Why I helped occupy a university building, and why I’d do it again
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
During the most recent UCU strike action in March 2022, I had the incredible opportunity to plan and take part in the student reclamation of the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre. I joined dozens of student activists from three main participating student groups (the Staff-Student Solidarity Network, Justice for Palestine Society and Youth in Resistance), as we turned the arguably drab and unassuming building on George Square into an exciting, radical space, with colourful and bold banners and flags hanging from the windows, and posters of revolutionary, inspiring figures lining the walls inside. For a glorious week, this community we built led events, workshops and teach-outs that existed in direct opposition to the University of Edinburgh’s persistent exploitation of its staff and faculty, its shameful complicity in Israeli war crimes against Palestinians, and its continued inability to take a stance against the climate disaster it helps perpetuate.
In the few days leading up to the reclamation, I’ll admit that I was doubting whether there was really any point to it all, since we knew that it was highly unlikely that the reclamation itself would directly lead to any of the structural changes we were demanding. I was worried that we were all just idealistically and naively mimicking the “radical student” trope of occupying a building for the sake of doing so. If that had been the case, I doubt I’d be writing this article. In reality, the reclamation was successful because we decided to focus on creating an alternative educational space, in which a community of passionate and curious students could grow, in defiance of the University’s sterilisation of our education and campus. With our end-goals always in mind, we emphasised to ourselves and to all those who came to listen that our education should be in our hands, and that we should have more say in institutional decisions that make us complicit in crimes against humanity or in the exploitation of those who teach us.
As a Palestinian, the reclamation proved to be particularly important for the growth and increased momentum of the society, but also for me on a personal level. Palestinians and allies have to work against the odds to even be heard or to be given space to discuss the inter-generational trauma experienced as a result of Israel’s apartheid state and its continued dispossession of Palestinians. Consider the University’s racist and anti-Palestinian external speaker ‘risk assessment form’, which openly announces its affiliation to the UK government’s widely discredited and Islamophobic Prevent strategy, and classifies Palestine (followed by Syria and ‘terrorism/extremism’) as the first example of a controversial topic that requires further investigation. These attempts to chill Palestinian activism and pose yet another barrier to our freedom of expression were successfully circumvented through our participation in the reclamation: the society was able to hold a wonderful talk with Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed El-Kurd, a screening of the enlightening and censored documentary The Lobby USA, and numerous other workshops and discussions without needing to go through the loopholes which the University throws disproportionately at Palestinian activists.
I have heard many of the friends I met during that reclamation week say, somewhat jokingly, that it was the best week of their lives, and sometimes I can’t help but agree. It provided us with a safe space that I can confidently say I hadn’t previously experienced on campus. That said, almost two weeks after the reclamation, the University approved a pro-Israel stand funded by the noxious Zionist lobby group StandWithUs who were handing out racist and Islamophobic disinformation about Palestine right in front of the library. Quickly, our community of activists were informed and surrounded the stand, blocking it in support of those of us whose Palestinian identities were once again being questioned, erased and assailed. As we stood there, debating our truths and the lived experiences of our families with recruited Zionist lobbyists, I realised how important the support of all those around me is, to myself, to other Palestinians, and to the Palestinian cause. This support first grew within the walls of our reclamation of the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre and will continue to flourish through the next reclamations, wherever and whenever that may be, and until our university education is truly ours and our demands – all of them – are heard. Viva la reclamación!