Freedom News

SHAG fights for Sheffield’s universities to dump the arms trade

Sheffield Action Group (SHAG), a queer youth-led direct action collective, largely focuses on anti-imperialist work at the city’s two universities. Here, they talk about how they campaigned over the course of a year.

Universities are active tools of the British State in its attacks on the Global South. Historic training grounds for colonial governors have moved to a more hidden but no less important role. UK universities are at the core of weapons development with research partnerships worth more than £500 million, alongside another £500m in investments, plus links between weapons manufacturers, the armed forces, and careers services.

The University of Sheffield (UoS) has received at least £72m from arms companies since 2012. They have financial ties to Rolls Royce, Boeing, BAE Systems, GKN, Caterpillar, Airbus, General Electric Aviation, QinetiQ, and the US and British militaries. The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), partly funded by Boeing, is located just outside Sheffield and is the crown jewel of the university’s complicity in the arms trade. Sheffield Hallam (SHU) is not much better, having industrial partnerships with JCB, Caterpillar, Volvo, Rolls Royce, and BAE Systems. Weapons produced with the aid of our universities have been used in Israel’s genocidal attacks on Palestine, and this is just the latest manifestation of their murderous potential.

BAE Systems has supplied weapons and logistical support to Saudi Arabia before, during, and after their bombing campaign in Yemen, which has seen 400,000 people killed and a further 17m forced into starvation — both Sheffield universities consider BAE a close research partner. Rolls Royce, too, holds various arms contracts with Turkey, which has consistently used targeted airstrikes on Kurdish communities in Rojava and Turkish-occupied Kurdistan. Even more directly, both universities work with the US and British military apparatus, which provides grants in return for research into more efficient war machines. This is why SHAG has been fighting for both of Sheffield’s universities to cut all ties with the arms trade and the Ministry of Defence for over two years. What follows is a summary of our actions over this time.

In March 2022, the Military Education Committee — a cross-university body working to recruit students into the military and establish institutional support for the military industrial complex — attempted to hold a “Leader’s Talk” behind a UCU picket line. The event was billed as a lecture, panel discussion, and networking event between the military, business, and higher education sectors alongside the vice-chancellors of both Sheffield universities. We occupied the lecture theatre where it was due to take place, unfurled a banner, chanted, and got the event cancelled.

In October 2022, we occupied the University of Sheffield’s £81m engineering building, “The Diamond”, and closed it for a week. The University did not regain control of the building until they went to court and brought in High Court Bailiffs to evict us — no doubt costing them tens of thousands of pounds. All a university understands is money; every penny our actions cost them will make them think again about taking money from arms manufacturers.

In November, we followed this occupation with another of a different building and then disrupted a careers fair. UoS’s careers service is responsible for pushing students into jobs in the military and its industrial complex alongside jobs in the fossil fuel sector. Unfurling banners and taking the stage and the mic, we took the opportunity to highlight the university’s relationship with Thales. This arms company has provided UoS with £1.1m in research funding. Thales in Britain builds the Watchkeeper drone, produced through a joint venture with Israeli arms company Elbit Systems. Their products have also been used by the Russian military in Ukraine. Finishing the month, our comrades at Sheffield Hallam launched an occupation of their Cantor building.

Thursday February 9th, and Friday 10th 2023, were University and College Union (UCU) strike days. They also happened to be the days that the University of Sheffield was hosting the Higher Education Strategic Planners Association, a part of the training and replication of higher education’s middle management, who are responsible for a large part of the running of the sector, containing many of its future leaders. The conference was due to be held in the Octagon, behind a UCU picket line — and Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts was billed to be giving the opening address on Thursday at 10:30 am.

Just before 9 am on the Thursday, a dozen Sheffield Action Groupers (SHAGers, if you will) walked through the front entrance of the Octagon, all dressed in sexy white overalls. The university’s security operations manager (and ex-cop), Simon Verrall, was on the doors. He took offence at our presence and began assaulting activists by grabbing and pushing us, with at least one person falling to the ground, in a violent but vain attempt to prevent our entry.

