An ambulance was called to SOAS after a ‘hard’ picket turned violent on the final day of the UCU strikes. Student protesters had blocked the main entrance to SOAS and physically barred university staff and other students from entering.
On the morning Friday March 16th, a group of around 15 students blocked the entrance by linking arms, as well as holding rope and tubing. The ‘hard’ picket was organised beforehand, but as the day progressed more and more students joined in the action.
Violence broke out as students tried to get through the picket to access the library. The ambulance was called when one of the picketers allegedly had their knee dislocated after a student tried to push through. In an open statement released afterwards, the picketers reported being “repeatedly punched, kicked and manhandled”.
The action was in support of the UCU strikes but according to the statement was organised with “no prior communication or coordination with UCU or SOAS SU.” The UCU strikes, which affected the majority of London universities, were protesting proposed changes to pensions that would leave academics up to £10,000 per year worse off on retirement.
The library was shut for the entire day as there weren’t enough staff to run the library services, as well as other facilities.
Accusations of Islamophobia were levelled at the picketers as Muslim students were prevented from accessing SOAS’ prayer rooms for Jummah, the obligatory Friday prayer. In an open letter, SOAS student Muhammad Gangat, described the picket as “one of the most disgraceful actions in the history of the School” and reported that picketers pulled off the headscarf off a female worshipper.
The picketers responded to this by saying “we were actively seeking alternative venues for Jummah” describing the accusations as “being spread to discredit the action without any proof or evidence of when and how the picket was Islamophobic.”
A ‘hard’ picket involves strikers physically preventing the passage of people or vehicles. A ‘soft’ picket, on the other hand, usually just involves strikers promoting the strike action in a peaceful way by discussing the issues at hand or handing out flyers.
Under UK law it is a criminal offence to “block people or vehicles trying to get into the workplace which is on strike” and UCU’s ‘Guidance for branches on picketing’ says: “In no circumstances does a picket have power to require other people to stop or to compel them to listen or to do what the picket asks them to do. A person who decides to cross a picket line must be allowed to do so.”
Concerning the incident the director of SOAS University, Valarie Amos, said: “I support the right to peaceful protest. Physically preventing people from accessing SOAS buildings is not an acceptable or lawful form of protest and is not in the interest of SOAS staff or students.
“No SOAS student or staff member should be subjected to harassment or violence. This is totally contrary to our values as a SOAS community. We are a place of learning and scholarship and pride ourselves on our openness and inclusiveness”
Despite the backlash the group of students who organised the picket stated:
“Collectively we are proud of our actions. We managed to shut down the library and disrupt the university to ensure that the conversation around the dire state of higher education where we are treated as customers is foregrounded.”
Photo credit: Francie Grahl