There are bodies strewn across the pavement in front of Rootes Social building, each one wearing a Warwick University t-shirt, each one clasping a gun to their chest. But these zombies are not actually dead; they’re trying to make a point. These are Warwick’s radical student activists of the twenty-first century, determinedly doing their utmost to disrupt the arms companies attending the Careers Fair inside.
Warwick has a ripe history of activism having formerly been christened ‘Red Warwick’ due to its socialist tendencies in the 1960s and 1970s. This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the Warwick Files Affair, where in 1970 a group of students occupied Senate House, the equivalent of University House today.
In the Vice-Chancellor’s Office they found files revealing a close and clandestine relationship between the university and Midlands’ industrialists, which included spying on academic and student activists. It was this episode that sparked the infamous publication of Warwick University Ltd by social historian, E.P. Thompson.
Whilst today’s activists may not have broken into the Vice-Chancellor’s Office of late, many of the issues that animated the students of the 1960s and 1970s continue to propel the movement on campus today. Academic freedom, marketisation of higher education, the University’s links with industry, and anti-capitalism still form the core of Warwick’s radical Left.
“Autonomous”, “consensual”, “organic” and “anti-capitalist” are terms that have been thrown around to describe the group’s position and most of those involved would define themselves as anarchists. Their aim is often to be as disruptive as possible, and their ideas not only inform the direct action they participate in, but affect their lifestyle and identity.
The Boar spoke to three students intimately involved in student activism today: Chris Browne, Jehanzeb Khan and Kat Hobbs. They may not have achieved the same notoriety as those of Red Warwick fame, but in recent years the small, tight-knit, yet vocal group these three are a part of, has been involved in a number of influential protests both on and off campus.
In a meeting room in Union North, they discuss the recent CND-organised blockade at Aldermaston nuclear plant, which they all attended. Aldermaston is the home of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), whose nuclear facility maintains Britain’s trident missiles. Protests organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) have been taking place at Aldermaston since the 1950s, and with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty up for renewal in May, this year’s blockade had a particular resonance.
Ten Warwick students helped to block the entrances of the plant to temporarily grind the whole site to a halt. “Basically the system was that there were seven gates or entrances to the site, and the CND and Trident Ploughshares assigned, or suggested, one gate for faith groups, one for women’s groups, and one for students”, says Chris. There was a real risk of arrest in this situation, so group preparations took weeks prior to the event. On the day, the Warwick group spent much of the time wandering from gate to gate; eventually obstructing a lane of traffic, until the police forcibly removed them.
By no means the only protest of its kind, Aldermaston was the latest in a string of “direct actions” the group has taken part in. Wider disillusionment across the country with the economic, political and environmental questions of the day, coupled with a sense of impending crisis, has created a number of high-profile protests in recent years, drawing increasingly large numbers of people.
Both Chris and Kat attended the G20 protests in London last spring, but neither of them has fond memories of the event. “The police basically attacked us at G20. It was not a very fun experience to be at Climate Camp when it was broken up because we were kind of on the peripheries and by the time it got dark the riot police were just beating people”, alleges Kat.
On campus, they’re involved in many smaller acts of dissent and are already planning an “action” at E.ON headquarters in Westwood later this term. But can they really make a difference? Or are they doing it for self-respect?
Jehanzeb, who’s the youngest of the three, perks up at this: “You’ve got to make a small scale thing of [making a difference]… Not only is it a step by step thing, but by doing one action we’re changing the environment in that room, nothing gets to go unchallenged.”
Chris, whose key project is Weapon out of Warwick, adds: “Not wanting any blood on our hands informs a lot of what we do, but it’s not the main motivating factor. If we just wanted to register we don’t agree with this, we could just hand leaflets outside the building and go home and have a pint. We don’t do that because that’s not enough”.
Their antics at Careers Fairs are certainly informed by this desire to have as big of an impact as possible, with dramatic stunts to grab people’s attention, like the zombie students often stationed outside. Kat argues this is necessary: “A lot of the problems that we work on seem so distant from campus. Campus is a very enclosed space, it’s a very well-to-do space, it’s largely middle class students, and it’s quite hard to explain to someone exactly what a cluster bomb in another country does when you’re in the middle of say Union North.”
Yet this disruptive element does not always endear them to the rest of the student body, of which they are well aware: “I think the stereotype of student hippies and student radicals clouds over the way we actually operate”, says Kat.
“I think there’s quite a lot of anti-Left, not propaganda, but, it’s something we found during the Sit-in, that the student body was not necessarily ready to listen to what we were saying, they were more ready to make assumptions about what we were doing. So we faced criticism for being anti-Semitic”, she adds with a degree of resignation.
The Sit-in saw the group take over the S0.21 lecture theatre for two weeks last year and refused to leave until the University condemned Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Part of a wave of occupations in universities across the United Kingdom, the Sit-in was certainly influenced by the student activism of earlier decades. The national connections forged through this event are still maintained by the group.
All three students clearly believe very strongly in what they’re doing. Get them talking about the direct actions they’ve been a part of, and you can tell there’s a real sense of purpose and community behind it all. The idea of reclaiming space on campus has a particularly strong effect on Kat: “I’ve written to my MP millions of times and nothing ever happened. But if you go and take over a lecture theatre and are like this is our campus, this is our space, instead of saying we don’t like what you’re doing, we’re going to build what we’d like to see, right here and right now. That’s really powerful.”
Jehanzeb thinks a certain level of protest and dissent is healthy: “This level of activism should be the norm; I’d like to be the norm”.
But it’s not all about making noise. “We’re not a bunch of serious people all the time, we obviously feel very strongly about whatever it is we’re campaigning on, but it’s a great laugh as well”, says Chris.
“Our kind of politics is obviously different. I think we’re more lifestyle activists. There’s a sort of lifestyle that’s associated with activism that maybe your traditional labour activist or high political activists wouldn’t share necessarily.”
The lifestyle that accompanies their activities is partly due to the deep friendships that underpin it, and perhaps this is what ultimately gives them a sense of being some kind of a movement, they agree to this definition of their actions halfway through the interview, coupled with their consensual decision-making process.
Every decision made by the group has to involve all members, and all members have to agree on the final outcome. Not only does this mean that people feel invested in the activities they take part in, but, ultimately, it means they spend a lot of time together.
And a lot of this time is spent eating. Most of the students involved are either vegetarian or vegan, Chris tells me, so eating together and sharing food is an integral part of their experience. The self-discipline required to maintain the lifestyle is made easier by the support network behind them.
At the Aldermaston protest, one female student brought 12 pots of humus to share throughout the day. All three of them smile: “It is all about the humus”. Perhaps, that’s one area where earlier student activists would have been found lacking.