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Divestment activists stage second occupation of Charles Stewart House

ByEthan DeWitt

Apr 5, 2016

Student divestment activists have spent the night in the University of Edinburgh’s Charles Stewart Building and intend to stage a long-term occupation that could last a week, in a move echoing a previous effort last May during the exam period.

The action, taken by activist group People & Planet, is intended to pressure the University to commit to fully divesting from companies involved in fossil fuels and to publicly declare the divestments it has made over the past year.

About twenty students stormed the entrance of the building early Monday afternoon, equipped with laptops and carrying backpacks filled with food, supplies and sleeping bags. After initial resistance from University security, the group secured most of the ground floor, including the building’s vestibule, foyer, main stairwell, and several side rooms with desks and chairs.

With University security guards standing post outside major exits and stairwells, the demonstrators spent the night scattered across the main entrance of the building.

Asked by The Student how long the occupation was intended to take, a representative for People & Planet said it could last at least until April 11, the day that Senior Vice Principal Charlie Jeffery had previously agreed to meet with the group.

In taking the building, which serves as the main administration building for the University, the students are retracing steps taken last year, when a 10-day occupation shut down the building and captured the attention of the national media. Since then, the university has divested from a variety of companies involved with fossil fuels, including Shell and Rio Tinto, as well as fully divested from companies with involvement in arms.

Activists have acknowledged the strides made, but say the actions fall short of their demands. In a statement announcing the occupation, People & Planet called on the University to formally commit to divesting from all companies with a five per cent or greater investment in fossil fuels.

Currently in place is a policy, enacted last spring, to divest from companies that don’t invest in low carbon sources, and where alternative sources of energy are possible. According to figures shared with The Student, while the University’s investments in large oil companies like Shell have been removed or diminished, investments in other companies, such as Apache and EOG have increased over the same time period.

“Apparently this isn’t about divestment, it’s about going to a lower carbon portfolio,” Delphi Macpherson, a representative for the movement, told The Student.

The activists said they also wanted the University to be more forthright to the public about the steps it was taking.

“They haven’t announced it—they haven’t committed to not reinvesting,” Macpherson said. “And they won’t do that, and they won’t make an announcement about the divestment.”

“We want them to make quite a clear statement on arms investments as well as fossil fuel investments—that they’re not acceptable,” said Nuri Syed Corser, another representative. “And if they just sneakily divest and don’t actually say anything, it kind of undermines the point.”

The students say the decision to storm the building Monday follows an earlier demand made on the University to fully divest and implement the five per cent threshold by the 31st of March, after which they would take further action.

In a statement responding to the developments on Monday night, the University affirmed the rights of students “to protest lawfully and peacefully,” while “working with the students to ensure their safety and provide for their basic needs.”

“We are committed to using our finances to make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world,” the statement read. “In line with our responsible investment policy, which was formulated in consultation with staff and students, we do not invest in companies involved in the highest carbon-emitting industries.”

The statement continued: “Last September, we also confirmed we do not, and never will, invest in companies involved in controversial weapons or any company with a significant interest in armaments.”

Though unannounced, the building’s occupation was likely expected by the University, demonstrators told The Student, citing the specific calendar deadline referenced in their demand. Security guards appeared to have been generally accommodating, with the University allowing the protest to proceed and provide accommodations.

An evening negotiation on building security and access with University officials, observed by The Student, demonstrated a general atmosphere of goodwill between the sides regarding living arrangements, though elements of mistrust from incidents the year before still pervade. At issue during the talks were quibbles over maximum allowable occupancy in the building, access rights at night time, and a broad desire by students to have all provisions agreed to in writing.

The two sides were unable to agree to concrete arrangements past Monday night, potentially setting the stage for a protracted series of daily negotiations over the next days.

But while the initial talks appeared congenial, many students who participated in last year registered their doubts based on experience. Last year a student was caught on camera being assaulted and thrown to the ground by a private security guard, and activists said there was also inconsistent  access provided to hygiene facilities and building access throughout the occupation.

Hannah Roques, a member of the group who was part of the protest last year, recalled her experiences and said they would inform the way the activists would handle proceedings this year.

“At the time we had meetings with them and I think we had meetings with sabbatical officers as well,” Roques said. “And we met with the chaplains to say we’re really angry about this, about what’s going on, and we explained the situation. This time we’re planning to have meetings and I’m planning to bring it up as a really major point—the fact that we were really angry last time.”

In the Monday evening meeting with University officials, attended by The Student, Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability Dave Gorman said that no plans were being made to hire private security, but said that could change if the situation required it.

The demonstrators remained unclear as to the intended timeline for the occupation, saying it would depend on the University’s response. But they expressed the hope that the public action would bring them closer to a productive dialogue toward their goal.

“This is the only time when they actually listen to our demands, because they have to,” Kirsty Haigh, a member of the organisation, told The Student.  “That’s why we do this.”

Image: People and Planet Edinburgh


By Ethan DeWitt


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