Credit: Cat Scothorne

Direct action at UofG: GAAF and Palestine Action

By Lena Schega

UofG students are engaging with direct action and risking arrest, for causes including the divestment of arms and fossil fuel industries.

At 12.18 p.m. on 3 February 2023, two young women meet for a second time. Through the misty morning air, they recognize each other in a crowd of protestors around Glasgow University’s main gates. The last time they met was at a Trade Union rally two days prior, but Cat and Beth have long been involved in similar things. Cat Scothorne, 20-year-old climate activist and History student at the University of Glasgow, participated in actions organised by Palestine Action Scotland (PAS), a movement Beth is deeply involved with. Today Cat is one of the faces behind Glasgow Against Arms and Fossil Fuels (GAAF), which has invited Beth to speak at the rally. 27-year-old Beth Meadows is a well-experienced actionist. She shares history with Amnesty International, Extinction Rebellion, and Just Stop Oil, but today she is on campus as a representative for PAS. Cat’s and Beth’s causes overlap, as do the networks of GAAF and PAS. The Glasgow Guardian spoke to both, mapping the crossover of their respective groups and their presence on and around the GU campus. A familiar term stands at the centre of it all: Direct Action. 

Palestine Action started in England and Wales in 2020. The grassroots direct action movement takes on factories and companies based in the UK which produce weapons that are sold to the Israeli military regime. By means of direct action, Palestine Action succeeded in permanently shutting down an Elbit System factory in Oldham, Manchester, on 10 January 2022, and the Elbit System Headquarters in London, on 21 June 2022. Ebit Systems is just one company blacklisted by Palestine Action for its ‘complicity to genocide’. Other names include BAE Systems, Raytheon, Thales, and Leonardo. 

Palestine Action Scotland, founded by Huda Ammori and Richard Barnard, has been active since July 2022 and has continued to use direct action to target enterprises that manufacture and supply weapons and military technology to Israel. On 1 June 2022, six activists from PAS scaled the roof of Thales UK, a French-owned arms factory, located in Glasgow, allegedly causing the company £5 million pounds worth of damage. According to PAS, Thales has cooperated with Israeli weapons company Elbit Systems on the Watchkeeper Drone project, used on the populations of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. At the start of this year, on 19 January, PAS occupied the roof of Edinburgh’s factory of Leonardo UK and spray painted the walls of the building in gushing red, alluding to the blood spilt by weapons produced by Leonardo. In both cases, the actionists dismantled electronic equipment, disrupting operations on the site. 

Beth sat down with The Glasgow Guardian, explaining why GAAF can take inspiration from PAS. She has swapped her pink, ankle-long coat with the stitching ‘Shut Elbit Down’, for a medium-length brown jacket. On her chest sits a pin in faded green. The letters on it are bold and clear: “Our house is on fire”.

“Direct action is the most effective way to cause proper change”, Beth says. Because direct action is unpredictable, disruptive, and uncomfortable, both for those involved and those targeted, it reaches spaces that more traditional forms of protest such as marches and protests, or voting for left-wing political parties, cannot. Beth recalls a quote by scholar and activist David Graeber. “Protest is like begging the powers that be to dig a well. Direct action is digging the well and daring them to stop you.”’

Palestine Action is proof that countless transgressions, when focused and carefully targeted, can result in lasting change, Beth says. For her, breaking the law and maintaining the element of surprise are essential to direct action. Beth references numerous times throughout history when direct action has been vital. For example, the civil rights movement, anti-Apartheid movement, the suffragettes, and, more recently, actionists booting the arms-manufacturing company Raytheon out of Derry, Northern Ireland. Other key ingredients are ‘hard work’ and ‘personal sacrifice’, Beth adds. 

Arrests, remands, and court trials, the majority ending with the defendants being found ‘not guilty’, are recurrent to actionists. Beth explains that her white skin is a reason why she feels comfortable to take direct action, as it protects her from being racially profiled when arrested, which she finds makes the experience more accessible to her. Beth goes on to say that ‘no one should be put in harm’s way on account of their identity… Direct action is for people with the privilege to take that extra step.’ 

Moving forward, Beth wishes for more collaboration between activist groups. Building a ‘movement of movements’ would be desirable to gain momentum regarding a politically left-oriented coalition. Nevertheless, she is clear on the fact that Palestine Action has a distinct identity through its campaigns #ShutElbitDown in England and #ShutLeonardoDown and #ShutThalesDown in Scotland. One year from now, Beth hopes that PAS will have successfully booted Leonardo and Thales out of the UK and grown in members and public presence, through educational workshops and by showing support to other activist groups such as GAAF. Beth hopes that PAS can be an inspiration to GAAF, in their fight for GU’s divestment from the arms and fossil fuel industry.

Bringing direct action onto campus can be challenging, Beth asserts. “When they hear about direct action, they are not necessarily always keen to support you as a normal student society. Because if there is a level of illegality that is going to happen, then they would not want to get behind that. But the whole point of direct action is to be disruptive and there are creative ways to get around it.” According to Beth, students’ access to knowledge, education, and surplus time is the prime reason why, she says, the student population has historically always been at the forefront of a lot of activist movements.”

Cat is a student who has experienced the legal consequences of taking direct action. She told The Glasgow Guardian that she has been arrested ten times. For participating in the occupation of Glasgow’s branch of Thales UK, she has been put under a legal curfew. Direct action is “quite a high risk for students”, Cat says, which is why she wants GAAF’s defining feature to be that of inclusiveness. While GAAF might be using direct action in the future to make their demands heard, or in Cat’s words “to touch those who think themselves untouchable”, GAAF is non-violent and open to experienced members of the University as well as people who are new to activism.

When asked about how she found her way to direct action, Cat explains that she has been building up to that place for some time, partaking in community and online activism. Yet, she felt frustrated by a lack of success from more passive forms of climate protest and found civil resistance to be the next logical step. Cat agrees with Beth that “it is too easy to ignore. If you actually go and put your body into a situation and stop it from happening, that is when it feels to me like I’m making the most meaningful change”

“I’d definitely say that the University is anti-direct action. For them, I’m sure, it’s just a nuisance. They don’t want to change things. They don’t want to divest from the arms trade, or they would have done it. Their reaction to things like the 2011 occupation of the Modern Language Building shows this.”

The 2011 occupation of the Hetherington House was a student- and staff-led protest against cuts to higher education which was criticised by on-campus parties such as the SRC. 

Nevertheless, Cat says she is “very committed to this [GAAF’s] cause… Non-violent direct action is an appropriate response to a University funding murder across the world”.

At the GAAF rally, the protestors sang John Lennon’s ‘Power to the People’, before listening to Beth’s poem ‘Actions not Words’. In it she says: ‘We will not hide out of fear of the consequences. Palestinians aren’t awarded that luxury.’ 


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