Why the occupation supporting Luqman Onikosi WAS productive, and why those who think it wasn’t shouldn’t feel afraid to speak out
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
On Friday 11th March, a Politics student by the name of Lucy Williams wrote an article published in The Badger opposing the occupation of the university management conference centre inside Bramber House by a group of students.
She cast doubt on both the “method” and the “motives” of protesters, and added that the “demands” were “ludicrous”.
Almost as immediately as the article was published, the intolerant insolence of the Sussex left reared its ugly head. How dare The Badger publish such a controversial piece which threatens the momentum of the campaign to stop the deportation of Luqman Onikosi…
Time and time again, The Badger’s Editor Harry Howard calmly called for those who agreed with the occupation to step forward and present their own case.
Lucy Williams hadn’t written before, and she pitched the article having not received any poking from anybody inside The Badger seeking some controversial click-bait.
However, this sadly didn’t prevent a savage reaction from a number of students. Yet, it’s been nearly a week and no article has come forward.
With nobody grasping the nettle, I have brought it upon myself to come forward to defend what I believe to have been an occupation which really made a genuine, and positive, impact, on the campaign to save a Sussex student.
So, here goes. On Friday 11th March, I sat in a radio studio broadcasting with a few pals while I heard that the many, many students occupying Bramber House had voluntarily walked out. At first I was confused. But having had time to reflect, it’s become clear to my mind that – from a strategic point of view – I don’t think the student protesters have put a foot wrong.
First, the third-floor conference rooms at Bramber House were the most viable, and least destructive, venue to occupy. With the balcony overlooking students, it’s also pretty visible.
This was no “nostalgic trip”; students are (rightly, in my view) concerned about the degree of control the Home Office has over Sussex. I’m not a huge fan of protests; they have their place, but in 2014, I was slammed by Owen Jones on Twitter for being pictured shaking hands with the Conservative Society President in my official capacity as Labour Society President when I spoke out against the flash occupations of lecture theatres.
What that did was alienate students and disturb their costly learning. But in this case, I find it very difficult to see the argument that the protests and occupation could have been ‘counter-productive’.
Indeed, the target was partly management, because of their unwillingness to release a statement backing Luqman, either brought about by irrational paranoia, or a genuine threat from the Home Office. This is about potentially saving a fellow student’s life; we understand why certain students are going to these lengths.
Second, Lucy Williams mentions there could be a “more productive methods of protest”, citing the Home Office, Westminster, or Theresa May’s constituency office as potential sites.
One of the students involved in organising the protests, Max O’Donnell Savage, told me that such protests are likely to take place over the coming weeks. But in my mind, Bramber House was the perfect place to start: it was meant to send a message to Vice-Chancellor et al and hold them accountable over this issue.
In the past, the VC has been open about his disdain towards the government’s treatment of international students. What has changed? Is there something we don’t know about? Supposing I know all there is to know about this case, I don’t see why the Sussex management are worried about releasing a statement simply disagreeing with the ruling of the Home Office and independent judge intent on removing Luqman; after all, it is harsh, and such a statement is likely to help this story climb the news agenda.
The Sussex University statement could read something like: “While our hands are tied by the Home Office, we would love to be in a position to allow a talented student to complete their Masters degree not least because he is a valued member of the Sussex academic community and we are disappointed with the ruling.”
Such a statement would not be grounds for the Home Office to suspend the VISA status of all international students. The Home Office’s 12-month VISA ban on international students at London Met was completely different.
At London Met, a “significant proportion” of students did not have sufficient English and there was no proof that half of those sampled were turning up to lectures. Unlike London Met, which was a troubled institution in 2012, Sussex is thriving and – whichever way you look at it – Luqman Onikosi has made an immense economic, social and cultural contribution to British society.
UK PLC, as John McDonnell refers to us as, would lose millions of pounds of revenue if an institution like Sussex had to stop attracting international students.
Academics, students, parents and the public at large would react with venom. So, the protesters’ call for the university to release a statement is not unrealistic and entirely reasonable.
I’m still baffled as to why the university hasn’t spoken out in support, not just sympathy, of Luqman. I’m also baffled as to why the Students’ Union hasn’t collectively supported the occupation.
Third, the Home Office have demonstrably made exceptions in cases such as Luqman’s; they did recently with Myrtle Cothill, a severely-ill 92-year-old widow who until last week was on the brink of deportation to South Africa where she has no relatives.
But the Home Office have effectively dropped their case after an outcry from the public. They should do the same with Luqman Onikosi, who I think is an incredibly strong individual, has a huge future ahead of him. If he stays in Britain, he can have a liver transplant and contribute to our society like he has been doing.
As such, the occupation provided the campaign with more media coverage than it has had, with the likes of The Guardian, The Independent, The Huffington Post and ITV News picking up on the story.
Since the occupation, thousands more people have signed the E-petition which requires 10,000 signatures for the Home Office to make another public statement about the status of Luqman Onikosi.
If the petition gets to 100,000 signatures, it’ll be discussed in parliament. In my opinion, the students involved in protest are making mistakes, but all in all, I think we should salute every single one of them for the effort they’ve made to put into this extremely important campaign on the map.
Without them, I don’t see this campaign being in anywhere near the position it is now. So, this is why I believe, contrary to Lucy Williams,that this campaign is broadly moving in the right direction; #DontDeportLuqman has already attracted the signatures of hundreds of academics across the country; now it needs the support of the student body, the people of Brighton and the people of Britain. We all need to organise and unite against this harsh and insensitive ruling; we have momentum.
But while I hope this campaign only gets bigger and bigger, it won’t do so if certain students – like the former Returning Officer, a Residential Adviser who ran for the USSU President – keep trying to suppress open discussion about the campaign. I believe there’s something quite wicked about individuals or groups who expect dissenting voices who don’t believe in their campaign to simply stay silent (it appears the values of the Soviet Union, which we thought dead, were actually dormant and have been revived here at the University of Sussex).
Trying to silence students like Lucy Williams, who have admirably come forward to engage in the issue in our campus newspaper, is as counter-productive to the campaign as it is dangerous to free-speech.
So many students I’d describe as being on the illiberal left believe every student should comply to their own moral standards, and such expected compliance is an affront to the very foundations universities were built on.
This institutional illiberalism, a cancer at the heart of Sussex, is the reason why I and many other young social democrats have coexisted more comfortably with students on the centre-right of the political spectrum at Sussex.
I feel I can discuss my ideas freely without the expectation that I must conform to middle-class semantic niceties. This widespread expectation among the Sussex community that all students should robotically comply to other students with silly hair speaking through a megaphone is dangerous and, paradoxically, damaging to any big campaign such as this and all of our ambitions.
This campaign is enormously symbolic, and to undermine it by dividing ourselves is crazy. If you care about Luqman and you can’t bring yourself to tolerate those who disagree with your strategy and others who display more nuanced arguments about what’s happening to international students, tuition fees and the like, you probably shouldn’t be here.