The atmosphere at the Union’s Emergency General Meeting last Thursday was truly bizarre. In front of a crowd of hundreds, a three-hour marathon of drama unfolded – featuring rowdy audience cheerleading, personal remonstrations, political speechifying, cumbersome Union decorum, breaches of said Union decorum, a protest walkout, and even some relevant and reasoned debate in between – clearly taking virtually everyone involved completely by surprise. To his credit, the Chair remained amusingly unfazed throughout.
So what, if anything, has happened here? Well, officially a motion was passed by an overwhelming majority supporting the action taken by the S0.21 Gaza Solidarity sit-in protest (but technically not their demands), and expressing the Union’s regret at the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza. This was largely a foregone conclusion, as the crowd’s reaction to the different speakers made it perhaps too clear where their sympathies lay.
However, the subtext was much less clear: I think there was tremendous confusion about the actual nature of the motion which was never completely resolved. My understanding, as stated, was that the official focus was supposed to be on affirming the protest and highlighting the humanitarian situation in Gaza. In fact, several different debates took place at once. Opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict were voiced, arms control issues were discussed in some detail, and even the democratic legitimacy of the meeting itself was attacked.
To address all the arguments made would be futile, so I will focus on my greatest worry about what transpired: the level of attention given to Warwick’s arms company links. Now, I would not for a moment suggest that the arms trade and Israel-Palestinian conflict are not related, but the campaigns for ‘Humanitarian relief in Gaza’ and ‘Arms companies out of Warwick’ are justifiably different.
It was undeniable that a substantial portion of the audience had come to approve the motion largely out of their support for Palestine. On the other hand, many of the protestors were (understandably) careful to avoid taking a position on the conflict, and spent a lot of time talking about arms companies. So here’s the thing: the motion never mentions arms companies, but if I was a betting man I would say that the most likely tangible result (if there is one) of the negotiations between the Uni and the protestors will be a reduction in Warwick’s ties to arms manufacturers. I personally don’t mind this, in fact I support it to an extent, but it doesn’t seem particularly well targeted at helping Gaza.
To be fair to the protestors, I should concede two things. First, the motion was officially about their sit-in, not their demands. Here I side with one objector who said that the motion’s passage was likely to be interpreted as an implicit endorsement of the protestors’ demands, rightfully or not. Second, the protestors are indeed requesting that Warwick send computers and other aid to universities in Gaza that have been affected by the conflict. However, I doubt that the Uni – given the option of sending such aid to a number of equally needy but less politically controversial destinations than Gaza – will take action in this regard. Also, a sit-in seems a slightly roundabout way of encouraging the Warwick community to give humanitarian aid to Gaza, as it doesn’t generate donations directly. So I think that while it was the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that drew such crowds to the meeting, it will be the arms control movement that actually wins the day. I voted for the motion because I support both campaigns, but I don’t think everyone who did can say the same.
Another less valid concern was repeatedly raised: that a dangerous precedent was being set by supporting the protest. The likelihood of student organizations occupying lecture halls – and/or circumventing the official political avenues – whenever they don’t get their way, is remote. Complaints about ‘disrupting education’ are equally flimsy. The ‘occupation’ was intentionally symbolic, and the protestors were law-abiding and cooperative on logistical matters with the University, who could have ended it more or less at will. As such, the effectiveness of such protest tends to decline as the novelty wears off.
On this occasion, the Uni chose to work around them, probably partly out of respect for their right to protest, and partly out of the knowledge that it could be ended if it became a major inconvenience. I think they, like many, may even have been a little relieved to see some stirrings in what was once ‘Red Warwick’. Despite the excitement the Sit-in has caused, the probability that student protest at today’s Warwick will get out of control remains slim.