University of York encampment demands a resolution

07/06/2024

Investigating the encampment at Heslington Hall that stands in solidarity with Palestine.

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Image by Josh Haining

By Josh Haining

On May 15th, students, staff and alumni at the University of York began an encampment outside Heslington Hall adjacent to the ‘Quiet Place’, exercising their right to peacefully protest in accusation of the University’s complicity in the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Immediately I grabbed my notebook, pen and camera, and ventured down to speak to those involved. Over the next seventeen days, I visited the encampment daily to gain a greater insight into their activities.

I first spoke with their Media Liaison Officer regarding their key demands, consisting of: full divestment from weapons manufacturers, a statement condemning genocide, scholarships for Palestinian students, support for the Gaza education sector and support for Fadi Hania, a Palestinian York alumnus who completed a Masters’ degree in Computer Science at the University in 2013. I also enquired into the running of the encampment and the plans they had. Upon initial observation, the encampment seemed organised; a schedule had already been devised for events, dedicated time for study, planned teach-ins and a set quiet time of 11pm for members of the encampment to sleep. Morale was high and acts of solidarity were instant, with supplies having been donated by the extended York community in support of their actions.

Returning the next day, I again spoke to members of the encampment, obscured under code names to protect their identities, about the day’s events. There were continued acts of solidarity from the York community, with Yemen Heaven kindly providing food for the encampment and a visit from York St. John students announced their inter-institutional support, along with ‘teach-ins’ (a phrase I was to become well acquainted with) from professors of the University’s Law department to educate the encampment on their right to protest. Throughout the day and during my visit, there was a constant stream of supplies arriving for members of the encampment. I counted 10 tents and was informed that nine people were currently sleeping on-site in protest. If the strong framework set up by the founding members of the encampment told me anything, it was that the protestors had every intention and determination to continue peacefully protesting, the motivation to do so growing in strength with each passing day.

As the encampment grew in both scale and support, so did the pressure on senior management to get to the negotiating table. However, in order to begin negotiations to have their demands met, the encampment had to first achieve amnesty (so that no disciplinary action could be taken on any students or faculty involved). The daily teach-ins at the encampment helped educate all those participating, effectively reinforcing the encampment with knowledge surrounding their cause and its history as their stay progressed. With such success and positivity radiating from the encampment, various displays of hostility were inevitable. The cases of harassment they faced were comfortably brushed off, as there was reassurance in the support of university security, who were on call thereafter. These displays of animosity were a sure sign of the growing impact the encampment was having, not only within the university but the wider York community as well.

By the ninth day, dialogue finally began between the encampment and senior management. Amnesty for those involved was secured on Day 12, allowing the focus to shift towards negotiating their demands. Additionally, an open letter signed by over 350 students and staff called for support of the encampment. The encampment had noticeably grown in size, with over 20 students now residing outside Heslington Hall. It was becoming clear that the encampment’s actions were steering them towards having their demands met, with the ever-growing support from the broader York community reinforcing this momentum. Progress was seemingly being made, and there were signs of hope that a resolution could be achieved. In the following days the events continued, if not increasing as a result of the massacre in Rafah. An externally organised rally took place in St. Helens’s Square, bringing together the York community and encampment in solidarity with Palestine. Encampment-run rallies also took place, with a march from the Barbican to campus, with over 200 people involved in the event. This activism was extremely effective and well supported - an undeniable exhibit of loyalty and passion from those who condemned the genocide in Gaza.

May 30th (Day 16) was a pivotal day for the encampment. The Vice-Chancellor, Charlie Jeffery, released a statement via email to all students at the university regarding their stance on the situation in Gaza. The encampment swiftly rejected this statement calling an emergency meeting, urging all to attend. The encampment wrote on consequent social media posts on their Instagram @york.encampment (which now boasts a 1,866 follower count at the time of writing) that “the statement undermined the promises received during negotiations with senior management”. Further displaying their disdain for the statement, they released a photo of a Doc Marten boot stamped on the statement over which a red pen said “I ain’t reading all that - Free Palestine”. I arrived the following day for the emergency meeting although I was not permitted to attend for journalistic reasons. The direction the encampment was taking was seemingly not as effective as one may have initially thought. It was therefore decided that the encampment was to ‘escalate’ their situation with an emergency rally to take place the next day outside of Heslington Hall.

That next day I followed the rally that took place on campus. The cohort visited various sites, such as the YUSU building, Greg’s place and Heslington Hall with speakers condemning the university’s lack of effective and justifiable action taken. It must be noted that the statement released by the Vice-Chancellor failed to mention Palestine (the word itself) once. Moving poetry and stirring speeches were read by students and members of the York Palestine Solidarity Group, and throughout the stops along the rally, chants were repeatedly started and could be heard all across campus. The rally united the student body together in alliance with Palestine and the encampment.

Early the next morning, a group of students separate from the encampment created a blockade to prevent University employees and senior management from arriving to work through the main gated entrance of Heslington Hall. Although this act of unanimity with the cause was not directly carried out by the encampment, the act of a physical blockade was supported “wholly” by members of the encampment. The participants, all linking arms, created a chain blocking the way, and although there is no clear end in sight for the encampment, the students and faculty involved are doing everything in their power to peacefully protest. They contend that not enough has been done by the University thus far in their efforts to condemn the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

I will write a follow-up article once the encampment reaches its end, and a hopeful conclusion to proceedings, but for now the encampment continues to escalate towards a resolution.