Divestment activists stage rally outside Charles Stewart Building

Several dozen divestment activists staged a sit-in outside the Charles Stewart Building on Chamber Street this morning, swarming various entrance points to the building in protest of the University of Edinburgh’s fossil fuel investment policies.

Sporting bright red clothing and face paint and bundled against the morning wind, protesters gathered in groups to express their dissatisfaction with the pace of the university’s fossil fuel divestment plan, and what they characterised as an inadequate implementation strategy.   The protest, organised by anti-fossil fuel organisation People & Planet, lasted four hours and effectively shut the building down, according to the organisation.

“We’re here because we want the university to commit to categorically divesting from all fossil fuels and arms companies,” Nuri Syed Corser, third year anthropology and politics student and People & Planet spokesperson told The Student.

“This is very much about putting it back on the agenda, because [the university] is not engaging.”

Hannah Roques, third year English literature student and People & Planet organiser, expressed agreement, describing the protest as a response to what she saw as a tepid university approach.

“[The university] is obviously not going far enough and that’s what this action is about today,” she told The Student.  “It’s about saying that only divesting from the worst fossil fuel companies and arms companies is not really acceptable because they are all really really terrible and really detrimental.”

Staged outside the university’s primary finance building, the demonstration acted as a visual retort to a university investment policy announcement earlier this week.

On Tuesday, the university released an updated ethical investment policy carrying more stringent procedures for fossil fuel investments, including a transfer of current investments into a fund for closer ethical scrutiny and a new threshold to eliminate companies with more than a 20 per cent involvement in the arms trade.  The changes also included planned expansions into “social impact investing” and provisions to allow for increased student participation in investment decisions.

In a press release announcing the decision, the university characterised its decision as responsible and in line with its values and mission.

“The University’s commitment to responsible investment is tangible and underpins our stated values and our mission,” it said. “Significant progress has been made to date and work continues to ensure that the informed decisions taken by the University Court are quickly and effectively implemented.”

Activists acknowledged the steps put forward by the university as positive.  But they claimed that much had been left unaccomplished, and painted the current decision-making process as opaque and unhelpful.

“For us, the divestment campaign is about symbolism,” Roques told The Student.  “We want our public institutions to say publicly: ‘We’re not okay with these industries that are destroying the planet and fuelling conflict around the world.  That’s one of the main parts about the divestment movement—it’s a public shift.”

“We recognise that just a few institutions  taking their money away isn’t going to stop the industry, but what it’s about is taking away their confidence and their social legitmacy away,” Roques continued.  “So it’s absolutely not okay for Edinburgh to be sneaking its investments out bit by bit, because what we want is to show unequivocally that this is not okay.”

Pressed on the specifics of the university’s policy announcement, Roques said People & Planet took issue with the 20 per cent threshold for evaluating companies involved in arms.

“Our call in terms of companies producing armaments is that we want turnovers of over five percent,” she told The Student.

A university spokesperson was unavailable to comment on the protest and statements of People & Planet at time of press.

With hand painted banners and human barricades at the door, the demonstration harkened back to turbulent scenes from last spring, when activists from People & Planet stormed the entrances to Charles Stewart and occupied the main foyer for ten days.  The controversial course of action vaulted the campaigners into the national spotlight, and, activists say, provided the catalyst for the university to follow through on its promise to divest fully from coal and tar sands companies.

But despite its confrontational character, the atmosphere at Chamber Street on Friday was collegial and at times jovial.  Volunteers handed out baked goods to demonstrators squatted on the Charles Stewart steps.  Guitars and fiddles mixed alongside chants and megaphones, as onlookers lingered to take pictures.  A police van loomed in the distance, but security measures were otherwise light.

Representatives from People & Planet emphasised that the protest was a one day event in observance of Go Green week, a national event by their parent organisation.

“Today it’s just about putting on a protest,” Syed Corser told The Student.

“It’s the same aim we had in the spring.  But now we’re just trying to push it to the end.”

Image: People & Planet

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