Life in the Encampment

Robert Delaney

*On the request of the interviewee, their name has been changed to Ramallah19

On the 20th May The Cheese Grater spoke to Ramallah19, a member of UCL Stand for Justice (UCL SFJ), a student-led coalition dedicated to advocating for Palestinian rights and statehood. On the 2nd May 2024, UCL SFJ, Ramallah19 included, occupied the front quad of UCL’s main building. Outside of the Slade Art School and in front of the Portico Steps, the encampment has become more than a collection of tents over its two-week existence. As is explored below, the encampment has come to foster a diverse and educational environment in which students from all across UCL have voiced their abhorrence at UCL’s alleged complicity with genocide in Gaza. In conversation with Ramallah19, who is SFJ’s media representative, The Cheese Grater explores the motives behind the protest, alongside the practicalities of everyday life in the encampment, demonstrating the determination of the protestors in their advocacy against UCL’s ties to institutions and companies working in and with Israel.

As there has never been an occupation of the lawn in the front quad before, the living situation protestors have subjected themselves to is quite unconventional. When asked about what life was like inside the encampment, Ramallah19 responded by saying that “it’s absolutely amazing”. According to the spokesperson, members of the encampment have “created here a micro-society, a community reflecting what life would be like in a liberated world, because we are all here with purity in our hearts to fight against injustice”. 

After the idea of a new society was discussed, Ramallah19 went on to talk about the “practicalities” of life in the encampment, explaining that “ we sleep in tents… It’s generally comfortable – but in the night time it can get really cold, and in the mornings it gets really hot, especially on sunny days like this – but that just gets us up early!”. Regarding hygiene, The Cheese Grater was told that the encampment members “use the UCL toilets right there [in the Portico], and shower in the basement of the Student Centre”. Resources for the encampment, including “food, drinks, water, blankets, tents, electronics”, nearly exclusively come from the encampment’s “wider community”. Explaining how the encampment received such donations, Ramallah19 noted that “we put out a call [on social media], asking for power banks or whatever we need and the community comes and donates”. Ramallah19 went on to say that “we’ve had, at times, so many food donations that we had to go and donate to local food banks as we couldn’t get through it ourselves”.

As the encampment has coincided with the exam period, The Cheese Grater enquired as to how encampment members have juggled their protest and academic responsibilities. Ramallah19, who studies social sciences, explained that, as “everyone [at the encampment] is from UCL”, they all have exams and coursework. As they needed to study, the encampment members have “created a study corner and called it the Dr Refaat Alareer Library [after the UCL alumni and poet killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza]”. The encampment also has “a technology area where [protestors] charge devices and an area dedicated to quiet study”. Ramallah19 said that the protestors have “created a space to get our university work done; but [that the] space wouldn’t be the same without the people”. Whilst resisting UCL’s complicity in genocide, Ramallah19 explained that the encampment members “cannot throw away [their own] education”. In this collaborative environment, members “read each other’s essays”, especially assignments about Palestine and related topics, fostering a positive academic community. Ramallah19 felt that “in terms of academia, [they are] more studious and motivated here, at the encampment, than ever before.”

Since the encampment began, an increased presence of security appeared on the campus. The campus was also shut to those not affiliated with UCL, which has been condemned by Trade Unions, academics and students alike. The inaccessibility of the campus has, according to Ramallah19, “restricted the public from demonstrating in the heart of UCL, and from drawing attention to Michael Spence [The Provost] for his stance on the ongoing genocide”. Nonetheless, it was asserted that the “gates don’t divide [the movement], no matter what UCL management tries to do”. Ramallah19 went on to say that “the physical division does not show anything about our unity as a movement – we find ways to work around physical barriers, the barriers to liberation, like increased ID checks or surveillance”. 

