Students at UQ revolt in historic stand for Palestine

30 May 2024 Duncan Hart –

Students vote for divestment at UQ PHOTO: Supplied

More than 1,500 students attended a student general meeting at the University of Queensland (UQ) on 29 May, the largest student meeting in Australia in decades. The meeting voted overwhelmingly to stand in solidarity with Palestine and against university cooperation with Israel and the weapons companies that are enabling and profiting from Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

The meeting was the culmination of a month-long Gaza solidarity encampment organised by Students for Palestine. Like student encampments all over the world, the UQ one has called for the administration to divest from Israel.

A particular focus of student anger is the presence of the Boeing Centre on campus, a symbol of the partnership between the university and the US multinational Boeing. Boeing is the fourth largest arms dealer in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, with an annual revenue from weapons sales of US$29.3 billion. As reported by CNN, it was a “high-precision munition” built and sold by Boeing that Israel used to murder at least 45 people in a tent city in Rafah on 26 May.

The student general meeting, which is an extraordinary meeting held under the rules of the UQ student union to determine the official attitude of the student body, was requisitioned by a petition of more than 1,200 students collected by Students for Palestine. Three questions were posed to the meeting:

1. Should UQ sever ties with companies that supply weapons to the Israeli Defence Force?

2. Should UQ shut down the Boeing Centre?

3. Should UQ financially divest from Israel?

When registration for the meeting opened, the line to get into the UQ Centre, with a maximum capacity of 600, stretched for hundreds of metres. By the time the meeting began at 6:45, the venue was full and the line outside totalled 850 people.

In the end students occupied three more overflow lecture theatres and the numbers lining up to register continued to grow right up until the vote was taken inside. Everywhere, the sentiment from students was the same: “Will we be able to vote?”, and “We didn’t come here just to watch”.

A small group of Zionists inside the lecture theatre attempted to win students away from supporting Palestine. Despite being offered many chances to speak against the motions, only one took the chance. He was listened to in silence but failed to make an impact: it was the pro-Palestine speakers that generated all the applause.

It was Ella Gutteridge, an activist with Socialist Alternative and Students for Palestine, who summed up the sentiment for the “Yes” case. “I think that students should come to university to learn to make the world a better place, not a worse place” she declared to the cheering crowd. “We should not accept that we come here, we keep our heads down, we study, and we go and be quiet worker bees for Australian capitalism. [cheers] Actually, students have the responsibility to not become complicit in the war machine! [loud cheers] And this is not a new argument. I am sure people in this room know of the radical history of students, standing up for justice, for humanity, against the crimes of our ruling classes, all around the world. [applause]…That’s what we need to do, again, today, for Palestine. Just like we did for South Africa, just like we did for Vietnam, we need to make these disgusting states, these genocidal, apartheid states, we need to make them pariahs in the world system. And any company that wants to work with them, any company that wants to arm them, they need to become a pariah too!”

When the vote was taken the chorus of “yes” votes shook the entire room. Outside, as hundreds more students milled around, still trying to register, a vote was called by show of hands and a forest of arms rose. When those against were asked to vote, not a single hand was raised.

With the atmosphere electric, a victory march to the chancellery took place, stretching from one end of the campus to the other. The chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”, and “Out, out, Israel out!” were roared by more than a thousand students despite the efforts of the university to forbid them the week before. After a few more speeches, students marched back to the camp elated.

This historic student protest for Palestine is the largest demonstration at UQ since protests against the Springbok tour and in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in 1971. At that time, mass meetings of thousands of students voted to boycott classes for two weeks in protest at police violence meted out to demonstrators.

This is also the second student general meeting in just five years at UQ, with a meeting of 400 students in 2019 voting to reject the university’s plans to demolish the student theatre and establish a Bachelor of Western Civilization in partnership with the right-wing think tank, the Ramsay Centre.

This revival of student activism is clearly part of the international student revolt in solidarity with Palestine, with thousands of students at campuses all over the world taking part, including many in Australia. At the same time, it is a credit to the hard work of the activists on the ground, who have been working together tirelessly to keep the camp going and to raise awareness and organise opposition to the genocide in Gaza.

The ball is now firmly in the university’s court. Vice Chancellor Deborah Terry, while finding time to send frequent student and staff emails about “security and safety” around the encampment, has not so far acknowledged the demands of the camp. This mass demonstration of students puts the administration under even greater pressure to respond.

Encouraged by this huge show of support, campus Palestine activists are vowing to continue the fight for justice in Palestine, and against university cooperation with and support for Israel.