England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

How can the student encampments win?

The university encampments for Gaza have spread like wildfire. Every day, new encampments are being set up, with the latest at Sussex University, Queen Mary University London, and King’s College London. Socialist Alternative is mobilising in solidarity and committed to building this movement. It is urgent to discuss how this movement escalates to victory and what the student movement should consider a victory, especially given the exam period and Summer break drawing closer. 

By Heng, Student Socialist Alternative UCL

There is also the increasing danger of repression from university management and police. Since the meeting of university chancellors with Tory politicians in Downing Street, multiple acts of intimidation against the encampments by police under the guise of “welfare checks” have been reported. 

So far, the main demand has been for universities to divest from arms companies and the Israeli state’s occupation. While this is crucial, it is only a stepping stone to igniting a wider movement that can force an end to shipments of arms to Israel and ultimately win Palestinian liberation and peace. 

Management strategy: Repression and ‘concessions’ 

While the initial wave of encampments in the US was met with heavy police repression, enflaming the movement further, many universities internationally have opted for a more cautious approach in order to ‘de-escalate’ the protests.  

Before this current wave of encampments, there were multiple student occupations at universities across Britain. One of the most prominent has been at Goldsmiths University, where the student occupation declared victory after management promised a “review of the IHRA definition of antisemitism”, a body camera policy for security, the university to openly support a ceasefire, scholarships for Palestinian students, and a new “ethical investment” policy. Already, however, university management is backtracking on divestment and freedom of expression. 

While promises conceded by university management result from successful pressure, we can’t take management’s word about such ‘reviews’. More often than not, this is a trap that the movement needs to pre-emptively warn against. While we should of course celebrate when we win concessions, when management make these offers, we need to continue to stick to our full demands and escalate to ramp up the pressure. We cannot allow management to ‘de-escalate’ our movement for us. Any secured victory depends on continued struggle.

At UCLA in the US, the encampment correctly pre-empted any co-option by openly rejecting these delay tactics. Similarly in Britain, we need to call the management’s bluff and demand concrete promises, as well as fighting for democratic control by students and staff over any proposed review board.

Beyond this, we should look to a strategy that escalates towards opening the books and putting power in the hands of elected student representatives of encampments and campus trade unions to decide where the money flows. This should also include the rejection of bad-faith deals given by management, for example with closed doors, and off-the-record meetings with student representatives. All negotiations with management should be recorded and public so students can mobilise people to pressure them openly. 

Expand the movement!

Our university encampments must be turned into democratic organs of debate and discussion where all perspectives on how we can liberate Palestine should be heard. This should include forming structured committees with elected representatives to ensure not only the daily functioning of encampments, but also to link them up at a national level. 

The encampments also must not limit their perspective to only what can be achieved on university campuses. Even more important, encampments, local supporters and trade unions must link up. In Liverpool, the encampment has faced threats from the far-right. At SOAS, pro-Israeli state counter-protestors attempted to attack the encampment at 2 a.m. All this means we should urgently call on trade unions on campus and nearby to provide stewarding and defend the encampments. 

Many trade unions have supported the call for a ceasefire – now they must act on it! Especially against the threat of state repression, student encampments must prepare by reaching out to unions and calling on campus workers and students to strike and walk out together. 

As we see in the US, the most powerful tool to fight back against repression will be students and workers on strike together shutting down campuses. The United Auto Workers (UAW) in the US, which organises graduate student workers in the University of California system have delivered an overwhelming majority ballot for strike action over police violence against the encampment. This is a historic advance for the labour movement, won against the UAW’s leadership which still supports Joe Biden. The workers’ movement in Britain must follow this example. 

There is already a fervour of media attention on the encampments in Britain: this also poses a golden opportunity to use this platform to openly call on workers and trade unions in other sectors to join the struggle to shut down the war machine. Unfortunately, trade union leaders have not mobilised the kind of struggle necessary to stop the making and shipping of arms to the Israeli state.

Unite leader Sharon Graham, for instance, has stated that the union will refuse to target the weapons industry, in order to defend the jobs of its members employed in arms factories, saying “we are a trade union, not a political party or single-issue campaign group”. But it is in the interests of those workers to support Palestinian liberation precisely because imperialist governments seek to squeeze more out of workers building and shipping arms so they can quicken the pace of killing Palestinians. 

Many students will be thinking about how to continue this movement into the Summer. That requires broadening the current action groups on campus into broader assemblies with workers and the local community to discuss workers’ and students’ blockades of arms factories. The coming Starmer government will be no better for Gaza. The energy of the encampments must not fizzle out. 

Instead, this energy can be the launchpad to build a new party of struggle against war and imperialism. Likely at this coming election, it will not be on the ballot. But that is not the point – the point is to continue to build a fighting resistance under a Starmer government, and a vehicle to continue the struggle to win Palestinian liberation and a ceasefire in our streets, workplaces, and campuses. This resistance will only be viable if it seeks to challenge not only Starmer, but all those union leaders who want to pause struggles for the sake of supporting a Starmer-led government.

Further, we cannot rely on British imperialism, the UN, or any other capitalist body to stop the genocidal war in Gaza. They back Israel to the hilt for their own geopolitical interests in the region. While we can win certain limited concessions, imperialist powers will inevitably stop short of any decisive action. Calling on these forces to sanction Israel will not be enough. It is a fantasy to believe that our imperialist governments will ‘sanction’ Israeli occupation out of existence, against their own interests. History demonstrates that we cannot take an approach of expecting the killers to stop killing! 

Ultimately, a struggle to shut down arms to Israel,  to bring an end to occupation and brutal oppression of the Palestinian people means linking it to a struggle against capitalism and imperialism worldwide, and for a socialist world. 

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