Climate change protesters at St. John's
Current Affairs

UPDATED: Students set up camp in St John’s

On Wednesday at 2pm, dozens of students begun an occupation of the Front Quad of St John’s College. After months of frustratingly fruitless negotiations between students and staff, this escalated action represents the latest attempt to urge the College to divest from fossil fuels and is linked to the rally which occurred outside the College on Thursday.

The Oxford Blue reported on the controversial investments made by St. John’s last week. Such investments include £3.5 million in BP and £4.6 million in Shell. This makes up about 1.47% of the total £551 million endowment of the College. Repeated denials from St John’s to Freedom of Information requests from students have raised further suspicions that St John’s also holds investments in mutual funds exposed to the fossil fuel industry. 

St John’s College must offer a “time-limited commitment” on divestment and show an “appreciation that investments have consequences”.

Direct Action for Divestment Oxford

The occupation will involve a “camp on the grass” of the College’s Front Quad, accompanied by numerous banners and placards and three tents. A spokesperson for the group told The Oxford Blue that 30 students from multiple colleges, including St John’s, will be taking part. These include Anna Olerinyova, a PhD student in Chemistry at St John’s, who has called upon her college to listen to the science on the issue and “drop these dirty investments now”.

Direct Action for Divestment Oxford have threatened to continue the protest for “several days”

The occupation has been organised by groups working under the name Direct Action for Divestment Oxford (DAD Oxford), including the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC), but has not been formally organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) or via XR channels. Their spokesperson told The Oxford Blue that it will last for “several days”. One protester said “we plan on staying as long as we need to until John’s divests”, whilst an insider said “they plan to stay until College declares a climate emergency”. The group will likely demand a “time-limited commitment” on divestment from the College, as well as an “appreciation that investments have consequences”. This sort of appreciation has been lacking from the College after senior members of the ethical investment review committee “described its intended function as a purely intellectual exercise”.

On the following day, January 30th, almost 200 students endorsed a solidarity rally just outside the front gates of the College. The rally is being supported by seven different Oxford organisations: DAD Oxford; OCJC; Trans Action Oxford; Oxford Migrant Solidarity; Common Ground Oxford; Oxford University Labour Club; and Oxford Left Network. As with the protesters inside the College, the rally outside also displayed large banners, such as one which called on the College to “stop denying the Earth is dying”.

St John’s have previously stated that “the College keeps all investments and investment policies under regular review. Its main portfolio advisor assesses all companies with regard to their ethical, social and governance stance and updates its advice to the College on a regular basis. The College is currently engaged in a wide-ranging review of its investment policies, which will report to Governing Body in due course.” One insider familiar with the workings of Governing Body, the primary decision making body at the College, did not expect the protest to change much, remarking on the immense length of time St John’s administration takes to make similar decisions.

The President at St John’s College gave more information about the divestment process in an email to students. Professor Snowling assured students that “all of us on Governing Body agree that climate change is a real concern” and that the working group on ethical investments is taking a “thorough and wide-ranging” approach in meetings with “ethicisits and experts in sustainable finance and climate change”. Fossil Free SJC, a student group pushing for divestment, as well as the JCR and MCR, all have representatives on the committee. However, according to Ankit Ranjan, a representative of Fossil Free, the College’s working group has been”moving at a glacial pace” which “doesn’t reflect the urgency needed to face the challenge of climate change”.

The DAD Oxford spokesperson told The Oxford Blue that the group were not going to be obstructive and were merely “bringing public attention to the investment decisions of St. John’s”. This will surely encourage those involved to believe that attempts to end the occupation will merely represent an acceptance on behalf of St. John’s that their investments are indefensible.

Police were called to the scene and arrived just before 3:30pm. The Oxford Blue was told that the two policemen were there to “observe and assess the situation”. There is no suggestion that the group has committed a criminal offence, making it unlikely that the police will consider more intervention at this stage. However, students at St John’s will be aware that the College may open disciplinary proceedings against them. One staff insider at the College said that they had the option to call bailiffs in and remove the protesters, but were happy to simply contain them at this stage. It is unclear whether, and to what extent, protesters from other colleges will face punishment.

Students at St John’s are required to adhere to terms set out in the Student Handbook, which requires that students “preserve the … buildings and gardens (of the College).” It adds that “it is strictly forbidden to climb on any part of the College fabric”. Students are also required to abide by the regulations of the University Handbook, which specifies that “action threatening damage to property or inconvenience to other users may lead to exclusion.”

Serious breaches of the rules can entail fines of over £250, charges of over £1,000 (for example, for “damage to College property”, such as the Front Quad lawn), suspension, and/or expulsion, as well as the limitation of the use of College facilities, “including exclusion from residence in College rooms”. One student who was involved in a fight on site in Michaelmas 2019 was suspended and is currently forbidden from entering the College site without the College’s signed permission. St John’s told us that “the College does not comment on disciplinary matters involving individual students.”

Two policemen arrived at St John’s just before 3:30pm to assess the situation; College porters watched over the protesters throughout the night to prevent them accessing other areas of the site.

The College is functioning relatively normally despite the protesters’ presence. An annual Second Year Dinner went ahead as planned, but the preceding drinks reception was moved from the President’s Longings, accessed from Front Quad, to another area. Porters have been working overtime, some doubling their shifts from eight hours to 16, in order to prevent the protesters accessing over parts of the site. This has involved guarding exits throughout the night and locking the main entrance. Meanwhile, the protesters have had their internet access cut off and those at St John’s have had their fobs disabled.

For their own part, the protesters have settled into their stay. They have offered tea, coffee, and “maybe even some cake” to anyone that would like to talk with them, and have promised a whole schedule of events to keep themselves busy. Promised activities include live paintings of murals, poetry, music, and seminars.

They were joined by even more students on Thursday evening who congregated in the quad to show their support. From 7:30pm, around 30 students milled around the quad and onto the previously-prohibited grass in a show of defiance to College authority. Protesters had promised a warm welcome and offered the students snacks and drinks as College staff watched on. Mingling with other students, they reiterated their desire simply to have a conversation with the College leadership, particularly Professor Snowling. One protester bemoaned how they had been misunderstood by many senior College staffers. The Oxford Blue was told that in talking to many members of the Senior Common Room, these members revealed that they had thought the demonstration had far more extreme aims than in actual fact. Many expressed private endorsement of the aims of the group.

Radical action by groups such as DAD Oxford and Extinction Rebellion has not been uncommon in the UK in recent months. Just yesterday XR protesters blocked a busy junction during rush hour in Cambridge. However, the need to resort to such measures in Oxford is in stark contrast to the process recently undertaken at Balliol College, where the College agreed to divest from most fossil fuel companies, following a year of positive and constructive discussions between students and staff. The Oxford Blue has been told that St. John’s, unlike Balliol, was simply unwilling to collaborate and hence the action is being taken “to force them to move”.

It remains to be seen how long the occupation lasts whether the students’ demands are met. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is a large body of student support in Oxford for divestment. This occupation simply represents the latest example of pressure to be piled upon St John’s College.

Additional reporting from Leo Nasskau.