- THIS STATEMENT REPRESENTS A SELF-SELECTED GROUP OF PICKETERS AND MAY NOT REPRESENT THE WIDER GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO SPONTANEOUSLY JOINED THE PICKET.
- Who we are?
- We are a group of predominantly working class women, international and domestic students of colour.
- The group was comprised of over 40 autonomous students with no prior communication or coordination with UCU or SOAS SU. Some of us organised before, and others joined spontaneously when they saw the action. Many students had the idea that we picketers were a group of privileged white students. Although this might have had some truth with activism on campus in the past, this was not the case for many of us engaged this year. Many of us are working-class and/or students of colour who find it important to act so that future students from marginalised backgrounds have access to free, quality education with professors who do not simply uphold the hegemonic voice of the white-supremacist hetero-patriarchal capitalist order.
- For us this struggle is more than the UCU pension strike, it is about the marketisation of education. It is about marginalised folks having to carry on a daily struggles against barriers set by academia, neoliberal capitalism, imperialism, institutional racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, and Islamophobia, etc in order to maintain livelihoods (from a Global North perspective). These oppressions limit our access to the resources and future livelihoods that humanity deserves from educational institutions. There are many historical barriers that have made academia inaccessible, but we recognise and value the difficult work that is constantly done by working-class folks and academia's marginalised Others to enter into and reconstitute this space.
- Why a hard picket?
- On Friday, 16th March, an autonomous group of students from SOAS enforced a hard picket line across various entrances and exits to the main building. The action was planned in solidarity with the UCU strike, and to exert pressure on SOAS management, because we believe that our director, who is on the Board of UUK, can be doing more to support the UCU members of the University in their fight against the pension cuts. The purpose of a hard picket is to stop people from entering, and thereby stop the university from functioning as normal. This was done as a last resort to exercise pressure on SOAS management, and the members of the UUK Board. As things stand, UCU will have to strike for another 4 weeks in April and June, causing greater disruptions to exams and marking, which will have a negative impact on students' learning, progression and graduation. We were aware that our action would cause inconvenience to students and staff, but given the detrimental impact even more strike action is likely to have, this felt like a necessary step to take.
- The hard picket was a method of highlighting that an educational institution that doesn't actively support its most vulnerable faculty, staff and students is nothing but an empty building. The barrier that we created was an embodiment of the barrier that many faculty, staff and students are currently experiencing, and not -- as the internalised neoliberal logic of some students would have it -- a barrier that we were creating to stop other people from entering. Contrary to this same neoliberal logic, the hard picket was our way to show that academia, and this strike, should not be
- products/spaces of inherent privilege. Many of us know that the transient privilege that we experience in these spaces are fundamentally antithetical to our bodies. The hard picket was a way of us reclaiming spaces that we are and will soon be excluded from.
- The violence we experienced on Friday, therefore, reaffirmed that our fight to claim the university and rebuild it continues. What was new was the warped use of the language of rights by individuals seeking to justify this violence and the pervading neoliberal belief. We heard often that “you are impeding on my rights” -- rights to enter, rights to be ripped off, rights to pay for the “service” of a failing institution. These individuals were upset by the short-term inconvenience of not being able to use the facilities rather than focusing on the broader long-term impacts of marketization of education, rising tuition fees, pervasive hostile environment policies, and increasingly insecure working conditions, which affects us all to varying degrees. What has become clear to us during the strike is that the university is not removed from the terrains on which struggles against power are being fought: the spaces of lofty knowledge production are populated and made possible by labouring bodies both within and outside the physical space itself.
- The conversation about rights should, therefore, be about the collective RIGHT to free universal education, as opposed to the “rights” of individuals. Viewed through this lens, we are all attacked by UUK’s planned pension cuts and its wider implications as part of the marketization of higher education. There were also people in the picket who are the first people in their family to attend higher education – we understand the pressure this places on us, but we refuse to not see that this is a collective struggle, and without structural change, a university degree means nothing.
- So this fight is not just about us and our families but the various communities that we come from who have always been at the margins of a capitalist society predicated on colonialism. If we did not and do not continue to resist the marketization and further privatization of education, we are complicit in entrenching the idea of higher education and participation in the academy as only being available those who can afford it from financially secure backgrounds.
