Why escalation of protest is key to resisting Corporation Cambridge’s dogged refusal to divest

Image credit: Anna Curzon Price

A group of us walked through West Cambridge’s big industrial, empty, impersonal streets to stage an oil spill and block workers from entering the BP Institute. We spend an hour chanting, dancing and making a controlled mess on the lawn outside. It’s great fun. But behind the slick transparent glass door no one looks out at us. There is no sign that we have touched any vessel of power. Institutional power is etched into the concrete of Cambridge’s landmarks. How can transient gatherings be a force for change in the face of the domineering and timeless structures which Cambridge is full of? What use can an escalation in protest be when it is restricted to the symbolic?

This piece aims to combat nagging doubt that protest is meaningless in the face of ‘real’ power. Symbolic acts of resistance - the very fact that we organised in an area normally removed from the scrutiny of civil society - is an act of subversion and a success.

Cambridge University as an institution which is clearly failing in its duties to staff and students. The strikes are an obvious manifestation of this. But there are also signs it is avoiding its wider responsibilities:  a leaked report shows the University Council is set to reject full divestment. In 2015 CUSU voted almost unanimously on behalf of the student body to support the divestment campaign. In 2016 over 300 academics from Oxford and Cambridge urged their universities to divest from fossil fuels. This demonstrates Corporation Cambridge’s disregard for democratic process.

In the face of these failures, the intensification and escalation of protest is key. We need to increase the pressure on management in order to express the strength of our resolve to see this through, as well as the strength of the support we can draw on.

Protests - despite being performative and symbolic - are not mere acts of self-indulgent fun. Instead, it is through protest that we can create a climate of opinion that will lead  Corporation Cambridge to divest. The symbols which we employ need to be increasingly attention-grabbing, assertive and creative in order to increase pressure and escalate our action.

By escalating we demonstrate that effective targets for political action exist - despite the efforts of the powerful to hide behind the rhetoric of ‘faceless’ bureaucracy and ‘rootless’ power. It is clear that the vested interests of individuals on the Divestment Working Group report doomed it to an undemocratic outcome. One of the two ‘impartial experts’ on the group, Jerome Neufeld, who works with BP and Shell on carbon capture and has received a research grant from BP. The chairman of the group supports fracking for shale gas while Cambridge’s Director of Finances David Hughes has worked for Shell for around 30 years. Global institutions are not out of reach - as Hardt and Negri argue in Empire, they are in fact more vulnerable because every act of subversion touches the ‘virtual centre’ of the ‘global networks of production and control’.

By escalating we bring divestment into mainstream, day-to-day discussion. If we are on Senate House lawn, if we march as hundreds on Thursday, if we make our presence felt through the occupation of space then divestment cannot help but become a standard topic of conversation. Attention-grabbing symbols and representation can change perception and meaning. They can transform investment into being viewed as an ethical issue - just as the growing awareness of vegetarianism and veganism has changed the way people think about their eating habits. Protest changes people's minds and shatters pre-conceptions - through peer pressure from the group if nothing else. By placing divestment on the agenda in Cambridge, other institutions who look here for guidance on the establishment approach to certain problems will also have to formulate attitudes towards divestment.

“Hey Hey Ho ho // fossil fuels have got to go!”.

Someone starts the chant.

It ripples through the crowd and grows into noise that conveys the group’s sense of common overall purpose.

 It speeds up as individuals are swept up in collective excitement.

 Then someone else introduces a new refrain:

 “No shell! No BP! // we want fossil free!”

And once again the group moves on organically.

Protests are collaborative performances. They are symbolic representations of the harmonious, equal, democratic societies we would like to create. No one is directly in charge of the chanting. To be successful, a chant must be fully supported by the group. By escalating we show, through representation, that alternatives to the way in which institutions are currently governed exist.  Protests therefore undermine the legitimacy of decision-making behind closed doors.

Finally, by escalating in the microcosm that is Cambridge we create hope that change can be enacted on a larger scale. Cambridge, for many of us, is our first interaction with an institution in which we rather than our parents are the chief stakeholders. If we can make change happen here, a whole cohort’s relationship to authority will change and be transplanted into the wider world, making more widespread change imaginable. Divestment in Cambridge - while a goal in its own right - is also a symbol of a bigger problem, just as Cambridge itself is a mini representation of wider society.

Protest is therefore a powerful weapon against Corporation Cambridge. The very process of organising a group democratically, taking up spaces and transforming these into our own - even if only temporarily - subverts the legitimacy of decision-making behind closed doors. It brings issues of divestment and democracy into wider conversation. Symbolic acts change meaning and perception. They are truly powerful ways of winning over hearts and minds in the face of the brute, ruthless power of the institutions. Management is making key decisions about divestment which will determine what side of history this institution finds itself on. it is key to continue to protest and march in order to ensure our beliefs have a real impact on outcomes.

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