Nearly two weeks into the occupation of 11 University Gardens, Glasgow Against Arms and Fossil Fuels (GAAF) tell The Glasgow Guardian “we are confident we won’t face repercussions” for their actions, and discussed plans to repurpose the building to host “community events”.
Operating under the name of GAAF since the start of 2023, the student-led movement has moved from petitions, to sit-ins, and now onto an occupation. Beginning on Monday 22 January, activists from GAAF occupied 11 University Gardens, demanding, among other things, an immediate divestment of the roughly £5 million that the University invests in companies such as BAE Systems and the Thales Group, who are involved in weapons manufacturing.
From within the occupied building, one activist told The Glasgow Guardian that they are prepared “to stay here for as long as it takes until the University meets our demands, we believe that the University will accept our demands in the near future and we will leave on our own terms.
“Immediately after occupying the building we sent in a full announcement to the University. And our demands have been to divest from arms, the University Court must vote to cease all investments in arms companies, any which earn more than 10% profits from manufacturing weapons, and that the University must ban all arms companies from recruiting on-campus or through online University events.”
When asked what motivated them to occupy a University building, GAAF expressed their frustration with the lack of progress in achieving their aims: “In terms of divestment, students have been fighting at this University for over 15 years and it still hasn’t been done.
“We’ve sent in a 44-page document as well as different petitions co-created with other societies like the [GU] Palestinians. But given that, the University’s reaction has been once again, not only subpar, but unacceptable. We are now expanding our demands and will change up a few things.”
In a rally held outside of the building two days after the occupation began, speakers from various groups gathered to show their support – including Stop the War, Living Rent, and the GU Marxist Society. These speeches all shared a similar theme of demanding divestment from the University, as well as the importance of continued solidarity with the Palestinian people. “This is not the end, this is just the beginning,” said the representative from Glasgow Stop the War. The messages of solidarity were also extended to Yemen and other places within the Middle East that have recently experienced military action.
Among the speakers was also Scottish Greens councillor Martha Wardrop, who represents the Hillhead constituency where the University is located. “I believe that we have to stand up for the most vulnerable and stand up for the people within the front line…as well as the humanitarian efforts,” she said, mentioning she has supported previous occupations on campus.
The last student occupation on University Gardens took place in the adjacent Hetherington House during 2011, lasting for nearly 7 months and becoming one of the longest student-led occupations in the UK. That occupation ended with the University meeting most of the demands surrounding funding cuts. GAAF made reference to the Hetherington House occupation, criticising the measures used to eventually remove the occupiers.
Despite the previous 2011 Hetherington House occupation occurring at 13 University Gardens, GAAF have instead occupied the adjacent George Service House, at 11 University Gardens. They claim that George Service House is “more visible from the street” but adding that it was “also a symbolic gesture because divestment was also an important part of the previous occupation. So we’re kind of continuing that call and hoping that finally, after 50 years, the University might listen.” GAAF continues to refer to the 11 University Gardens as Hetherington House in their communications.
Despite only having been active for the past year, both GAAF members interviewed remained adamant that the occupation was a “very warranted response” following the previous actions they had taken. They believed that in spite of meetings with University vice-principal and COO David Duncan, “nothing was happening” and that the occupation was a “justified” response and would remain until “the University matches our demands.”
When asked what would happen if the occupation was forcefully ended by the University, GAAF reiterated that although they “plan to leave on our own” they “will continue to be active” if their demands are not met.
However, some have been critical of GAAF’s actions, including their decision to occupy a building used for in-person teaching, causing disruption to students’ learning. 11 University Gardens is home to the Digital Media & Information Studies faculty, whose classes had to be moved to other buildings on a temporary basis. Some students have also raised concerns about the security of the building and who now has access to it.
When asked if those involved in the occupation are solely students, GAAF refused to confirm this, instead stating that it is “mostly students” involved “but there is a wide collaboration and a lot of people believe in the cause that we’re fighting for.”
As part of their plan to garner greater support, GAAF went on to talk about their plans within the coming days to open up the building to the public, saying: “there might be some staff, students from different universities coming and with opening up events there is a higher likelihood of non-students coming in.”
A comment posted on GAAF’s Instagram four days into the occupation reads “Solidarity I’m currently homeless. Can I join your occupation and sleep in the Hetherington building?” and was liked by GAAF’s account.
When asked about what safeguarding measures they would implement, both activists said that through the manpower in the building and advertising on social media “the audience that we’re reaching are initially people who are trusted.”
GAAF remained confident that support from the wider community has been positive and has allowed for the occupation to remain a success.
In regards to why GAAF continues to reach out to the wider community, they believe that it is the best way to allow for a “space for marginalised voices to be heard [and] listened to,” something which they argued the university is failing to do by “actively participating in the ongoing conflict.”