Staff in the Property Accounting Services office speak to activistsLouis Ashworth

Staff were barred from entering the University’s finance office this morning as a crowd of pro-divestment student activists formed a barricade.

Fifteen activists from Cambridge Zero Carbon Society, a pro-divestment campaigning group, met at the University offices at Greenwich House at 7:30am, walking in peacefully at first, then began tying door handles together behind them, gathering in a hallway from which the offices branched off, preventing staff members from entering the finance office.

Staff at other offices in the building continued working. A lift was initially blocked by belongings placed at the doors, but opened later for disabled staff members when students realised it was the only lift in the building.

A bright orange banner which read ‘Divest now, no to fossil fuels’ was strung across the doors as loud music played through the hallway.

Various finance offices are located in Greenwich House.University of Cambridge

Security was alerted within the first ten minutes of the blockade as staff knocked on the blocked doors, asking to get in. Staff members arriving for work were seen gathering outside the blocked doors, with others walking away from the main entrance.

One of the blocked doors was forced open by a staff member, leading students to block the entrance with their bodies as they spoke to a member of security.

The barricade continued for nearly five hours, largely undisturbed, until 12:30pm. At one point, activists were brought a unicorn cake by a student.

This morning’s barricade was arranged as one of Zero Carbon’s latest actions in the lead-up to a crucial University council meeting next Monday, the 23rd April.

Activists entered the finance office at 7:30 this morning.Louis Ashworth

Members are expected to decide at the meeting whether to divest from the University’s current direct holdings in fossil fuels, and indirect investments, which are managed externally, in thermal coal companies – a crucial moment in the debate about divestment following years of debate.

A spokesperson for the University told Varsity: “We’re aware of an ongoing incident at Greenwich House and security are on site managing the situation. We will update staff with any developments.”

One activist at the scene told Varsity: “We’re here today because we found out that on Monday, the University council is going to be receiving the divestment working group report and discussing divestment. We want to continue escalation, continuing to send a message that the climate is in crisis, it can’t be business as usual.”

A spokesperson for the society added: “These disruptions will only get bigger until there is a commitment to divest from fossil fuels. We will continue until they stop ignoring the democratic will of University members.”

Louis Ashworth
Bright orange Zero Carbon banners were hung across the doors.Louis Ashworth

Council members will discuss whether to divest based on the findings of the University divestment working group, established in May 2017, which will be published in a report presented at the meeting.

A draft of the working group report leaked to Varsity last month saw the working group recommend, at the time, a position of partial divestment, removing the University’s direct investments over which it has greater control, and committing not to invest in the “most polluting products” of tar sands and thermal coal now and in the future.

The unicorn cake, which was quickly eatenLouis Ashworth

The recommended position was described by student representative to the working group, Alice Guillaume, writing in Varsity, as a “[failure] to address the urgency of climate change and the injustices it engenders”, leading to her dramatic resignation from the group after almost a year of participation.

Speaking to Varsity ahead of Monday’s Council meeting, the remaining student representative to the working group, Umang Khandelwal, said she was “encouraged” by the report’s recommendations and “extensive consultation with the University community and related stakeholders”, urging Council members to adopt its recommendations.

Last month, 359 participants marched through Cambridge in what was Zero Carbon’s largest organised action to date, calling for ‘corporation Cambridge’ to divest.

The University come under scrutiny in the national media following last November’s Paradise Papers revelations of its £1.3m indirect investments in private equity firm Coller International, which are channelled chiefly to oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, and escalating action from staff and student activists in the last term.

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope came under fire last month at an open meeting attended by an estimated 550 staff and students as members of the audience directed their worries about climate injustice towards him, tensions peaking as they pushed for him to urge the University to divest and, failing which, voice a personal stance. The vice-chancellor responded by reaffirming the importance of the working group’s autonomy, remarking: “I think it’s really inappropriate to pre-judge what the governance will actually come up with.”

In a statement from Zero Carbon, organisers wrote: “Today we disrupt the finance office because this is at the forefront of the marketization of this university. On the behest of finance, the University management invests in catastrophic climate and social breakdown, overriding the democratic will of its members, all for the sake of profit.”

When asked about future action should the council decide not to fully divest, one activist told Varsity: “We’ll continue to escalate.”

A spokesperson for the group added: “We will continue to escalate our actions, disrupting University business as usual, until Council recognizes the scale of climate injustice, breaks its bonds with its perpetrators, and stands with the communities most affected by climate change.”