Life inside the Trinity BDS encampment

College has outlined its plans to cut ties to Israeli institutions. What was life like in the encampment that led to this unprecedented divestment?

Names have been changed for anonymity purposes 

“I wasn’t a Trinity student. So the only way I could actually get in was by sneaking in as an UberEats driver.”

These are the words of Gareth, who arrived at the Trinity Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) encampment on Saturday, May 4. Disguised as an UberEats driver, he carried a food delivery box on his back containing his sleeping bag and tent. As a non-student, he needed to get innovative. 

“I was very interested in the Palestine cause, so when this started up, there was only one thing I could do, which was to come up and try to get in here,” he said.  

Gareth is just one of approximately 100 protestors, composed of both students and non-students alike, who made the journey to the encampment to express their discontent with the College’s response to the war in Gaza. 

Upon approaching the steps of Fellows’ Square on May 6, Trinity News was greeted with something reminiscent of a 1970s San Francisco student protest against the Vietnam War. The sun was shining, people were sitting cross-legged on the steps of Fellows’ Square, singing songs and playing the guitar. 

Most strikingly, chalked on the ground outside of the Book of Kells were the words: “You are now entering Free Trinity”. Gareth was “pretty amazed by it all”. 

The protestors appeared to have settled into a routine at the encampment. Sharon, another non-student, said that “we wake up every morning at half nine, and we have breakfast, which is usually porridge or cereal”. The protestors will then have a meeting and “discuss what we’re going to do throughout the day,” she explained.  

“Everything’s extremely hygienic,” said Sarah, another non-student. She noted that on the first day of the encampment, there was only one toilet, but eventually more opened in the former Berkeley library. She also noted that protesters could avail of the showers in the Samuel Beckett Theatre. 

The encampment was divided into different committees: infrastructure, inventory, and outreach. 

“People tend to lean towards the things that you would like to do,” said Andrew, a Trinity student. He added that the committees are “free flowing”, with “no leadership structure”. 

“Being able to express your opinion to a group of your peers is a fantastic space to have, I wish it existed all the time, not just in the encampment” he added. He called the encampment a “community space”.

“I find myself waking up, and I want to do a job, I want to do a bit of washing up, or a bit of cleaning up,” he said. 

On this note, the protestors generally seemed to trust one another. Paula, a non-student, noted that things were being left in House 6 and House 7: “No one touches it,” she said. Sarah concurred, adding: “There’s never been any issues with people’s stuff going missing or being stolen.”

Sarah also shared how there was a “continuous flow of activities” running to keep the protestors occupied. She pointed to a sign with a list of events, including an Irish language workshop, a Dabke (traditional Palestinian dance) circle, and a guest talk from Helena Sheehan. Sarah noted how “Helena talked about her experience being a student activist, and how she’s still an activist in her old age, it was kind of inspiring”. 

Yousef, a Palestinian student, said that these events and activities make “the community grow way stronger”. He said that it’s “going to be good not just for the community within the camp, but community with the Trinity students and staff”. 

Protestors had varying understandings of the conflict within the camp, with Yousef stating that “not everyone has had the opportunity to sit down and really delve into this stuff”, so “a lot of people have a vague idea of Palestinian resistance”.  He added that he and other Palestinians in the encampment were “kind of help[ing] people understand”.

With talk of tensions between students and non-students, Yousef commented that “it’s not necessarily about students and non-students … It’s about building something that plays on our collective strength”. 

This was echoed by Sarah and Paula, with Sarah saying that the College administration asked that the encampment consist of “mainly Trinity students.” Some non-Trinity students were “offended by how it was phrased” and in response, student leadership on the encampment “further explained to us that we’re not kicking you out”.

Both women described the encampment as a “respectful space” where “everyone’s really calm, really chill”. 

The evenings normally rounded off with a meeting, which, according to Sharon, often lasted for hours. “We went to bed at half one the other night,” she said. 

Declan, a Trinity student noted that these meetings allow protestors to “discuss things collectively, while also, ascribing tasks to certain people who know what they’re doing”. He said that “we’ve definitely learned that things can go wrong. That just makes us stronger”. 

When it comes to winding down after these long meetings, the protestors seemed to have no complaints, despite the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. According to Sarah, “your shoulders start to hurt a little bit, but other than that it’s ok”.

The majority of people shared tents but she noted that “if you’re not comfortable, you don’t have to invite people into your tent”. She added that “everyone’s got their own space. Everyone’s comfortable. Everyone’s fine”. 

While the sense of community and plethora of daily activities seemed to have maintained the protestors’ morale, it was the support from the public, according to Declan, that encouraged them to stay in the encampment. He said that there had been “people chanting outside of the gate to Trinity for the last two days nonstop… to know that we are collectively inspiring this whole nation pretty much and even internationally is very inspiring, and it keeps us going.” 

This confidence was shared by Yousef, who felt that “there’s actually a tangible victory here… I’m really excited to get our demands concretized and pushing the college to actually follow through on them”. 

It seems that the day-to-day activities, meetings, and UberEats costumes were successful, as this “tangible victory” was achieved on the afternoon of May 8. 

As a result of the protestors’ commitment to fostering a sustainable encampment, College has agreed to work towards total divestment from Israeli institutions. The protestors will also be allowed to submit a proposal for the renaming of the former Berkeley library. 

Echoing her fellow protestors’ commitment to the cause, Trinity BDS Chair Isobel O’Duffy said that “BDS is not going anywhere. We’ll still be here to put pressure on College, so this is the start, not the end”.

The future of College’s reputation, and particularly that of Provost Linda Doyle, has been turned upside down in recent days. Edward, a protestor central to the encampment’s operation, shared that questions have been circulating regarding Doyle’s viability as provost among College’s board members. 

A Business Post article recently revealed that Trinity’s Fellows privately called on Doyle to rescind the €214,000 against Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), calling College’s communication strategy “poor”.

As of the evening of May 8, the encampment has been officially shut down with many left feeling optimistic about what is to come. The protestors accepted College’s terms for action after several meetings negotiating the end of the encampment. Andrew emphasised, however, that “there’s so much more work to do as the situation [in Gaza] is only getting worse”.

Gareth, Sharon, Sarah, Andrew, Paula, Yousef, Declan, and Edward are only a fraction of the over 100 students who participated in the encampment, and the hundreds more who supported from afar. 

If this last week has demonstrated anything, it is that the students’ efforts in collective action resulted in tangible change by focussing on the strength of community. 

Nothing is certain about the future of Trinity College Dublin. However, one thing is for sure: if the radical devotion and strength of will demonstrated by the protestors at this encampment is only the “start” for Trinity BDS, then we may only see more pressure placed on the College in the future. 

Kate Byrne

Kate Byrne is the Deputy Comment Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History and Political Science.

Ruby Topalian

Ruby Topalian is a Senior Freshman, Dual BA student of Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures. She is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, having previously worked as Deputy Societies Editor.

Gabriela Gazaniga

Gabriela Gazaniga is the Deputy Editor of News Analysis and is currently in her Junior Sophister year earning a degree in Law.