Investigations

Protest and change: inside the St John’s sit-in

When I was eighteen, I jumped from a pier – just for the fun of it. It was twenty meters above a river and the fall itself totalled about two seconds. Were you to ask me why I did it, I’m not sure I could tell you: maybe to sate my restlessness or my angst, maybe because of a nervous excitement that I didn’t know what to do with.

What I can tell you is that, leading up to the jump, I began to shake with fear. I had already tested how deep the water was, how far above it I was, and at what speed I would hit the water, but something about the act still scared me. I still jumped.

In the moments leading up to the sit-in at St John’s College, Oxford, dozens of protestors gathered from around the university. None of us knew how the protest would go. At best, St John’s would agree to our demands. At worse, we all faced arrest. These moments felt just like the moments before jumping off that pier into the river. I felt the same anxiety, the same fear, and that same mysterious drive. Though I wanted badly not to get arrested, I went through with it. Sure, I hoped that our action would spur College into action. I believed it would too. But whether or not we could genuinely achieve anything, I wanted to do something to show I cared.

Whether they admit it or not, every activist has a pier-jumper inside of them. They feel that desire to do something – anything, in order to make a difference. This emotion lies deep in the underbelly of every protest movement, in the successes and the failures alike. As important as it is, no amount of angst or drive will make a movement succeed. Which begs the question: how can we know if we have succeeded?

To answer this question, I turned not to the emotional drive, but the logical one. Underpinning our action was a robust goal and guiding principle: to force St John’s to divest their endowment of fossil fuels. In the days leading up to the occupation I learned the talking points. St John’s has £8.1mn invested in fossil fuel companies. For two years now, student calls to divest have elicited little response.

Our guiding principle shaped our plan. Being an Oxford college, St John’s has a front quad with a circular lawn, and right before the grass is a clear sign reading ‘keep off the lawn’. In our everyday lives, we pay the small scripture undue heed. This time, we paid it none. Some concerned activists and I, under the slogan ‘Direct Action for Divestment’ (affectionately known as DAD), placed a four-meter replica of the RSS Sir David Attenborough on the grass, where we stayed for five days. We demanded that the college divest, and refused to leave until they did so.

The response to our sit-in was mixed. At first, the college merely expressed mild annoyance. After telling us off and calling the police (who left after asking if we were warm enough), the administration closed the front gate and began tracking who came and went. They cut off access to hot water and deactivated the key fobs of St John’s students seen helping us. However, as we persisted, the college began to take us seriously. The president met with DAD organisers to discuss our demands. She agreed to accept more student voices into the college’s ethical investments working group and to no longer invite speakers from BP and Shell, who had both previously been invited to group meetings. Most importantly, she placed a timeline on the decision: the group is set to put forth a recommendation to the governing body by the end of the academic year.

Unlike the college, students, faculty, staff, and alumni expressed support for our mission. Concerned parties both inside and outside the University helped spread the word. St John’s students brought us food and hot water. Tutors made our case to senior officials. Alumni even signed a petition to withhold donations until College made a full commitment to divestment.

I don’t mean any of this to brag. To be honest, part of me still wonders if we did the right thing. Had we not organised our sit-in, could we have achieved greater success? Could we have sweet-talked the administration into divestment, used the carrot instead of the stick? Experience suggests, in this case, that it would be unlikely. The past two years had led me to believe that, in St John’s College, change will only happen through drastic means.

That is not always the case, though. And it is not always the case that a protest has any effect at all. The American Women’s March in 2017 was the largest single-day protest in the country’s history. People turned out all across the country for it. But while they touted signs and sang and chanted, musicians headlined and people came along just for the fun of it. It was more of a festival than a protest, all bark and no bite, the Gen-Z answer to Live 8. Nothing happened.

Still, I wouldn’t call the Women’s March a failure – to do so would assume there was some criterion of success besides raising awareness, which it did. That alone invalidates the comparison to Live 8. The latter, a series of free concerts thrown in the hopes that their proceeds might end poverty in Africa, serves as a prime example of a failed movement. The whole affair did more for the organisers, who made fortunes reselling tickets on eBay, than for the intended beneficiary. In the end, the benefit amounted to little more than a series of concerts underwritten by good intentions.

But the sit in at St John’s wasn’t the Women’s March, and it most certainly wasn’t Live 8. We had a concrete goal. We knew what we could do to achieve it. While nobody expected the college to agree to “divest now”, we did hope for two concrete steps: a commitment and a timescale. We got the latter. The task still remains to hold the college to it.

I can’t say whether John’s will divest at the end of the year, or even if they will seriously consider it. I can say that these sorts of actions do not happen in a vacuum, and recent inspiration has brought some hope. More than half of UK Universities have now committed to divestment. Last December at the University of Manchester, one of our fellow stragglers, a group of concerned students organised a similar sit-in to our own. Their action ended much as confusingly as ours: though the University agreed to review their fossil fuel shares, no commitments were made. Nonetheless, they served to inspire us.

More recently, a group of XR activists at Trinity College, Cambridge, dug up the College’s lawn as part of a seven-day protest calling to divest. While the striking resemblance of method certainly could speak for itself, people involved with the action cited us as inspiration. Can we call that a success? It certainly wasn’t our intention, and I wouldn’t personally lay claim to any credit in the Cambridge action. However, it is reassuring to know that our demands were heard by someone. Perhaps soon someone will cite them as an inspiration, and the cycle will continue.

All this is to say that, as much as protest may feel like pier-jumping, the two share very little else. The certain safety of my adrenaline-seeking contrasts strongly with the indeterminate outcome of the protest, and the jump’s ultimate insignificance with the desired result of any political action.

While I can’t say for sure what the result of the sit-in at St John’s will be, I can only hope that it does not in any way resemble the short-lived thrill of jumping from a pier.