Kate Bradley reports on recent Palestine campaigning in Greater Manchester, where campaigners defeated the University of Manchester over censorship and occupied the Elbit arms factory in Oldham.
Manchester’s Palestine Action and Palestine Solidarity Campaign have been busy lately. Recently, pro-Palestine campaigners organised to prevent the censorship of Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery in South Manchester, and on 23 August, two protesters occupied the roof of the Elbit Systems weapons factory in Oldham again. On 24 August, a protest took place in solidarity with the protesters and against the use of British-made weapons in the occupation of Palestine.
Defending the Cloud Studies exhibition
Cloud Studies looks into the clouds of chemicals used by states and capital over the last decade, both to repress and control protesters and to make profits, two intimately linked endeavours. From Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’, where chemicals from industry fill the air with toxic chemicals that increase disease and illness in the local population, to the noxious gases spread by manmade forest fires in Indonesia, to chemicals sprayed on crops in Palestine, the artists use visualisations to help audiences conceptualise the scale of the harms done by this chemical warfare. Over the images, there is an explicitly anti-colonial script, helping contextualise the harms caused by states and capital within histories of colonial occupation and extractivism, while linking them together through confluences in tactics of oppressors the world over.
In this context, criticism of Israel in the exhibition cannot be framed as exceptionalist – the only exceptionalism would be in preventing Israel’s crimes from standing amongst other state violence in the exhibition.
I went a few weeks ago to see the exhibition unimpeded, then in mid-August, the group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLI) applied pressure to the Whitworth – linked to the University of Manchester – to remove a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people from the exhibition. After the artists’ refusal to allow the statement to be removed, the exhibition was closed. This and a campaign of pressure from Palestine campaigners, including a demonstration outside the gallery, led to the University reopening the exhibition uncensored.
In a template response to emails from activists, the University conceded:
‘The Whitworth must remain mindful of artistic freedoms and the various duties which apply across the work of the gallery, including rights around freedom of speech and expression and academic freedom. These rights must be considered alongside other rights and obligations, including those under equality laws.
Importantly, the Cloud Studies exhibition is shown in the protective and academic environment of a University gallery, and within the context of a history of art that has always encompassed provocation and challenge. Museums and galleries have traditionally been a space of experimentation and challenge and the Whitworth is a place where we may be able to debate, discuss and disagree well, within a safe and empathetic environment.’
Unfortunately, the University had added a second statement offering an ‘opposing view’ to pacify UKLI and others campaigning against Palestine activists’ free speech. UKLI have proudly posted about this ‘rebuttal’ on their website, but on my re-visit recently, I didn’t spot it, and the towering video display remained on show.
Occupying Elbit Systems
This win for Palestine campaigners was followed hot on the heels by 23 August’s occupation of the Elbit Systems factory in Oldham, which has repeatedly been targeted by protesters as the source of weapons used against Palestinian people. Four protesters were arrested and held in custody, two until the following day, when a further protest took place outside Elbit. After this second demonstration, some went to the police station where the prisoners were being held to provide support if they were released. Over the last year, over 100 activists have been arrested for Palestine offences, but organisers tell me all charges have either been dropped or the cases are still waiting to get to court. There are pros and cons to going to court: it’s a lengthy and often disempowering undertaking, but getting to the courtroom enables activists to loudly proclaim their reasons for protesting – something I doubt weapons manufacturers and the UK and Israeli governments are keen to enable.
Cairo House, where the Elbit Systems factory is situated, is an unassuming building, large but with no explanatory signs, no adverts indicating what it makes. When I arrived, red paint from previous trips was still visible on upper factory windows and the steps leading to the building. Around 100 of us – including many families with young children, and others with excitable dogs – were protesting outside. Small numbers of police kept an eye on us from a safe distance, but didn’t intervene when we briefly took the road. Between short speeches, we chanted: ‘Free free Palestine!’ ‘Stop arming Israel! Stop bombing Gaza!’ ‘Elbit out of Oldham!’
rs21 hosted an interview with activists from Palestine Action this year. One of the activists told us: ‘While I agree that shutting it down for a day or two once a year wouldn’t be sufficient to actually hit their profits enough, it’s unprofitable for the company if their reputation is damaged. The power of direct action is, we don’t have to wait around to ask the Government to shut these sites down. If we built a movement big enough to shut down a factory day in, day out, the next week we’re back, two weeks later we’re back, they would have to shut down.’
There has been a recent resurgence in Palestine activism in Manchester following Israel’s fresh attacks on Palestine in recent months. Large numbers of protesters filled the streets several weekends in a row from May to June to protest bombing and violence in the West Bank. However, as one organiser today pointed out, these waves ebb and flow, prompted by the news cycle – yet more than 50 turn up to Elbit Systems every week on Tuesdays at 3.30pm to continue the struggle against those who profit from Israel’s violence. Members of Manchester rs21 join them whenever we can.