Current Affairs

St John’s student stand off stretches to fourth day

College turns up the heat to force protesters off the lawn amidst rumours the College is seeking a court order

St John’s College is attempting to undermine the student protesters demanding the College stop investing in companies exposed to fossil fuels, such as BP and Shell. Student protesters have occupied the Front Quad at St John’s for over 72 hours in their mission and have so far enjoyed strong student support. St John’s College has been criticised for investing £8.1 million in Shell and BP.

In response, the College has intensified its efforts to undermine the protesters. All 4 protesters studying at St John’s have had their fobs deactivated, which means they are unable to access the pidge room for their post or reenter the College, should they leave. WiFi has also been cut-off in the quad to prevent the 20 protesters communicating with the outside world.

In a move to erode student support for the protest, the College has locked gates all around the main site. Two gates, including the main entrance, facing onto St Giles’, have been locked. This has been effective in dampening the enthusiasm of student supporters. In some accommodation blocks students are now forced to leave from another exit at the other end of the College site. Exits on Parks Road and the Lamb and Flag Passage have also been locked, which appears to make it impossible for those who require mobility scooters or wheelchairs to access the main College site at all.

There are also rumours that the College is preparing to evict the protesters. Staff have suggested the College is seeking a court order which would allow them to remove the protesters from Front Quad. Such a move would prompt significant criticism from students and climate activists alike. However, it would prevent the Direct Action Divestment Oxford, which organised the protests, from claiming more of the credit if the College decides to divest its endowment later in the year.

St John’s has established a working party to “examine the ethical implications of College investments” which will attempt to set out broad ethical principles on investment. The College is unwilling to divest on an ad hoc basis, but its bureaucratic process is notoriously lethargic. Ankit Ranjan, one of the leaders of the protest, has previously criticised this party for “working at a glacial pace”.

Principal Bursar Andrew Parker has suggested that the protesters should gain the support of students to legitimise the occupation. Indeed, the protesters have already set in motion plans to gain the support of the junior and middle common rooms. Members of the St John’s JCR will debate a motion proposed by Mr Ranjan to support the protest on Sunday February 2nd.

Protesters will attempt to focus the debate on the responsibility of the College to set an example to others. Direct Action Divestment, the group which organised the protest, have said: “St John’s College is the wealthiest in Oxford and a leader in its research fields, so has a responsibility to set an example for other Oxford colleges, pension and sovereign wealth funds.”

Professor Parker has also been criticised for suggesting that he could “arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect.” Mr Ranjan responded that “I think (the offer) will reflect poorly on the college”, whilst Fergus Green, a key organiser in the wider movement from Balliol College, called the idea “borderline dangerous”. The Oxford Blue reported last week that Balliol agreed to divest its endowment from firms exposed to fossil fuels following a years worth of amicable negotiations.

Oxford University and College Union (Oxford UCU) has also called upon Professor Parker to issue an unqualified apology “both for the threat to turn off the central heating in winter, and for seeking to trivialise an issue that is one of the world’s greatest challenges over the lifetime of his students.”

Posters like this one, pictured on a wall near the Bodleian Library, have also been placed throughout St John’s.

The protesters have sought to galvanise support in the College and around Oxford. They have stuck up posters across Oxford depicting the Shell logo emblazoned on the College crest, whilst the Oxford SU have expressed their solidarity with the students protesting and that they “support their fight for divestment.”

Although the protests were not linked to Extinction Rebellion (XR), the group was involved in a visible protest outside the College’s main gate. A crowd of about 30 people displayed large banners outside calling on St John’s to respond to the climate crisis. David Thomas, from the Oxfordshire Green Party, spoke to the crowd and declared that “I’m here with the students to make sure it doesn’t go away.” Huge banners left outside offer a stark message to all who walk past. XR have made known their support for the protests on Twitter, calling the College response “appalling”.

A banner displayed in a car park near the main entrance of St John’s calls on the College to divest from fossil fuels.

Those involved will feel that some progress has been made. On Friday, the President of St John’s, Professor Maggie Snowling, met with some of the protesters. According to a press release from the College, “she outlined the steps which have been taken so far by the Working Party on Ethical Investments.” Prof Snowling also promised to invite an additional student onto its working party, which is currently formed from academic members of the College and three student representatives. Although protesters will be suspicious of any move to endorse the party, they will welcome more “constructive” meetings with the College to help push their point home.