When asked about tension with security, Ramallah19 replied that “it isn’t necessarily the security here on the ground that we have issues with, those who are unionised are very friendly and amicable towards us; they eat with us, we talk together, they’re amazing. It’s more the UCL security management that causes problems”. Such problems include “taking down the flags and banners we put up overnight” and guards walking around filming the encampment with “body cameras”. Ramallah19 went on to explain that UCL’s management sent an email to all security staff “telling them that they can’t eat, or even drink chai, with [protestors] anymore”, yet The Cheese Grater cannot confirm this. The tension, therefore, is “between [the encampment] and the management” rather than the ground staff themselves, as they “aren’t the problem”. UCL SFJ, as stated by Ramallah19, have created a “flexible movement for everyone [including security staff] to show their solidarity to their fullest capacity, never forcing anyone to go beyond what they can do”. 

As with other encampments on campuses across the world, pro-Zionist counterprotestors have shown up outside UCL, on Gower Street, to voice their opposition to the pro-Palestinian protestors, who they see as anti-semitic and sympathising with terrorism. When asked about counter protesters, Ramallah19 explained that the UCL encampment does indeed “get counter-protestors, normally on saturday nights, but [the UCL encampment members] are lucky insofar as [they] have the fence which protects from antagonism”. Ramallah19 noted that “those at SOAS [where there is a similar encampment] aren’t so lucky” as they are more exposed to counter protestors, needing to call in support from UCL SFJ and other associated groups as a means of ensuring their own safety. The UCL encampment officially practises a “policy of ‘do not engage’”, as they feel as though counter protests are merely “there to make noise”. Ramallah19 noted that they refrain from reaction, “holding [them]selves back”, as the “Palestinian cause has been villainised for so long, that [they] cannot jeopardise the cause by acting out of impulse”. Ramallah19 expressed “fear” for those in the SOAS encampment, as they do not have “24/7 security and physical protection”, like the encampment at UCL. This testimony does call into question the extent to which SOAS, a constituent college of the University of London a mere 5 minutes away from UCL, are protecting their students and their right to protest. 

Many have been sceptical of the extent to which the encampment will actually cause real change in the institution. Indeed, the Provost’s recent emails signify that the demands of the encampment related to institutional divestment from arms companies and Israeli universities seem far away from being met. Ramallah19 admitted that “this is something that we have all thought about; we look at the encampments over in America and we are nowhere near as disruptive as them”. It is true that, when compared to the actions of students at UCLA or Colubmia, UCL’s encampment, and the institutional reaction towards their protest, has been quite tame. Nonetheless, after a teach-in at the encampment, Ramallah19 explained that those protesting “examine space through the eyes of the coloniser, through the eyes of the capitalist, and have come to understand that to the oppressor, space and land is crucial to power and ownership”. The presence of the encampment has therefore turned the methods of spatial domination by UCL “on its head”, with the encampment’s “existence, in itself, a threat to the power of UCL and its management”. Drawing on UCL’s institutional benefit from the legacies of “British colonialism, racism, injustice and capitalism”, Ramallah19 argued that university management utilises space as a means of perpetuating a status quo, that the encampment “simply by existing… [is] disruptive and threatening” towards. The encampment’s weekly rallies, alongside speeches and teach-ins were argued to be “educating, mobilising and organising, waking people up to the truth about UCL”, highlighting the institution’s complicity with genocide, therefore showing the encampment to be “successful already”. 

When asked about how long the encampment would last, Ramallah19 said that “throughout history, these movements have taken time; we don’t expect to win overnight, we understand that change requires time and consistent effort, so we will not stop, we will not rest, until UCL discloses and divests, meeting our demands”. The encampment, alongside the occupation of the Jeremy Bentham Room earlier this year, has been the longest continuous protest movement in UCL’s recent history, having lasted longer than the student fees and anti-Eugenics protests respectively. Ramallah19 said that the encampment cannot stop after “two, three, four weeks, when it’s been 76 years [of interrupted life] for the Palestinians”. To Ramallah19 the encampment, “just by existing in this space, [is] being disruptive” to UCL’s perpetration of complicity with the genocide of the Palestinian people. Ramallah’s concluding remark was that the encampment, and many others across UCL, “want to exist in a just institution, so there is no shame in [protesters] trying and trying again to shape UCL into a place we want to see”. 

When asked for comment, a UCL spokesperson said:

“Security staff continue to work hard to ensure the safety of UCL’s large community of students and staff. Their role is to ensure that everyone on the UCL campus is safe and secure and it is important that they remain neutral in regards to any protest that is taking place.”