Angus Colwell Angus Colwell

Bugs, biscuits, trench foot: from the front line of the uni protests

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Angus Colwell has narrated this article for you to listen to.

On the grass in front of UCL’s main building, on Sunday night, there were about 30 tents and the portico was plastered in handwritten signs: ‘Students: You’re in debt so UCL can fund a genocide!’ Some protestors sat on chairs, eating biscuits. Others stood at the front gate chanting ‘From the River to the Sea’. ‘Do you want a tent, bro?’ asked one protestor. I explained that I was a reporter and was immediately whisked away to talk to a spokesman. ‘Spectator, Spectator … yeah, I think that’s left-wing. All good.’ A girl who had come along for the day received a keffiyeh tutorial and as night began to fall, I watched as most of the demonstrators headed towards the front lawn to pray.

One student didn’t fall asleep until 6.30 a.m. ‘Trench foot,’ he murmured

The next day, Oxford and Cambridge students joined in with their own protests. At Oxford, they got up at 4.15 a.m. and snuck on to the rainy grass in front of the Pitt Rivers Museum. By the afternoon, this was marshland and most of the tents were sliding into the squelchy ground. The Pitt Rivers is right next to a road, which meant trouble. A car drove past and a Cockney-sounding troll screamed: ‘Iz-ray-yawl! Iz-ray-yawl!’ Booing followed, and another round of ‘From the River to the Sea’. The tactic was to crank up the singing when the Sky News cameras started rolling, I was told.

At Cambridge on Tuesday, the vibe was more of a party. The sun shone on King’s Parade, and the protestors were singing. There was also some dancing: ‘Down, down with occupation, up, up with liberation!’ You bent down for occupation and got up for liberation, I learned.

During a break for lunch, some people rolled cigarettes, while others popped back to their college for a shower. An academic had brought a baby along, and they sat on the grass and had a picnic. Cambridge is full of very clever older people, and many of them stopped by to deliver their thoughts about decolonisation. A man asked a lady with a drum where she got it from. ‘Oh, I’ve had it since the “Kill the Bill” protests,’ she said.

The UCL demonstrators have three demands: for the university to ‘divest from companies that are complicit in the genocide, for it to condemn the war crimes that are going on, and for it to ‘pledge towards the reconstruction of Gaza’s education sector’. The Oxford protests have six, adding that they also want the uni to disclose all its finances, to boycott Israel and to stop banking with Barclays. At Cambridge, the home of analytic philosophy, they’ve taped an eight-page essay to the wall.

Some protestors have gone harder. ‘I hate that my tuition fees are funding a genocide, I hate that my tuition fees are funding BAE Systems and General Electric,’ said one student at UCL. ‘We want to get bigger and bigger,’ another girl added. ‘Peaceful protest? Rubbish, it does nothing. Zionist attitudes start young, and we need our institutions to correct that. None of us are free until all of us are free, until Zionism is gone.’ She pointed towards the university buildings: ‘We want to occupy their land! Spread, spread, spread!’

The UCL students told me they are establishing a permanent base: a select number of people who can always be there. Sleeping has been difficult. The other night was ‘rain, rain, rain’, one said. ‘There were tons of bugs, and I woke up and a massive spider was coming down.’ Another student shuddered at the memory. He didn’t fall asleep until 6.30 a.m. ‘Trench foot,’ he murmured.

There may be a festival vibe, but these encampments are ruthlessly organised. The protestors don’t normally believe in borders; they do here. They have dedicated media teams, and I learned that people are ‘onboarded’ when they join the encampment. Each site has a ‘programme’ plastered to the wall. At 9 p.m. at UCL, they watched a Palestinian film, projected on to the art school. When I arrived in Oxford, they were holding a plenary on the intersection between Palestinian liberation and disability awareness.

At Oxford, DPhil candidates were teaching their students in the encampment. One demonstrator, who is about to take her finals, looked at me with bloodshot eyes above her face mask. ‘I mean, the responsibilities I have here are meagre, compared to the responsibilities I feel towards Palestinian liberation.’

Food came from a mix of students, professors and older people who look at the protests and fondly recall 1968. At UCL, they have so much that someone takes the excess to a food bank at the end of the day.

British students didn’t seem too worried about getting rubber-bulleted and tear-gassed. One camper told me that UCL’s own security didn’t let the police in when they tried to enter on Friday. ‘They’re secretly pro-Palestinian, I can tell.’ The closest it came to kicking off was when, in one protestor’s words, ‘a Zionist’ went to the raised platform on the main building and unfurled an Israeli flag. He put it away and security ‘dealt with him’.

I asked a student at Oxford whether she thought that this made campus a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students. ‘Well, I’m Jewish,’ she said, adjusting her keffiyeh. ‘I don’t want to invalidate the experiences of those Jewish students, but this right here is where I feel safest.’

A Jewish student at UCL, who didn’t want to give their name, told me the past few days have been tough. ‘We were spat on by protestors who told us to go back to Poland. There was a woman chanting “Long live Hamas” and a speaker who said “Jews went to Palestine with a shovel in one hand and a sword in the other.”’ They said the protest has been endorsed by Cage, a group that Michael Gove said could qualify as ‘extremist’ under the government’s new definition. Non-student rabblerousers stood outside and some may have found a way in. ‘I wouldn’t have an issue if it were just UCL students inside the gates,’ a student said. When the encampment started, all pupils were told they would need ID to enter campus.

At the back of the UCL quad, I noticed two blokes in trainers stretching against the wall. They are studying maths and economics, and were off for a run. I asked them how they had found the encampment. ‘Well, I’ve had to move from where I normally sit in the library,’ one said. ‘But it’s fine. I can’t wait to just leave this all behind me.’

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