SOAS students evicted from occupation by ‘over 40 private bailiffs’
Students were allegedly ‘harassed, intimidated, and pushed around’
SOAS removed around 10 students from an nine-day peaceful occupation of the uni’s main building on the late night of Saturday, 5 March.
The occupiers claimed that SOAS hired “over 40” private bailiffs for the eviction with use of physical force. They also claimed that throughout the occupation, management allegedly continuously threatened them through legal action, physical security threats, and denial of basic necessities such as toilets.
In response, a SOAS spokesperson told The London Tab: “The removal of the occupiers was conducted without any physical injury, although the bailiffs were subjected to horrendous verbal abuse. Our priority was to ensure the safety and security of all involved. The occupiers were given the opportunity to leave of their own accord and 10 took up this opportunity. The four remaining occupiers were assisted out by five bailiffs per occupier to guarantee their safety. All 14 were offered a blanket to keep them warm and a pre-arranged, pre-paid taxi home to any location in London. It is rare that such courtesy is afforded to occupiers involved in an illegal trespass.”
A group of students who called themselves SOAS Strike Solidarity occupied management offices in the uni’s Main Building on 23 February, causing the entire building to be shut down on the second day.
They were protesting in solidarity with UCU and UNISON’s strikes, demanding reforms to “demarketise and decolonise” the SOAS experience, and calling for the “immediate removal of Adam Habib”, SOAS director.
In a statement, the students explained why they decided to occupy: “We’re aiming our action at management because we reject their attempts to turn students and workers against each other. Students and workers make the uni run, yet we’re being squeezed out by high fees, low wages, and ridiculous workloads, while managers sit on six-figure salaries.”
To these, a SOAS spokesperson responded: “The challenge in addressing these demands is that they bundle together national issues, matters that are the subject of ongoing processes via established channels such as the unions, and broader campaigns that run across higher education internationally, such as the calls for ending the marketisation of higher education and for decolonisation.
“It is truly regrettable that SOAS had to divert funds towards resolving this occupation. This money could have been spent on our strategic priorities, many of which address the demands of the occupiers.”
Apart from demands, occupiers accused the uni of responding to their peaceful protest with “aggressive and inhumane treatment” in a joint open letter with the SU, UCU, and UNISON that has more than 700 signatures. They denounced the uni for denying them access to basic facilities like toilets, to which a SOAS spokesperson responded: “The claim that toilet access was denied is a deliberate misrepresentation.
“We want to make clear that access to toilets was never in question. The only thing we prevented was a return to the occupied area after using toilet facilities. This is because we could not agree to return occupiers to an area that constituted an unlawful trespass.”
The eviction happened on Saturday, late at night. The occupiers described the scene in a statement: “[The bailiffs] entered the building via the staff common room balcony by ladder, with riot shields. They also entered via the stairwell inside the building and broke a window on their way in.
“Three of the occupiers were dragged out by bailiffs left with cuts and bruises. The others, whilst not being dragged out, were harassed, intimidated and pushed around by the private bailiffs,” they claimed.
They also accused the uni of lying when saying that the eviction only happened after “extensive discussions,” because they think “reasonable negotiations” couldn’t have happened when the occupiers have been threatened by the uni to be removed since day one and that the bailiffs had been hired even while negotiations were being conducted.
“Dialogue has not been exhausted, SOAS Management have not even begun, nor do they seem capable, to engage in dialogue with the student community,” the occupiers said.
A SOAS student who wished to remain anonymous said to The London Tab: “They were trying to threaten us with court orders and tell us that the occupation was illegal and a court order is being served.
“It was so sad to see the last 10 occupiers dragged out of the building at 1:30am in the morning. This was literally a heartless act,” they said.
In a joint statement from SOAS SU’s sabbatical officers, they told The London Tab: “The union believes the welfare of students should be the university’s absolute priority regardless of the action they are taking, especially considering they were fully within their legal rights to protest.
“The occupiers chose one of the very few spaces in SOAS where no teaching happens,” they continued.
“We condemn the recent fascistic behaviour of SOAS management, defend the right to peaceful protest and uphold the student body’s call for Habib’s immediate removal.”
The UCU also issued a statement afterwards, saying it is “deeply disturbed [by the eviction that] displays nothing but contempt for students, and shows how unserious management are about resolving the disputes.
“They are happy to hire private bailiffs to shut down protest, but refuse to pay staff what we deserve,” the UCU said.
In response, a SOAS spokesperson said to The London Tab: “We decided to bring the occupation to an end last week because it truly was disrupting the institution’s operations. We received a number of emails from students who were telling us their education was being impacted, alongside staff who were unable to come to work.
“We had hoped to resolve this matter through dialogue and over the course of nine days, we engaged in extensive discussions with the occupiers on the progress already made on some of their demands and work underway on others. Despite these engagements, the occupiers consistently refused to leave the premises.
“Indeed, it was our honest assessment that the negotiations were a deflection to enable an indefinite occupation. It was only under these circumstances that we reluctantly made the decision to embark on an eviction.
“We are fully committed to upholding the right to peaceful protest. But no right, including the right to protest, is absolute. How people engage in protest is also important. If protest is conducted in a manner that respects the rights of others and does not impact on their learning and teaching, we would of course allow it to continue. But if it violates the rights of others, through intimidation and preventing them from coming to work, and it compromises our operations, which in turn impacts on learning and teaching, then it is our responsibility to intervene to protect the majority of the collective community.
“While there were many who have written to us in support of the occupiers, there are also many who do not feel that their interests were taken into account. It is important to ensure the rights of all within our community. Our students truly have had it hard in the last two years and it is important that their collective interests become the singular focus of our attention.
“SOAS therefore is considering commissioning a study of the institutional community’s views on the pattern of ongoing occupations and the institutional instability that this has created. It is our hope that this will generate the evidence base on how the SOAS community would like these issues to be addressed in future. We would imagine that all stakeholders would be supportive of hearing the views of the community that they purport to represent.”