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University of Sheffield threaten staff and students with legal action unless they leave anti-apartheid protest by 8pm tonight

Protestors have been told they will have the electricity supply cut off, despite the university appearing to acknowledge that this will put the camp at risk.

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Activists putting up posters during the last open day on 22 June.

SCCP.

Staff and students protesting against the University of Sheffield’s (UoS) links with the ongoing genocide in Gaza have been threatened with legal and disciplinary action unless they vacate a long-running protest camp by 8pm tonight (Tuesday 26 June).

Members of the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine (SCCP) were handed a letter this morning from the university’s chief operating officer Rob Sykes, which states that access to electricity and toilet facilities would be cut off later that day if they did not dismantle the camp.

Bizarrely, despite the letter coming from a senior member of university management, it was printed as plain text on blank paper rather than with an official university letterhead, as would be custom for communications from senior staff.

Now Then asked UoS whether this was because they did not want the university’s brand associated with the threatening contents of the letter, but they did not respond to this specific point.

For months, both staff and students at the university have been protesting against the institution’s research ties to companies that produce aerospace technology used by the Israeli military to murder civilians in Gaza.

Letter 1

The first page of the letter given to activists this morning by Rob Sykes.

Letter 2

The second page of the letter.

The university has accepted at least £72 million in investment from companies involved in manufacturing deadly weapons since 2012. openDemocracy report that over the past five years, UoS have received more funding from weapons manufacturers than any other UK university. The SCCP recently published a Genocide and Apartheid Complicity Report, which provides a comprehensive overview of the university’s links to companies like Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems.

Members of the encampment have called on the university to divest from companies that manufacture weapons, and have also demanded that the institution sever all ties with Israeli universities. Since the start of the encampment the SCCP have repeatedly asked for a meeting with university management, a request which has so far been ignored.

“War is a bad thing”

It appears that the sudden move to clear the anti-apartheid encampment, which has occupied the concourse outside the Students’ Union since 1 April, is linked to a series of open days for prospective new students, and that the university may be worried about damage to its reputation from the ongoing protests.

The next open day for undergraduate students is due to take place next Saturday, 6 July.

According to representatives of the SCCP, the university made efforts to cover up the encampment ahead of the last open day on Saturday 22 June. Videos taken by activists show university cleaning staff washing away messages of solidarity written in chalk on the concourse.

They also say that university staff instructed student ambassadors, who are paid to show prospective students and their families around campus, to hide the institution’s links to weapons manufacturers.

Now Then has been shown an email sent by a university staff member to student ambassadors ahead of the open day. It informs them that the university has changed its plan “to deal with the mess on the concourse”, but asks them not to “share this information beyond the [student ambassador] team.”

“What we want to do is be inspiring, as you always are, and avoid fixating on the issues,” it continues. “If there are questions from visitors about disruptions, answers are simple and constructive.”

“The camp out is vocalising concerns about the war in Gaza. Some of the messaging is confused as The University is not involved in arms manufacture and does not finance such things, but we agree that war is a bad thing and the University fully supports freedom of speech.”

But, what university staff were instructing student ambassadors to say is not true.

In 2022, a Freedom of Information request revealed that the university has received at least £72 million in investment from companies involved in manufacturing weapons and military technology since 2012. While some of this research has civilian uses, much of the same research will also have military uses.

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Activists have camped outside the Students' Union since 1 April.

SCCP.

“So just be brilliant!” the message to ambassadors concludes. “The University came to us to solve the concourse mess because Bioscience recruitment sets the standard.”

The SCCP also say they witnessed other low-level attempts by the university to disrupt the encampment and to hide protests ahead of the last open day. They say that from 3am that morning until the end of the day, in-house security watched over cleaning staff as they removed posters and stickers in the middle of a heatwave.

Without warning, the university also closed five of their flagship buildings, including The Wave, The Diamond and the Arts Tower, at midday on Friday 21 June, instructing staff to work from alternative locations, to minimise the possibility of disruption from protestors. This has been confirmed to Now Then by a university academic.

Threat of retribution

This morning’s letter from Sykes suggests a hardening of the university’s attitude towards both its own staff and students who have raised grave concerns about the ethics of the institution, and its involvement with companies complicit in possible crimes against humanity.

