“Our universities must be survivable for students and staff of color”

Interview with the Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action (GARA), a group of concerned students at Goldsmiths, University of London, that fights racism within and outside the campus.

August 09, 2019 by Muhammed Shabeer
Students demonstrate at Deptford town hall, Goldsmiths. Photograph: Anna Gordon/The Guardian

On July 26, the Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action (GARA) group ended its 137-day-long occupation of the Deptford Town Hall on the campus of Goldsmiths, University of London, in victory. It received a signed contract from the Goldsmiths Senior Management Team (SMT), containing commitments made to its demands. The group had started the occupation to protest the racist abuse of a student candidate in the student elections. Under the leadership of GARA, students occupied the Deptford Town Hall building on the evening of March 12, protesting the lack of anti-racist action from the SMT. Peoples Dispatch spoke with the Goldsmiths Anti Racist Action (GARA) regarding their protests and the events that had led to the agitation.

Peoples Dispatch: What are the major factors that triggered the agitations in the university?

Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action: The sparking point for the occupation was a racist incident that happened during the student union elections. A Pakistani international student who was running for the post of Education Officer had some of her posters ripped down and racist rhetoric mocking her accent was scrawled all over them. The university’s lack of action regarding this incident was a matter of deep concern for many of the students of color on campus as it was symbolic of, and reflected many of their own experiences of, institutional and interpersonal racism at what is meant to be a liberal and welcoming university. The occupation was very much a last resort for us to have our voices heard, and a plea for these university spaces to be survivable for students of color. The demands were listed within the manifesto released to the university upon the occupation of Deptford Town Hall, a building where the four statues up front symbolize the university’s history and its ties to the history of racism, enslavement and colonialism. The demands* themselves are, however, nothing new to the university and are in fact concerns that have been raised for years but have never been prioritized, including the reinstatement of Palestinian scholarships and the inhousing of security and cleaning staff.

* Various demands raised by GARA are given at the end of this interview.

PD: How did the university authorities respond towards your protests?

GARA: We have been in continuous conversation with the university but adequate action towards meeting the demands have been severely lacking. The university adopted a position of aggression towards the occupation in its first few days. A complete lockdown of the building was authorized within two days of the occupation. Students protesting peacefully were met with threatening letters of injunctions, as well as physical assault, from staff and new security guards who have never worked at the university before. Nobody was allowed inside the building, fire exists were bolted shut, with nobody manning them at some points, and deliveries of food and water were not allowed through, resulting in those deliveries being hoisted up through an upstairs window with rope. It took a public campaign and an online petition for the building to finally be opened up. In terms of meeting demands, we are happy to report that the demands have been agreed upon. It includes rolling out mandatory anti-racist training for all staff, including the SMT, employing BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) well-being and counseling staff, ensuring cultural competency training for all, reform of the hate-crime reporting center, a reparative justice program, recruitment of full time staff resourcing to work with the academic lead, overhaul of curricula across all departments, an annual fund of £ 20,000 (USD 24,326) for black history events, as well as increased funding to chaplaincy services and a bigger prayer space.

PD: What were the different modes of agitation that you pursued and what was the response of the student community in the university towards the protests?

GARA: Our plan was to continue with the occupation until the demands were met as these demands were not only achievable but also the bare minimum required to make this university survivable for students and staff of color. It would have been no justice at all for the rest of the BAME community at Goldsmiths if we had left the occupation without having these demands met as they not only reflect the lived experiences of people of color in higher education but also provide solutions that transcend throwing money into certain fix-all initiatives. They question the power structures themselves, from the way the staff that form the backbone of such institutions are treated to the reading lists that students learn from.

PD: Do you see the racial crimes happening against students in the university space as accidents or part of a dangerous trend emerging in the country and in Europe in general?