- Blaming the SU
- We would also like to address the anger that is being misdirected at the SOAS SU. They were unaware of our plans until 8.00am when we started the hard picket. They, along with UCU members were merely observers until members of the SU decided to join in solidarity after seeing the level of abuse and violence the picketers were exposed to. Particularly as the picketers were threatened with police, as it consisted overwhelmingly of people of colour, who are more vulnerable to police violence– we condemn any accusations of people saying that the co-presidents who did join the picket do not represent them or do not have the mandate to do that. The co-presidents do not only exist as part of the SU, they are also political individuals and students and as such made the decision to join the picket.
- We chose to stand in front of the various doors with our arms linked and holding a rope or tubing to ensure that our bodies formed a strong deterrent as we did not want to engage in physical confrontation with people trying to enter the building. The accusations that the people on the picket line attacked others do not represent the events on Friday accurately. The purpose of the picket was to act as a physical barrier, the picket did not attack but only engaged in defensive action when it was being attacked. Unfortunately, this happened far more frequently than the picketers were expecting. Physical violence was never the intention behind the action and one of our comrades had their knee dislocated by a student who charged at them. As we were waiting for the ambulance to respond it was circulating that a lecturer had broken their knee, completely hijacking the truth.
- Another rumour being spread was that the picket was Islamophobic. We wholly reject this accusation, not only were there a large number of Muslims on the picket but we were actively seeking alternative venues for Jummah- the Friday prayer. The imam leading Jummah had decided not to cross the picket on the Main Building and used the Brunei building for the prayer. This rumour is actively being spread to discredit the action without any proof or evidence of when and how the picket was Islamophobic. We are taking the accusation seriously and if anyone has any further information about particular instances we and the SU would like to hear about it to deal with the matter with the seriousness it deserves.
- SOAS Management
- This strategy of calling the picket Islamophobic was picked up by SOAS management when a senior manager was in front of the picket asking for the Imam to pass for Jummah even after the Imam and the congregation had left. We also blame them for not shutting down the building as had been called for by UCU and SU members as the ferocity of the confrontations intensified, but they refused to do so.
- Once the library was closed and announcements were sent to staff not to come in, the School should have been shut down for the day. Instead, management thought it was necessary to teach the protesting students that our voices do not matter to them, nor does our safety.
- We know that emotions were running high, people were angry at not being able to enter the building and that is in many ways and this was something that SOAS management stoked. Picketers were repeatedly punched, kicked and manhandled in front of members of senior management who stood by and did nothing. They then had the gall to send out the following:
- “No SOAS student or staff member should be subjected to harassment or violence. This is totally contrary to our values as a SOAS community. We are a place of learning and scholarship and pride ourselves on our openness and inclusiveness”.
- If management is going to undertake a full “investigat[ion] and take appropriate action” that they also do the same to those perpetuating the violence and not just those standing their ground and defending themselves, i.e. the picketers and the security guards trying to ensure that the situation did not get violent.
- It is a neoliberal contradiction that SOAS markets itself as a "radical" school with a "politically engaged" student body, while it refuses to protect the bodies of students who actually attend this school with hopes of engaging in radical politics? Come open day on campus, and SOAS then co-opts our bodies onto its marketing flyers and rhetoric, in a strategy that has brought in millions of pounds in tuition for the school.
- Fragile Masculinity
- At one point it turned from people wanting to study to people wanting to threaten, intimidate and undermine the picket as they disagreed with the picket as a political action. Though we do not understand why they felt this way, what shocked us were the groups of people who bated us for hours, who after saying that they had to study stayed around SOAS for the whole, or half the day to repeatedly push through (coming out once they had gone in to disrupt the picket), threw water on us, and used sexist and homophobic slurs at us.
- It was shocking how many people (predominantly large white and white presenting men) found it necessary to impose their bodies onto the bodies of women of colour as they wanted to push through. This is a reflection of the ways in which the bodies of women of colour are treated as particularly disposable.
- La Lucha Continua, Hasta la Victoria Siempre!
- Collectively we are proud of our actions. We managed to shut down the library and disrupt the university to ensure that the conversation around the dire state of higher education where we are treated as customers is foregrounded. That the strike isn’t just something seen as a mere inconvenience but an expression of the deterioration of higher education from a space of learning and creation of ideas to just another product sold to the highest bidder.
- We hope that students will move forward understanding the broader implications of direct actions. With a focus on the ways in which future generations will actively engage with education from the communal to institutional levels.
- With love, resistance and solidarity!