“Despite previous instances of disruption to University business, including but not limited to the protest activity that led to the cancellation of the Education Awards event on 8 May, and incidents of damage to University buildings, we have supported your right to protest in the interests of freedom of speech and association,” reads the letter.

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Campaigners are calling on the university to divest from weapons manufacturers.

SCCP.

But later it states: “As the University prepares for the summer period, we are no longer able to sustain practical support of the camp.”

Now Then asked UoS for evidence of the “damage to University buildings” referred to by Sykes, and they told us that this referred to red paint thrown over Firth Court (a Grade II listed building).

The letter goes on to state that unless participants leave “safely and peacefully” by 8pm tonight, the university “intends to start legal proceedings”. The letter also suggests that if activists leave by this deadline “the University will not commence disciplinary proceedings against any student for their involvement in this camp” – implying that they go ahead with this if the camp remains in place.

Sykes states that members of the camp “will no longer be able to use our facilities” (referring to bathrooms and toilet facilities), despite the fact that most members of the camp are either students attending or staff working at the university itself.

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Activists adding the names of destroyed Palestinian towns to university signposts.

SCCP.

Alarmingly, the letter tells members of the camp that up until this point “we have not prevented your use of a power supply, in part to reduce other risks”. This suggests that when they withdraw the power supply to the concourse area “at a time of our choosing”, they will be knowingly exposing remaining members of the camp to risk.

“Any future attempt to use the University’s power supply from any source, including the Student’s Union [sic], may constitute a criminal act,” the letter continues.

Voice spoofing

Part of the justification for the university’s change of approach appears to be a video released by the SCCP, aimed at prospective students, which mocks the university’s ties with weapons manufacturers.

“While protest activity at last weekend’s open day was largely peaceful, we are concerned that a video shared on the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine social media accounts used misleading AI-generated audio, and University-owned video footage featuring staff and students and University branding without permission," reads the letter.

The video this refers to, posted on 21 June with the title ‘WELCOME TO THE (real) UNIVERSITY OF SHEFFIELD!’, features a clip of vice-chancellor Koen Lamberts that has been edited using AI-powered voice spoofing technology.

In the 50 second clip, AI voiceover technology satirises Lamberts as saying: “You are now part of an international community studying at our world-class university that proudly holds the title of the most complicit in the Palestinian genocide in the UK. Get ready to learn from passionate arms companies at the cutting edge of their disciplines, who will prepare you for a truly rewarding career as a cog in the military-industrial machine.”

The video is clearly a satire, and is flagged up as such by being posted on the SCCP account. No attempt is made to convince anyone that this is an official UoS product, which makes Skyes’ claim that the clip is “misleading” appear disingenuous.

Representatives of the SCCP told Now Then that the university had emailed them last night demanding that they take the video down, but that “in the context of the University stubbornly ignoring and silencing peaceful protestors, we can only consider this engagement a victory.”

“Prospective students have a right to know that the institution to which they are considering committing themselves has a poor human rights record on multiple fronts: it is complicit in the genocide of the Palestinian people and seeks to punish all those who speak out against its bloodstained record. Current students have a right to freedom of speech and freedom of protest. As such, we will of course not be removing our video.”

A spokesperson for the SCCP also confirmed to Now Then that they would not comply with the university’s request for them to leave the camp by 8pm tonight.

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Some of the posters added by activists to the concourse during the last open day.

SCCP.

“The university's tactics of intimidation are not working – we are not going anywhere until our demands are met,” they said. “As we reminded Rob Sykes in our reply this afternoon, a simple, democratic and peaceful option for ending our protest remains open to the university: agreeing to meet with us and accede to our demands.”

They called on supporters of the camp across the city to monitor their social media channels for urgent call-outs for help, and to attend a rally outside the Students’ Union tomorrow evening at 5pm “in defiance of the university’s threats.”

Dr Valerie Hobbs, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the university, told Now Then that today was one of the "finest moments" of the two month-long encampment.

"These brave students have acted with tremendous integrity, inclusiveness and focus in their mission in support of the people of Palestine and against the horrific acts of violence against them by the state of Israel along with the university's complicity in the arms trade.

As a long-standing staff member, I am ashamed of the university leadership's unwillingness even to recognise the camp's existence, let alone engage with the camp's demands."

The University of Sheffield have been approached for comment.

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