As the number of Palestine solidarity encampments at campuses continues to grow we spoke to Brian Underhill from the encampment at Newcastle University.

Newcastle University campus

It’s gone well so far. Today is day six, we started on Wednesday in coordination with a series of other universities. It was May Day and workers in Palestine had also called for trade union action on that day.  On the same day there were also actions by Workers for a free Palestine.

We’ve had an overwhelming amount of support. From the local Palestine Solidarity Movement, the local Palestinian community, and we’ve attracted a lot of new people because the group of us who were trying to organise Palestine solidarity action on campus was quite small.  But since the encampment has started it’s very visible and it’s very open and a lot of new people have come in.  The encampment is a couple of minutes from the student union right in the centre of the campus.

Our group chats have massively expanded.  So, I’d say that so far, it’s going very, very well.

Over the weekend we had a lot of people who have no direct ties with the university helping us out and we’ve appreciated it to be honest because many of them have more experience with this kind of thing than us.

Previously in Newcastle action around the Rafael arms factory has been good at concentrating all the various left-wing forces on one target.   The connections and political unity that that campaign has created have been important to the encampment.  But it would be inaccurate to say the occupation has directly grown out of that..

We’ve had some limited support so far from trade unions in the city. A rank and file member of the NEU who’s very active in the Palestine solidarity movement in general is supporting us and is encouraging others to come along.  The branch secretary for Unite has encouraged members to come along as well.  One of the Unite community reps has been helping us out with food and stuff. But it’s not as extensive as I would like yet. But there are some seeds.

It’s quite difficult to say how things will develop.  We have our explicit demands a great situation would be for the university to concede those demands.  I have some degree of scepticism that is going to happen, at least in the short term, to be honest, universities have a tendency to say they’re going to address them, set up some kind of committee for it and then don’t follow through on anything.  So, I have some scepticism that we’re going to be able to achieve most or all our demands with the university directly. Something that’s of secondary importance, at least explicitly, but something that I think I’m more focused on, is how this will affect the long-term future of the left,  locally,  nationally and internationally to an extent.

There’s been a lot of contact between the different encampments and we’ve been meeting online and

having a lot of contact with group chats and everything.   So it’s formed a lot of new connections across the country, and then that’s really strengthened and formed a lot of connections locally as well. So many groups have been down, and I’ve been getting to know people well who I hadn’t known before.  We’ve been having a lot kind of education sessions and informal political discussion.  And so, I think part of my hope is that this is just going to help strengthen our forces, help build the movement to a great extent and hopefully get people a bit more militant. I think I am starting to see that happen a bit so I’m just thinking ‘How can we keep on down that line?’

One of the things that’s really important about the encampments, is that a lot of people who have got involved, who I wasn’t really involved with organising with before.  Many of them were people you’d see demos but there was no easy way for a lot of people to get involved in actually organising.  But when you’re involved in the encampment, if you’re there. You have to be helping to organise.  You have to be helping to just make the whole thing work. It’s a far more active experience than just being in a march or a protest or something.   And so I think it is very quickly teaching a lot of people, including myself, just how to organize better.  The first day we were really quite disorganised. But within a couple days. We just managed to get far better structured.  People who haven’t done this sort of thing very much before are doing some quite impressive organising.  So that’s just been a good experience of self-education and organising.

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