupation is fighting against the university’s complicity with crimes against the Palestinian people.”

To the three LSE students who stood in court on Friday, it is clear why the LSE administration is taking action now: the encampments are becoming a real financial burden. “Because there is a material threat to [the] institution, a threat to have material change, LSE is criminalising us,” Sheeraz said.

Student protesters sit on the LSE logo with Palestine flags and keffiyehs
Photo: LSE Solidarity Encampment

Çubukçu fears LSE’s move to evict protesters could embolden other institutions. “If [the universities] aren’t actively cooperating, then they are learning from each other’s tactics,” she said.

Students in the Newcastle and Birmingham encampments told Novara Media they too have been subject to several different strategies from university administrators hoping to break up their occupations.

In Newcastle, protesters claim they were subject to verbal intimidation from university staff. One student has also been academically sanctioned, making it unclear if he will be able to finish his law degree.

When asked about students allegations, a Newcastle University spokesperson said: “Our priority is always to ensure that our campus remains safe for everyone and protests should be within the law – we do not tolerate anyone using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, distress.

“We are not aware of any complaints and regularly provide information on how to make an official complaint. We take all student complaints very seriously and have a robust internal complaints procedure.”

In Birmingham, students set up two encampments at the start of May. A court-issued IPO forced them to remove one of them. The second encampment was also subject to an IPO hearing, which was thrown out because the judge ruled the students did not have enough time to prepare for adequate legal representation.

“I think it’s clear that courts are one strategy among many others,” one of the LSE encampment defendants, Shamshiri, told Novara Media. “When you look at the 1960s, when you look at May-68, when you look at Vietnam – encampments were repeatedly set up and shut down.

“Our loss [in this case] here today does not mark an end. The movement for solidarity with Palestine is continuing to grow. There have never been so many people mobilised [for Palestinians].”

Christophe Domec is a freelance journalist based in London and Paris.

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