GARA: We see much of the university’s actions that have led to the occupation, and the formulation of these specific demands, as indicative of the university’s own contribution towards, and over-compliance with, the inherently racist and xenophobic hostile policy laid out by the UK Home Office under Conservative rule. Part of why the cleaners being outsourced by an external third-party company was so vehemently opposed is that the company that they were with, the ISS, has a notorious history of facilitating the deportation of cleaners who campaigned for a living wage. The severe increase in surveillance methods of their own student body is also reflected in the university’s purchase of, and insistence on, utilizing the SEAtS software for online attendance of students. The hate-crime that sparked the movement sheds light on the severe lack of capability of the university’s own public facing hate-crime reporting center, which is especially problematic considering the hostility people of color have towards them due to the legitimation of racism the current hostile environment policy has.

PD: Have you received support and solidarity from groups outside the campus? 

GARA: We have had support from various organizations and individuals from all walks of life. We record them through our #goldoccupy forms which can be found on all our social media. The support we get also come in the form of workshops and teach-ins on all sorts of topics, from squatters rights workshops to film screenings about Kashmiri social justice movements. Through over 100 days of occupation, we managed to fit in 140 events of these sorts, thanks to the community who have supported the occupation from the beginning and who continue to do so until the very end.

We want to thank all our supporters for successfully ramping up the pressure on Goldsmiths to sign the contract, committing them to an unprecedented series of actions. Even this was a hard fight, and on the final day of the occupation, we had to spend hours convincing the SMT to sign on commitments to actions which are basic necessities to make Goldsmiths survivable for BAME students. This was after they had already agreed to them in a meeting (of which the minutes will soon be available online). All of this was done under the threat of eviction and further legal action. But finally, we got a signed commitment from the SMT to not pursue legal action against GARA activists and allies.

The fight is not over. We are calling everyone to help us hold Goldsmiths accountable for fulfilling the following commitments, which have been signed off in a legally binding document by the SMT:

1) Reinstatement of the two Palestinian Scholarships.

2) Ensure all staff receive mandatory anti-racism training, including the SMT.

3) Ensure all well-being and counseling staff receive cultural competency training.

4) Revising the job description for the well-being advisor and counseling team staff, so as to better meet the needs of BAME students, and to hire BAME well-being advisors.

5) SMT to go to Goldsmiths Council in September with a proposal for the in-housing of security guards and receptionists.

6) Reform of the hate-crime reporting center, with a new task-force to be set up to design the new complaints procedure, meeting a minimum of three times a month, with GARA representation.

7) All staff involved in the hate-crime reporting center and the new complaints procedure to be given cultural competency training.

8) Funds for a reparative justice program, with an open call for BAME academic researchers, whose findings on Goldsmiths’ colonial legacy will be published.

9) To allocate £20,000 (USD 24,326) for Black History events annually.

10) To allocate an additional £20,000 to Chaplaincy budget, and a bigger prayer room.

11) Public conversation with the local community to decide what is to be done with the statues of slave-owners and colonialists at the Deptford Town Hall. In the meantime, temporary plaques will detail the colonial history of the statues.

12) Greater local community access to Deptford Town Hall, with more targeted outreach and engagement with BAME communities. Goldsmiths will introduce a drop-in service and online booking system at DTH where community members can make requests to book out space for events.

13) The appointment of a researcher to support Dr. Nicola Rollock in her role as BAME attainment academic lead.

14) The racist SEAtS surveillance software will not be rolled out to any more departments until the Equalities Impact Assessment is completed and the project board makes a decision about the future of SEAtS.

15) Funding for paid BAME representatives for each department, pending approval by the new Racial Justice Action committee and the race audit.

16) All programs to be audited for the purpose of decolonizing the curricula, informed by the new Racial Justice Action committee with GARA representatives and other liberation groups involved in the process.

17) Goldsmiths to publish a statement on its complicity in racism, after GARA’s approval of the statement.

18) Working group to be formed with program convenors, students and alumni to work towards the reinstatement of contact hours on the majority-BAME attended course BA Applied Social Science, Community Development and Youth Work.