Wednesday, 18 December 2013

"If you believe in something, you have to act on it" - an Insight into the life of a student protester

Oliver Clay spent the second of December protesting on the campus of the University of Sheffield as part of the Sheffield Strikes Back movement, aimed at halting the privatisation of public institutions and halting a further wave of spending cuts.

Oliver is a student protester who spends as much time organising and participating in peaceful demonstrations against what he thinks is political injustice that he spends inside lecture theatres and classrooms.

Currently pursuing his MA in Politics at the University of Sheffield, Oliver says he was brought up with morals that saw oppression, suffering and exploitation as injustice.

Growing up in Canterbury, Oliver remembers the myriad numbers of political conversations his parents engaged in during dinner time.

As he grew up, he, he spent time watching the news with his parents and like them, became a supporter of the Labour Party.

Oliver Clay, pictured here in a sit-in to show solidarity with Palestine.

Fighting for what he believes in

"If you believe in something, you have to act on it," he tells me, when I ask him why he chooses to demonstrate against what he thinks is injustice.

In order to act, Oliver has joined several University-affiliated political groups where he can share his ideas and coordinate his efforts with those who share his mentality.

"Palestinian Society campaigns to raise awareness of the occupation and genocide in Israel/Palestine and build links between [the] Islamic University of Gaza and Sheffield University," he explains.

"Fund Education Not War campaigns to end the University's deals with and complicity in the arms trade, Antifascist Network combats the growth of the English Defence League and racist ideas in society and Sheffield Strikes Back challenges austerity [and the] privatisation of education."

Oliver says the groups such as the ones is part of use a variety of pacific measures to achieve their objectives.

These include lobbying the Universities they belong to, peaceful protests and petitions, organising talks and lectures, and laying out cultural events which include film screenings and shows at comedy clubs, which are mainly held to spread awareness about a particular issue.

For example, earlier this year, the Palestinian Society organised a talk by Palestinian activist Malaka Mohammed from the University of Gaza. Now at the University of Sheffield, Malaka gained admission after the Palestinian Society lobbied on her behalf.

"[We] had a protest last Friday against police repression and Austerity that attracted 60 plus people," says Oliver. "Some are smaller in the dozen or two.

There was a film showing on Womens Brigade in the Spanish civil war that had 20-30 people. Palestine [Society's] showing on Gaza had around 35."

Pictured here during a solidarity campaign against racism and islamophobia for the Antifascist Network 

Protests, demonstrations and clashes

Oliver then tells me that as part of his protests, when relevant, he and his fellow demonstrators occupy university buildings as a show of support to those who were going on strike.

During the protests on the 2nd of December, Sheffield Strikes Back occupied the iconic Arts Tower building, the tallest university building in the UK and a city landmark to show solidarity with the teachers who were going on strike by unfurling banners and chanting slogans.

But demonstrations don't always remain peaceful, he says, and has been on the receiving end of repressions by the police on several occasions.

In the past, Oliver has been charged down by horses and hit with batons, in addition to being kettled, which is "when the police surround a group of protesters or people in the wrong place and refuse to allow them to leave for a number of hours," he explains.

"I've been hit round the head," he says. "[My injuries] weren't too serious but others have been hospitalised through similar things."

University groups protest as one in an attempt to fight austerity in a demonstration organised by Sheffield Strikes Back
It's not just the police that Oliver has locked horns with in the past. One protest he vividly remembers is the time he and his fellow demonstrators were attacked by members of the English Defence League.

Related article: Right-wing parties prominent due to economic trouble

"In Sheffield, the EDL attempted to lay a wreath at the war memorial to piggy back on the death of Lee Rigby," recalls Oliver. "[The] first two times, they were stopped by antifascists.

[The] third time, with (erstwhile EDL leader) Tommy [Robinson] up, the police enabled them to get through. The day ended with the Sheffield community running the EDL off the streets." 

"Some EDL members threatened and attack non-white people on the street. [This] lead to running fights and police lines as they tried and to an extent failed. to keep the two lines apart"

"[The community] forced the EDL back into a pub called the Harley where they were kept until police could reassert control over the streets, which they struggled to properly do at any point in the day until the EDL had been properly removed from the city."


Although Oliver says victories like this help build up morale, he says he plans on fighting for what he believes is right. The results the groups he is in have achieved would reflect that.

"Israel still occupies Palestine, the cuts are still being made and the University is still involved in the arms trade," says Oliver. "[We've been] very successful for Palestinians getting a scholarship from the Islamic University of Gaza, though work continues to make that include accommodation as well."

Several of the University's Departments, including those of Mechanical Engineering, Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Automatic and Control Systems Engineering, Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy are being funded by global arms manufacturers. 

More than £40 million in funding has been received from BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and Thales, which manufacture the arms used in most theatres of war throughout the world and have been found guilty of corruption in the past.

"[We've had] success in kicking Veolia off campus too," he continues. "Fund Education Not War passed a policy mandating the Union to lobby the University to divest from arms and Sheffield Strikes Back has helped restart a vibrant student movement against austerity."

Transnational French company Veolia Environment, which until very recently managed the University's waste disposal systems, has heavily invested in Israel

The Palestinian Society are obviously opposed to this and recently succeeded in removing Veolia as the firm which managed the University's waste. Several other universities and cities voted against Veolia because of their actions in Israel.

Oliver organising a demonstration in Sheffield

Long term plans and future growth

Oliver says all the organisations he is part of have long-term plans in place. "[The] Palestinian Society want to cement the scholarship and include accommodation as well as fees paid for,

"Antifascist Network want to build greater links with the communities and combat racism," he tells me. "Palestinian [Society] and Fund Education Not War want the University to invest ethically. Sheffield Strikes Back continue resisting austerity and privatisation. 

"Support for all the campaigns seems broadly positive," says Oliver. "Fund Education Not War and [the] Palestinian Society have both won referendums in the thousands.

AFN [has been] able to organise anti-EDL marches far bigger than Unite Against Fascism." Unite Against Fascism (UAF) is the mainstream body against racism.

In an attempt to better coordinate their demonstrations, Sheffield Strikes Back have showed solidarity with the Occupy Sussex student movement by Skyping their occupation of University buildings on the 31st of October, when universities throughout the UK went on strike over pay cuts.

As reported by Forge Press, the University of Sheffield's press arm
Recently, Defend Education Birmingham called for co-ordination on all future protests in order to project a more united front, with Sheffield and Sussex both being mentioned as centres of protests.

Oliver, however, hopes that he isn't suspended by the University because of his political activities. "I hope to finish my masters, get a good result on it and not get suspended because of involvement in politics," he finishes.

Please note that all pictures have been reproduced with permission of Oliver Clay and are for academic purposes only.

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