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GARA (Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action): everything you need to know

If you’re joining us at Goldsmiths this year, then you may have heard about the student occupation that took place at Deptford Town Hall last year. Check out this Guardian article. But if you didn’t, we think it’s important that you do because our Sabbatical Officers (past and current) were heavily involved, and we think it will help explain some of our SU priorities and plans for the year ahead. First up, a bit of background… 


What’s the history of Deptford Town Hall?

Deptford Town Hall is a Grade II listed building in the centre of New Cross and right by the University on New Cross road. If you haven’t been inside yet, it’s a pretty fancy building! It was built in 1905 as the civic centre of the Borough of Deptford. Four statues, designed by Henry Poole, were used to decorate the outside of the building. These statues depict four men:

  • Francis Drake 
  • Robert Blake
  • Horatio Nelson
  • A naval admiral with binoculars and a sextant (this is a representative statue, designed to portray an idea rather than a person)

The Borough of Deptford merged with Lewisham in the 1960s. In the late 1990s, Goldsmiths University acquired the building and it became part of the Goldsmiths campus. At that point, community and public access to Deptford Town Hall was restricted.


All great, except the statues are racist...

Three of the four statues represent men who played a significant role in the British slave trade and profited as a result:

  • Francis Drake was responsible for three royally-funded trips to West Africa, where he enslaved up to 1,400 people. He was a pioneer of the slave trade. 
  • Robert Blake fought the Dutch for possession of the trade triangle to secure the slave trade between England, West Africa and the Caribbean. 
  • Horatio Nelson actively campaigned against abolition and was a close friend of many of the Caribbean’s biggest slaveholders and plantation owners. 

Together the statues represent a history that Goldsmiths, with its reputation as a ‘progressive’ university, should not celebrate or commemorate. Their presence glorifies colonialism, racism and slavery.

@byebyefrancis, a student-run Instagram campaign to have the statues taken down, has more detailed info about the four men and why they should be removed from Deptford Town Hall. The university has also posted information about the history and context of the statues, helped by the research of Goldsmiths academics Joan Anim-Addo, Les Back and Paul Hendrich, on their website. This was done in response to the GARA demands (but we’ll get to those in a minute!)


A look back on past student occupations of Deptford Town Hall...

Over the past two decades Deptford Town Hall has been occupied several times by students and academics. In 2013 over 100 students occupied the hall in solidarity with striking lecturers and university staff. You can read about that here. It was occupied again in 2015 by students protesting department mismanagement (more info here).


But what happened most recently?

GARA, a Black + PoC led student protest group, began organising in March 2019 in response to racist attacks on a candidate in our SU elections. This proved a lightning rod for students to share experiences of racism on campus, and on the 12th March, GARA began an occupation of Deptford Town Hall in protest over the failure of senior management to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to tackling institutional racism on campus. The occupation, which lasted four-and-a-half months, was something we, Goldsmiths SU, backed. 

GARA had a list of demands to make to the College. These were: 


  1. Mandatory anti-racism training for ALL staff, including the Goldsmiths Senior Management team


  1. Employing BME wellbeing and counselling staff and implementing cultural competency training 


  1. For local residents of Lewisham borough to have access to Deptford Town Hall 


  1. To resolve issues with cuts to course contact hours on the Social, Therapeutic and Community Studies (STACS) Programme, a course studied by majority BME students 


  1. Annual fund designated for Black History events 


  1. Overhaul of curriculum, alongside a race audit on how best to decolonize the curriculum 


  1. To go forward with a reparative justice programme 


  1. Paid BME representatives for each department 


  1. Although cleaners, security and outsourced workers have been brought in house, they are still subject to poor working conditions 

For a more in-depth look at the occupation, the original GARA manifesto (with initial and revised demands clearly marked) is available if you’d like to read it. Go ahead and take a look!


What happened during the occupation?

Members of GARA were supported by University College Union (UCU), Justice for Cleaners and us, Goldsmiths SU. More than 300 staff members at the university also backed the occupation, as did local Lewisham MP Vicky Foxcroft.

During the occupation, Deptford Town Hall was a hub not just for activism but for the local community. Crucially GARA strived to cultivate a community beyond the institution that included the local community, so they held many events that were open to the public as well as to students. It was also a place where students came together and felt united. The LGBTQ+Society at Goldsmiths was also founded in Deptford Town Hall during this time. Those protesting created an amazing space - there were study rooms, quiet rooms, prayer and wellbeing rooms, and free food and drink. 

Here’s a vid of students protesting after 100 days of the occupation... 


How did the University respond? 

Goldsmiths University responded by attempting to legally evict the protesters from the building. This was the first time in history that the College had decided to take legal action against its own students for activism. The fact that they had never done so for the two previous occupations, which were mainly white-led, is another example of institutional racism on the part of the Senior Management Team (SMT).

Finally, after a mighty 137 days of occupation, the Warden and SMT agreed to the demands made by GARA. They signed a statement of commitment, which you can read in full, promising to work towards these demands to the best of their ability.


So where are we now? 

A year later, the university has still not yet met the demands they agreed to. So far, their promise has been empty words. We, the SU, reaffirmed these demands in a statement released on the 26th June 2020, where we called for the university to make reparations. GARA are also preparing an official statement, which we will share as soon as it is released.

This upcoming year, your Full-Time Sabbatical Officers - Lauren, Fowsia, Sara and Niquella - will be continuing with this work to meet the GARA demands. Sara, our Welfare and Liberation Officer, is keen to connect activist groups with students, staff and the wider community as a means to cultivate a collective community, for example. All four, plus SU staff members, are dedicated to making the SU truly committed to racial justice work so that we can lead with our value to be the 'leading SU for liberation.’ 


How could Goldsmiths University make reparations?

As was mentioned in the original statement by GARA, we can look to the reparations made by Glasgow University as a model for how this can be done here at Goldsmiths. 

Glasgow, like New Cross and Deptford, is a city historically tied to the slave trade. Like Goldsmiths the university was given what its principle and vice chancellor Anton Muscatelli describes as ‘significant financial support from people whose wealth came from slavery’.

After a year-long study to find out exactly how they benefited from slavery in the past, Glasgow University have pledged to raise £20m in research grants and gifts as part of a programme of restorative justice. This courageous example is one that we should follow.


And finally… 

That was just a brief overview of everything that took place last year but we hope it’s helped explain who GARA are, why the occupation took place and where we’re at now. While the occupation gained attention within both the walls of the university and within the national press, it has highlighted just how much work we have to do as an institution to understand racial justice and put it into action.