With just days before the UK Viva Palestina convoy is due to arrive in Gaza, we look back at the remarkable recent history of activism at King’s College London (KCL).
On 18 November 2008, the Israeli President Shimon Peres was awarded an honorary doctorate by KCL, a move which sparked outrage amongst students of the college, and saw the beginning of a student movement for its revocation.
“Why the big fuss about the Israeli President?” many asked. Shimon Peres has to his name the sale of arms to the apartheid regime in South Africa and the bombing (twice) of the UN headquarters in Qana. He has directed various Israeli invasions of Lebanon, saw through the 1985 bombing of Tunis, and continues to support Israel’s murderous policies towards the Palestinians, sharing much of the blame for why Gaza has been described as “the largest open air prison” on the planet by major Human rights agencies, UN and Vatican officials. He is also the father of Israel’s nuclear bomb. These are but a few of the highlights of Mr. Peres’s career. Both students and several members of staff felt that by honouring someone who is essentially a war criminal, KCL had dishonoured its own good name. A college-wide petition with close to a thousand signatures calling for the revocation of the doctorate was handed to the College’s Principal Professor, Rick Trainor.
But the story gets worse. Barely a month had passed since Peres was busy promoting conservative Israeli ideology in London universities, when in late December Israel launched its brutal assault on Gaza. The student movement widened and the protest stepped up several notches. Within 22 days bombing raids and a subsequent invasion led to the deaths of 1,400 people, the injuring and maiming of five thousand, and crippled the region’s infrastructure. Outraged at the carnage, and given KCL’s open close ties with Israel, concerned students banded together and decided that it was time for something big. Thus, on 11 January 2009, immediately prior to morning lectures, over 50 students occupied the Strand Lecture theatre K2.31 in solidarity with the people of Gaza. A list of demands was issued to the College management, aimed at creating widespread recognition of the atrocities in Gaza and helping to alleviate the suffering of civilians and students who’d been affected by the outrageous bombardment. For days to come KCL was to have its very own occupied territories as negotiations with the Principal began.
The occupation created a platform for discussion, being visited by hundreds of students a day, and attracted prominent political speakers and politicians, including Dr. Ghada Kaarmi, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, Lindsey German of the Stop The War Coalition, and author John Rose, to name a few. There was also wide-spread media attention: the occupation’s internet blog received thousands of hits, articles were written on internet sites and in prominent newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent, and reports were aired on Al-Jazeera English, Press TV, BBC Arabic radio and other Arabic channels. Campaigners at KCL received messages of support from several members of staff and prominent figures, including Ken Loach, Desmond Tutu, Tony Benn, Noam Chomsky, George Galloway and John Pilger, amongst others. The occupation at KCL was part of a much larger, nation-wide campaign in solidarity with the people of Gaza. With a wave of political activism having swept over the UK, over 25 universities came under occupation. In each, concerned students issued similar demands to their respective administrations, many of which were eventually met. Universities taking part included Oxford, Cambridge, Queen Mary and Warwick.
On the eve of the BBC’s decision not to air the Disasters Emergency Committee Gaza Crisis Appeal, KCL students Lubaaba Al-Azami and James Grant addressed thousands of cheering protestors at Trafalgar Square in London, where it was declared, “I would like to make one comment to Gordon Brown and the leaders of this country: whilst we are students now, we will not be students forever – one day, we will be in charge.” KCL students went on to organize their own protest on 30 January, when 150 students marched from the Strand Campus across Waterloo Bridge to the Principal’s office in the James Clerk Maxwell building, chanting slogans such as “KCL you must know, the doctorate has got to go!”
Throughout the occupation, a delegation of students went into negotiations with the Principal and executive staff, and on the twelfth day, a compromise was reached. Of the eight demands put forward by students, seven were eventually met, with the remaining one being the revocation of Shimon Peres’s honorary doctorate. A progressive public statement was issued by Professor Trainor, in which he wrote:
I acknowledge that, especially in the aftermath of subsequent events in Gaza, the Shimon Peres honorary award has inadvertently caused upset to some staff and students at King’s…The College has agreed to work with the student body to support higher education in Palestine (including Gaza as appropriate) in a number of ways. We expect to work directly with the students’ union (KCLSU) to raise funds for the humanitarian effort in a student led-initiative, and to provide practical assistance in the shape of books and equipment, to Palestinian higher education establishments, where practical.
Furthermore, Professor Trainor indicated that the honouring of a prominent Palestinian figure was a possibility, should a “reasonable” suggestion be put forward.
Amongst the demands that were immediately fulfilled was Demand 4, whereby KCL helped facilitate a cross-campus fundraising day to raise money for the crisis in Gaza. In just two weeks, £8600 was raised for the DEC emergency appeal through bucketed collections, a charity gig and cake sales.
The movement has been truly amazing in its continuous burning passion and determination. As the new academic year began, a new student group was formed, namely, KCL Action Palestine (KCLAP). KCLAP are avidly continuing their work on campus, pushing for the revocation of the doctorate, and organising talks, debates, conferences and fundraisers to raise awareness on the crisis in the Middle East, one which has reverberations throughout the world.
Of the most recent demands to materialize is Demand 7 which involved the sending of tens of thousands of pounds worth of surplus equipment, books and journals to the Islamic University of Gaza. Over 50 students and alumni have worked tirelessly for the past few months to collect, pack and bubble-wrap close to a ton of equipment. President of KCLAP, Nour Sacranie, said: “We are delighted to have come so far, and have shown that the stand for justice has to be proactive. We hope students all across the UK will work together to speak out when human rights have been violated all over the world.”
On 26 November 2009, three vans from the Viva Palestina convoy arrived at the loading bay of KCL Waterloo campus and students saw off the packaged boxes and the volunteer drivers in what was an emotional departure. Due to the ongoing siege of Gaza, the greatest challenge now being faced is getting the equipment through the Rafah crossing, but students are determined to support the project right through to the very end.
With the election last year of an even more hawkish government in Israel, the future can be described as anything but bright, and it is becoming ever more important for students to get involved. The series of events discussed has shown that it is in fact possible for us ‘common folk’ to make a change, and that defeatist attitudes should be left far behind. The revival of student activism, not just at KCL, but within universities across the UK has been no less than an electric shock to a dying heart. Students played a massive part in ending the Vietnam War; they must now play their part in bringing to an end 61 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.