Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Oxford on Tuesday to demand that Oriel College take down its commemorative statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes, described by scholars as ‘the architect of apartheid’.
Protesters also called for the university to ‘decolonise’ and presented a list of demands which included the renaming of the Rhodes Scholarship, the establishment of a review committee to rethink the current curriculum and ‘permanent acknowledgement of Oxford’s role in colonial violence.’
Michael-Akolade Ayodeji-Johnson, a second-year PPE student at University College, said people of ‘all colours and all creed’ wanted Oxford to ‘recognise its role in being complicit in perpetuating the horrid, abhorrent records’ of men like Rhodes.
‘They’re failing to actually address these specific grievances by leaving these symbols up. The specific issue of anti-Blackness should be addressed in a much more bold and direct way,’ he added, although he said the protest made him feel ‘inspired, heard, and represented by the people and students of Oxford.’
The demonstration, organised by the Rhodes Must Fall movement, reignited a four-year struggle which has now gained traction following the wave of Black Lives Matter protests which have recently swept across the globe and protesters’ removal of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol on Sunday. A petition for the statue’s removal had more than 160,000 signatures at the time of writing.
Femi Nylander, a former Oxford student who has been a part of the movement since its initiation, said the statue represented ‘the ability to donate large amounts of money that you garner from horrific means.’
Rhodes believed that the Anglo-Saxon race was the superior of all the races, and pushed for white colonisation and for the expansion of the British empire, which had largely relied on slavery.
‘After the death of George Floyd, what we’ve seen is an overwhelming support for Black lives and this really was a continuation of that,’ Nylander added. ‘To see that turn out, from both people who were affiliated to the university and from people who were just from the town, was amazing.’
He said the university was characterised by its ‘apathy’ to the voices and feelings of Black students. ‘They’ve chosen to put money above our voices and so what we’re seeing now is a public outrage against that.’
Protesters chanted ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Take it down’, and also held a silence of eight minutes and forty-six seconds to pay tribute to George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for the same amount of time.
Hours before the protest, Oriel College issued a statement saying it ‘abhors racism’ and that ‘we continue to debate and discuss the issues raised by the presence on our site of examples of contested heritage relating to Cecil Rhodes.’
Former university student and ally of the movement, Kathryn Walton, said the university’s statements were ‘grossly vacuous and but a mere attempt at performative allyship’. She said that incidents she had witnessed as a student, including a white JCR member telling a woman of colour she should ‘go elsewhere’ if she was upset at the issues she faced, sent ‘a message to students of colour that white students are happy with the current endemic racism because it doesn’t affect them.’
She suggested this echoed the words of University Chancellor Chris Patten, who said Rhodes Must Fall supporters should ‘think about studying elsewhere’ and yesterday accused protesters of ‘hypocrisy’, claiming many had benefited from the Rhodes scholarship.
Nylander also highlighted incidents of racism he had faced at the university, including being stopped by porters on the way to tutorials and having a CCTV image of him circulated by Harris Manchester college urging students to be ‘vigilant’ as he might be an ‘intruder’.
Dr Simukai Chigudu, Associate Professor of African Politics at St Antony’s College, said faculty and students had long been calling for change but that the university still ‘does not understand racism on a structural and institutional level.’
Calls for the university to establish a more concrete framework to deal with incidents of racism have intensified after a racist comment was made during the Christ Church JCR hustings, in which a student compared Floyd’s killing to a flour shortage.
Following on from the controversy, nearly 10,000 students and organisations have signed an open letter to the university asking it to tackle systemic racism by improving the representation of Black students, removing symbols of imperialism and paying its workers the living wage. The decision to delay the publication of its Diversity Report also came under fire, as well as their condemnation of the no-platforming of Katie Hopkins and Amber Rudd.
Twenty-six councillors have now signed an open letter calling for Oriel to remove the statue, and city council leader Susan Brown said she had written to the college suggesting they apply for planning permission to have the removal approved.
‘The university should not be shy to acknowledge that there are deeply racist internal biases which affect the admissions process and the experiences of Black people at Oxford,’ said Ayodeji-Johnson. ‘What the university needs to do to support them is to first listen, first acknowledge and then begin the forum for discussion in order to take action.’
‘Change should have happened four hundred years ago. Substantive action should have been taken a long time ago,’ he added. ‘Why does change need to happen now? Because if not now, then when?’
When asked to comment, Oriel College said they did not have anything to add to their statement, and the university did not respond.