All this as the 20 UCU members who formed the special picket called to protest the event looked on in horror. After his own underling pointed out that he really shouldn’t be assaulting students and should instead “leave it to security”, former firearms commander and superintendent Verrall of South Yorkshire Police responded angrily with the admittedly quite funny line, “I AM security,” then finally relented. We spread across and occupied the building, taking entrances and deploying banners to block conference attendees from entering. The organisers were taken completely by surprise and, lacking a contingency plan, the event was cancelled several hours later. Koen never showed up, and his appearance was cowardly as soon as the occupation started. We left the occupation at 1 pm and had a lovely photoshoot with flares and banners in front of a buoyant crowd of striking staff.

In September, our activists disrupted a fresher’s fair at UoS. We know the army preys on the working class, but they also prey on students — recruiting us to be cannon fodder in service of imperialism. They had a stand at a fresher’s fair, trying to sign up students before their university education had even begun. With how they’d positioned themselves, it was all too easy to get a banner in place above them and leaflet the crowd below, which they certainly weren’t happy about!

To kick off the academic year, we occupied the Arts Tower (the tallest university building in England) for three days over the University of Sheffield’s ties with the arms trade. We forced the university to hire expensive private security to monitor our movements 24/7 to intimidate us, but we still succeeded in shutting down the building’s normal operations. They stole our banners, shut off electricity and stopped outside food deliveries (although they failed to realise we could lift food up through the windows). On the final day, they discovered we were in the boardroom (where we’d been since the beginning), and the security operations manager, Simon Verrall, laughably concluded we must have crawled through a non-existent roof space.

We followed this up in October with a blockade outside another career fair at UoS. Unfortunately, our universities still willingly act as recruiting grounds for the companies arming some of the globe’s most genocidal regimes in defence of Western capital — but whilst they do so, we will continue our fight against this process.

November saw the University of Sheffield hold an open ceremony for its latest vanity project, a new £99m building. “The Wave” is supposedly net-zero, but it had to be knocked down once because it literally sank into the ground. The ceremony had planned speeches from Deputy Vice Chancellor Gill Valentine, as well as champagne and a big cake in the shape of the building. Around 70 students made it inside with banners and megaphones, calling out the university’s ties to the arms trade and complicity in the Israeli genocide of Palestinians and successfully getting the event cancelled.

Wrapping up the year, we decided Chris Husbands, vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, did not deserve a leaving party. Alongside ties to arms companies, Hallam has received numerous investments from dodgy companies that support the killing of refugees and the expansion of the carceral state. Under the leadership of Chris Husbands, this has increased.

The day began at 12 pm with a demonstration outside Sheffield Hallam University’s Owen Building in solidarity with Palestine, and we thought it impolite not to pay Husbands a visit at his leaving ceremony, which was being held inside. All students and staff were invited after all, including us. The university was already spooked, with a horde of security thugs standing guarding the doors to welcome us into the building. A short walk later around the back of the building, we quickly found the atrium where the event would be held. Our hosts didn’t expect us, so we announced our presence with a megaphone, yelling chants in solidarity with Palestine. Curious students appeared at the balconies, looking down at the ensuing security chaos. After a couple of minutes, they realised we weren’t leaving and began packing away their champagne glasses and canapés onto trollies.

However, we knew we couldn’t stop at disruption — we needed to completely prevent the event from taking place. After a short game of cat and mouse, it didn’t take long before SHAGers had blocked both entrances into the new venue at Hallam Hall with a banner. Security clearly didn’t know how to handle us, so they called for reinforcement from our old friend Simon Verrall, security operations manager at the University of Sheffield. Sadly, Verrell seemed shy and didn’t say hi. We even had a visit from pigs in uniform, who came to stare and point at us but realised they couldn’t do much to stop our protest against genocide. Five hours after gathering outside the Owen Building, we clocked off and went to the pub for a pint and chips.

~ Sheffield Action Group

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