After occupying the Front Quad at St John’s since Wednesday, protesters from Direct Action for Divestment Oxford have cleared up camp. Protesters had occupied the quad to force the College to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. St John’s College has been criticised for having invested £8.1 million in Shell and BP.
Following a meeting with the President, Professor Maggie Snowling, the group agreed to leave the site in exchange for “small” concessions. These concessions include removing Shell and BP from the negotiating table and adding a further student to the Working Party for Ethical Investment. This group, set up in late June 2019 by Governing Body, is responsible for considering “the ethical issues facing the College”. It is specifically focused on investments, “but also wider issues”, according to the minutes of the St John’s Governing Body. Such a broad mandate reflects the College’s desire to develop investment principles, rather than divesting on an ad hoc basis.
Governing Body also intended the Working Party to “report at the beginning of Trinity Term 2020”, but made no mention of whether the College would consider whether to commit to any recommendations made. Thus, the concession to protesters that Governing Body would vote on its recommendations “by the end of the year” can be seen as a small victory for the group. Prof Snowling’s concession has further significance because the Working Party had “not been on track” to recommend divestment by the end of the year. According to a member of the Working Party, this stance that was finalised in a meeting on January 21st.
Crowds formed at around 1:30pm to cheer the protesters as they left St John’s. Many took photos of members of the group and the iconic 4m model of the RSS Sir David Attenborough. The crowd was jovial, with flags and placards proudly held aloft. Multiple boxes of food were offered to all; it was evident that the protesters had been prepared for the long haul. Everything from fruit and biscuits to proper meal food was on offer; even after offering snacks to nearby rough sleepers, there was plenty to go around.
All of the protesters are proud of their work and relatively happy with the outcome. One said that they had achieved “everything they feasibly could”. After the occupation began, it became harder to sustain the protest. By shutting most entrances, the College forced the protesters to rely more on St John’s students, even though these had made up only 4 of the 20 protesters at the start. Many students left the College for academic work at other colleges but struggled to return. However, St John’s students were difficult to persuade, since their College has the power to fine them potentially unlimited sums for their part in the protest.
DAD Oxford’s occupation also helped raise divestment back to the top of the agenda. Protesters said they were delighted by the breadth of support not just from St John’s students but also from the wider university. In a veiled threat to those yet to divest, they revealed that many had expressed interest in holding similar occupations in their own colleges.
However, many students at St John’s were frustrated by the consequences of the protest. A samba band which managed to forced its way into the College was not organised by DAD Oxford, according to the protesters. Nonetheless, the noise annoyed many and broke the College curfew which runs from 5:00pm to 7:00pm on weekdays. St John’s also locked many gates into the College, which forced those living in Front Quad and Canterbury Quad to make a far longer walk around the site to leave it. In response to those who opposed their methods, the protesters argue that “we only have 12 years to fix the planet; a little bit of noise is a small price to pay.”
Counting the cost
Leaving the Front Quad lawn has made obvious the damage done to the grass during the occupation. Usually pristine, tents, tarpaulins, and placards have shattered the immaculate image of the grass. Although it would be expected that the lawn will recover at least by the time term finishes, the College may chose to charge the protesters for any costs involved in restoring it along a quicker time frame. This may be a priority for St John’s, who will not want evidence of the protest to be made obvious to any tourists passing through the College. Minor offences can carry charges of up to £1,000, whilst serious offences have no upper limit.
It is likely that St John’s students involved in the protest will also be fined. Minor offences can warrant fines up to £250, whereas again, serious offences have no upper limit.
A motion asking the St John’s JCR to pay any financial cost imposed on the protesters was considered, but ultimately not put. Instead, the JCR debated a motion to endorse the protest, which passed this evening, following the passage of a motion endorsing divestment late last year.
Additional reporting from Elliot Sturge.