Earlier this week students at University of Manchester ended a week-long occupation of the Vice-Chancellor’s building. Their action had forced the University to bring forward a review of its investment in a number of fossil fuel companies. That’s a potential victory, what happens next will be crucial. Here the occupiers answer questions about the past, present and future of the campaign, and the help they are looking for in the coming weeks and months.
1. How long has the campaign for divestment been going on at University of Manchester? Before this, has the University promised to take action/do reviews? If so, what came of them?
The Fossil Free campaign is run by the People & Planet society and has been ongoing at the University of Manchester for eight years. In 2016, when the campaign was in its fifth year, the University reviewed its Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) policy. Members of the campaign at the time suspect that this review would have resulted in full divestment from fossil fuels had certain members of the board of governors not voted against this, due to personal involvement with fossil fuel companies (including Shell and BP.) Currently, none of the board of governors have any personal ties to anything in which the University invests, and the current committee think there is little chance of such an attempt being blocked again. Our hope is therefore that when the next review happens in January, divestment will occur as a result. This upcoming review was brought forward a year as a result of negotiations between Fossil Free and the University during our occupation.
2. What’s been happening in the campaign in the last year or so and what made you think that an occupation was the best/only way forward?
In the second half of the last academic year, we escalated our campaign using non-violent direct action tactics. We realised the need for direct action when a petition that collected over 1000 student and staff signatures was dismissed by the University and our lobbying efforts ignored. In February we interrupted a board of governors meeting and read out arguments for divestment to the governors. This gave us brief contact with one of the governors who offered us advice going forward, but who also told us many in the meeting dismissed our concerns. Following the public release of the arguments, we continued campaigning until the end of the semester. When we received no response from the University, we staged a one day occupation of the John Owens building, in the corridor outside Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell’s office. This resulted in a brief conversation with Registrar Patrick Hackett, in which our concerns were once again dismissed.
Entering into this current academic year, we always considered another occupation to be the only way forward, as we knew we couldn’t continue to be ignored if we stayed long enough and brought significant disruption to the University. The People & Planet national day of action also happened to fall on the 19th November, which seemed like the perfect opportunity for us to try again. We targeted the same building but made sure we had toilet access as this is what made us have to leave after only 24 hours last time.
Before the occupation we had a recruitment period for new members, built connections to other societies and climate organisations, and released an open letter to the University warning them of action if they did not respond to our demands. We also hosted events and talks throughout the semester, to ensure people knew the science and reasons behind what we were asking for.
3. Tell us a bit about the occupation – was it longer than you expected? How did you keep up morale? What did the solidarity gathering on Monday mean for you?
The occupation was both longer and shorter than we expected. There was a period on Tuesday morning during which we were unsure if we were going to get in at all. Security were unexpectedly on the front door- we are still unsure whether this is because they caught wind of our plans, or because Nancy Rothwell was having a meeting at this time. Security presence meant we had to sneak in through the back (which we had prepared for but was much harder to execute.) Once we were inside, the relief was almost tangible. We set our bags down in the corridor next to the finance boardroom and begun hanging banners up. We got lucky when a group of people walked past and opened the door to the finance boardroom, letting it close behind them, allowing us to slip through the gap before the door fully closed. Security tried to stop us once they realised our intention to also move into the boardroom, but we edged our way in, and the staff inside were made to leave. Looking back, the stroke of luck that allowed us to occupy the finance boardroom was essential to the sustainability of our occupation, without it we wouldn’t have lasted half as long. The finance boardroom gave us a space to ourselves. More importantly, it had a soft carpet to sleep on.
The attention we were getting on social media helped us keep up morale a lot as we were able to see all of the support that the occupation had. During the day the boardroom would be silent save for the sound of typing as everyone was busy doing coursework (two members even had dissertations to write) but during the evenings we would play music, and towards the end of the week we started having group meals sat around the floor. We also played boardgames that we’d brought with us, did yoga out in the corridor, and attempted acrobatics when things got a little dull.
This isn’t to say the act of occupying wasn’t extremely stressful, because it definitely was. We all needed time out occasionally (which we managed by taking shifts sitting in the corridor guarding the door to the boardroom and toilet.) The hardest part was not being able to properly retreat from what was happening- you couldn’t go outside to get some fresh air or walk to another part of the building to stretch your legs. It was very confining. Having a good support network amongst ourselves, looking out for each other, and seeing all the support we were receiving online definitely played a major role in boosting morale.
Out of all the support we received over the week, the UCU solidarity gathering on Monday was definitely the biggest. There were hundreds of striking staff members in the Old Quad outside John Owens, having come down to support us after their march around the pickets. Myself and a few others were moved to tears. A number of us were able to spot some of our own lecturers within the crowd, which made the experience all the more emotional.
Throughout the week we also received visits from Lillia, the ten year old Fridays for Future activist, Zamzam Ibrahim, president of the NUS, and Afzal Khan, the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton.
4. Crucially, what next? What is it that you are hoping to achieve in the coming weeks and months – what skills and knowledge would the group like to have at a higher level/more broadly shared? How can people – whether undergrads, post-grads, alumni, staff or ‘ordinary people of Manchester’ – support you/get involved?
We recently had an occupation debrief to discuss how we were feeling after the action and what the next steps of the campaign will be. We’ve discussed three key aims that we hope to achieve over the next few months. First of all we feel it is important to communicate our aims and promote the campaign across the student and staff body, as there have been so many new developments since the start of the semester. We hope to do this by hosting more public events and launching a rally for our campaign at the beginning of next semester, which will track the campaign progress so far and help people get involved. Secondly, we feel it is important to maintain pressure on the University so they know we will be holding them to account over what was agreed in our negotiations. We will continue to lobby and protest outside finance meetings, as well as continuing to have a presence at University events. Finally, we aim to connect with other divestment campaigns to strengthen our networks, and put forward a combined divestment strategy ahead of the SRI policy review.
In the immediate future, a few of us are going to the People & Planet regional gathering to connect with other Fossil Free university campaigns and participate in skill-shares across the North-west region. We also have plans to put on a series of workshops for new members who are interested in joining, linking the divestment movement to the wider goal of climate justice.
For anyone wanting to get involved with or support our campaign, follow us on social media or shoot us an e-mail! We have weekly meetings every Wednesday at 2pm, in LG3 of the University of Manchester Student’s Union, but you don’t have to attend meetings to get involved or support the campaign. Look out for details about our rally, likely to be early February!
Facebook: Fossil Free University of Manchester
5. Anything else you would like to say.
We’d like to give our deepest thanks to anyone who supported our occupation over the last week. As mentioned, it wasn’t easy, but knowing the amount of support behind us enabled us to keep going. Thank you if you have supported this occupation in any way, whether anonymously or openly, in person or online, as an individual or as a collective.