‘This is Not Business as Usual’: UCL Stands for Justice Escalate Protests as University Fails to Meet Demands

Palestinian activists at UCL Stands for Justice (SFJ), a student-led coalition, have escalated their protests, disrupting awards ceremonies hosted by the Students’ Union last week, The Cheese Grater reports.

SFJ has been maintaining an encampment on the Main Quad since May 2 2024, with three main demands for the university:

    1. Divestment from arms companies “complicit in the Israeli genocide of Palestinians.”
    2. Condemnation of Israeli war crimes.
    3. A pledge to rebuild the destroyed education system in Gaza, through collaborations with Palestinian universities and scholarships for Palestinian students.

As of June 7 2024, none of these demands have been met in any concrete sense: 

On April 26 2024, members of Senior Management met with UCL Action for Palestine (AFP), an autonomous group of UCL staff and students separate from SFJ, with similar demands. During this meeting, AFP “secured a commitment” from UCL to “secure philanthropic funding for scholarships for Palestinian students”. In the 6 weeks since that meeting, there appear to have been no updates on this funding. 

In the same meeting, the Provost also “committed to reviewing [UCL’s] partnership” with Tel Aviv University. Similarly, there have been no updates since.

Since the beginning of the protests, the Provost has remained firm on the issue of divestment from arms manufacturers. In his second ‘Provost’s Update’ email on May 14 2024, he explicitly rejected the call for divestment, arguing that UCL has “well thought through processes for research ethics and for ethical investment that operate to ensure that we both respect the principle of academic freedom and that our research and investments do as much good as possible, and our activity is compatible with our values.”

“Following a month of silence and intimidation tactics deployed by the administration, we are left with no other option than to escalate our movement,” SJF commented in their statement released June 5 2024.

This escalation included bringing the protest to the end of year Students’ Union awards, including the Sports Awards, Volunteering Awards, Arts Awards and Societies Awards. 

Notably, upon securing two awards at the Societies Awards on Friday May 31, UCL’s Pokemon Society accompanied the walkout staged by the protesters. In a conversation with The Cheese Grater, the Pokesoc committee stated, “It is an honor to have won the Innovative Online Engagement Award and Overall Society of the year this year, but also for standing in solidarity with the ongoing pro-Palestinian protests at UCL…Of course we should recognize and celebrate our successes as a small society in UCL however it didn’t sit right with us to just carry on without doing something.”

In the case of the Arts Awards, students left the auditorium, and the event was discontinued halfway through. The response as well as the account of the events that occurred at the Arts Awards on later that evening in particular has been mixed, and often, inconsistent in terms of narrative. Students inside the Bloomsbury Theatre were told that protesters outside had tickets, wanted to attend the awards, and were not being let in. In response, students exited the auditorium and chanted “Let them in” for several minutes until they were allowed in. Later on, others claimed that it was planned to be a staged walkout and the protestors’ intentions were not to attend the ceremony on Friday night. 

While many students allegedly aligned with the rhetoric and demands of the protestors, many felt cornered and confused by the way in which the protest was conducted, specifically at the Arts Awards. For instance, many students reportedly felt uncomfortable by the way in which the event was documented on camera by protestors with no discernible way to opt out.

In response to this escalation, the President and Provost Michael Spence sent an email to staff and students on Tuesday June 4 regarding the incidents at the Student Union Awards; namely the awards that took place on Friday 31st May. In the email, he describes the escalation of activities by protestors as “unacceptable behaviour”, further stating that while UCL must balance the rights and responsibility of protestors to exercise their “right to protest”, it must keep the “safety and wellbeing of the UCL community” paramount. The Provost goes on to detail in the aforementioned email that a “group of students” from the encampment on UCL’s Main Quad deliberately “targeted” the Arts Awards as well as the earlier Societies Awards with the “help of a number of external members of the public”. 

According to his statement, “disciplinary action” has been taken against the students involved in what he described as “intimidating and escalatory” activities. These activities, according to Spence’s statement, included “physical assault” of security on-site, “damage to property”, and “antisemitic” chants. It should be noted that in their statement released June 5, SFJ unequivocally denies the allegations of assault and antisemitism, referring to them as “false”, “baseless”, and a “blatant attempt to malign [their] reputation”. The Cheese Grater can confirm that a small unit of 3 officers from The Metropolitan Police were allowed onto campus on Tuesday June 4th, presumably to scout out the encampment in preparation for further action. 

The Provost goes on to apologise, stating that students reported felt “unsafe” and afraid in an event meant to both celebrate and recognise their achievements. All remaining planned events on campus have been put under review with possible postponements and cancellations to safeguard students and mitigate further actions taken by protestors. The Education Awards – originally scheduled for Wednesday June 5 – has been postponed to a currently unspecified later date after talks with the Students Union and event organisers.

On the very same day, a statement was issued via email from the Student Union’s Director of Student Experience Carl Salton-Brooks regarding Friday’s incident. 

In this email, Salton-Brooks describes the unanticipated and “hostile” nature of the protest’s disruption of student events. Support for the rights of those in the Main Quad encampment was thoroughly highlighted by Salton-Brooks, who clearly identifies and draws a line between the “broad aims of the protests” in the encampment, and the antithetical “threatening” activities of protestors on Thursday and Friday’s awards which were specifically meant to disrupt students, volunteers and societies. He acknowledges the students who support the same aims of the protestors but outlines that the use of “racist language and violence” will not be tolerated as a way of communicating those aims. He furthermore describes these disruptive events as including members of the public outside of UCL. 

As of now, SFJ has doubled down on their escalations: “If the Provost continues to refuse negotiations, we are ready to act immediately with the urgency that the ongoing genocide demands”. UCL Alumni for Palestine have also expressed support of the escalatory actions and simultaneously expressed solidarity with suspended students, stating on June 6, “We demand UCL lifts suspensions and retract statements vilifying student protesters.” 

CorrectionThe print issue of this article included a claim that UCL Pokemon Society staged the walkout at the Societies’ Awards on May 31st. This claim is untrue and has been amended in the above edition of the article.

This article appeared in CG 87.