By Sophie Ciurlik-Rittenbaum
I’m a student and divestment campaigner at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Halfway through my third year and, still pushing this campaign through, I think it’s time for an update.
In late 2017, after four years of campaigning, UEA divested from direct investments in fossil fuel companies. Robyn Banks spearheaded this campaign with support from People & Planet, running it as one of their Fossil Free campaigns. Yet more was to be done.
When I came to UEA and joined Extinction Rebellion (XR) UEA in 2019, XR UEA already had a divestment campaign underway pushing the university to divest from Barclays, Europe’s dirtiest fossil fuel bank. Currently, UEA still banks with Barclays and invites them to recruit students at events organized by CareerCentral.
After Extinction Rebellion UEA started and spearheaded the campaign, we subsequently formed a coalition with Decolonise UEA (DUEA) and Palestinian Solidarity Society. This was built on the fact that Barclays’ not only funds the fossil fuels industry but also has links with Israeli settlements and Israel’s arms trade, hence there is a decolonial stake in cutting ties with the bank.
DUEA gained currency with the vice-chancellor’s office when increased Israeli brutality against Palestinians dominated headlines in 2020. In an effort to appear on the right side of history, UEA met with DUEA activists campaigning for the university to divest from companies that fund the occupation of Palestine. Without firmly committing to anything, staff from the vice-chancellor’s office have said they are amenable to putting divestment from companies that fund the arms trade with Israel into the upcoming five year plan for the university. However, Chief Resource Officer and University Secretary Ian Callaghan stated that the university has no plans to stop banking with Barclays, when I asked him at the November 2021 Student Union Council meeting.
A further source of support for the campaign has been People and Planet. The group supported XR UEA’s Divest Barclays campaign in the academic year 2021/2022, while they were running their own “Divest Barclays” campaign. However, it was the last academic year they were running the campaign, meaning while People & Planet are still offering our campaign general advice and their Divest Barclays campaign resources are still available on their website, they cannot give us as much support as they could previously.
Despite everyone’s efforts on the campaign, UEA continues to offer mixed messages regarding its relationship to Barclays. In early 2021, the Barclays branch on campus closed. In 2019, the campaign saw a key success when UEA moved its endowment fund from Barclays to Cazenove following pressuring from XR UEA about two years ago
If we successfully push the university to stop banking with Barclays, the final step in divesting from them is barring Barclays from recruiting at careers events. XR UEA has written to the Vice Chancellor, David Richardson, twice about this. If we succeed in pushing the university to end its banking relationship with Barclays, we can turn our campaign into one of People & Planet’s “Fossil Free Careers” campaigns. This would entail campaigning for barring all banks that fund the fossil fuel industry, as well as the fossil fuel industry itself, from recruiting at careers events.
As well as obstacles from the University, the campaign has also had to navigate the complex ethics of in person activism during the current pandemic. During the 2021/2022 academic year, People & Planet would not endorse any in person protests. However, since I last spoke with a People & Planet representative, Fergus Green, in September 2021, he told me that the group were considering changing their position on in person events, following the availability of the COVID vaccination in Britain. While People & Planet took the decision to suspend in person protests, XR UEA did host some in person protests to push the university to divest from Barclays, however this was always in line with government rules for COVID safety. In fact, the biggest COVID risk I’ve incurred protesting against Barclays has been from detractors breaching the six feet guidelines, getting in my face to mock the protest. I understand this is a risk of in person campaigning, but it does not make me any less angry at the people who decided to risk my life, their life, and the lives of others to defend a bank financing climate change and the occupation of Palestine.
If you’re a UEA student or staff member, you can join XR UEA for free and follow us on Instagram (@uea_xr), Facebook (Extinction Rebellion UEA and XR UEA) and Twitter. If you’re a student at UEA, you can join DUEA for free on the uea.su societies page. You can follow DUEA on Instagram at @decoloniseuea.
Featured Image Credit: Howard Lake via Flickr; Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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