OXFORD, UK — “We don’t want solidarity without action,” shouts a young Oxford University student responding to a City Council official. It’s Friday, June 26 — the end of the hottest week in Britain so far this summer. Normally a large crowd would either signify a barbecue or a beer garden. But this is no picnic; it’s a protest outside of the university’s Oriel College.
“What is the point of talking to institutions which refuse to hear the views of the people?” continues the protester. They are one of many gathered outside the venerable institution’s college, who are concerned about Oxford’s review of its controversial statue of nineteenth-century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
Born in 1853, Rhodes was a textbook white supremacist, who wholeheartedly believed in an innate racial superiority of Anglo-Saxons, and that such gave them the right to colonize the world. “Africa,” he wrote in 1877, “is still lying ready for us; it is our duty to take it.” His brutal annexations and the racist laws he passed as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (modern South Africa) led to the majority of its land and resources being controlled by a tiny white minority. He provoked harsh criticism even during his own lifetime; one obituary described Rhodes’ every action as unleashing an “unbroken sequence of evil.”
The demonstrations in front of Oriel are the first of the “Freedom Summer” planned by the activist group Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMFO). The group is concerned that Oriel’s independent commission, set up on June 17th to “deal with the issue of the Rhodes legacy,” is stalling for time. The Oxford City Council’s planning process does not require a college commission’s findings to act on the statue, however, and Oriel’s decision to establish one could prolong the overall decision by three years.
Oriel’s commission was announced ten days after a Black Lives Matter protest toppled an enslaver’s statue in Bristol. This year’s renewed BLM protests have revitalized public discourse about systemic racism and its historical precedents across the US and Europe. In the UK, that debate has focused on the sanitized public narratives surrounding the legacy of British imperialism and its violent actions in its colonies.
“The BLM movement was like a volcanic eruption,” says Robert Gildea, Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford. “The fall of [the] Colston [monument] was followed two days later by the Rhodes Must Fall/BLM demo outside Oriel, which was an extremely powerful moment. This pressure, I am sure, obliged them to take a very different decision from that four years ago.”
RMFO was originally founded in 2015 by Oxford students who were closely following the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) campaign in South Africa, which succeeded in removing Rhodes’ statue from the University of Cape Town. The RMF campaign kickstarted discussions about decolonizing South Africa’s curriculum — something RMFO believes the UK also urgently needs.
“Oxford University has for many decades been celebrating a colonialist and murderer who mercilessly killed black people”, says Chumani Maxwele, RMF National Organizer, over email. “The time has come for this cosmopolitan institution to revisit its values.”
RMFO intended to tackle Oxford’s uncritical attitudes towards its own institutional racism by focusing on Rhodes’ statue. A report published by the university in 2014 found that 59.3% of its BME (Black and Multi-ethnic) students surveyed felt unwelcome because of their race.
The ensuing debate became part public commentary and part backlash. Critics of the campaign to take Rhodes’ statue down weren’t just confined to the rightwing. The popular classicist Mary Beard wrote at the time that Black students just needed to be “empowered” to look at Rhodes “with a cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability.” By 2016, Oriel College decided to not take down the statue.
RMFO continued to spread awareness of Oxford’s problematic history amongst students. “I was vaguely aware of the Cecil Rhodes statue before starting at Oriel College,” says Neil Misra, who joined Oxford in 2017 and is part of the university’s student union. He added that RMFO’s campaigns helped him develop a deeper understanding of the legacy that the statue represents.
There have been significant institutional changes within Oxford over the past five years. Baroness Valerie Amos, the first Black master of an Oxford college in its 924-year history, described Cecil Rhodes as a “white supremacist,” and supported the protest’s demands.
The 2015 campaign motivated academics to set up internal groups to find additional solutions. “The History Faculty introduced a new paper on the Global Twentieth Century which provides a framework for debating this question, and met annually with students to discuss issues of race and colonialism,” Gildea said.
“It is clear that the protests have had an impact and shifted the debate in the right direction,” said Priyamvada Gopal, Professor at the Faculty of English at Cambridge and author of Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance And British Dissent. However, this doesn’t mean that the fight is over. “There will eventually be pushback after some limited measures are taken and it is important to be vigilant about this, to be prepared to push harder and sustain the demands for radical change over a longer period.”
RMFO is not alone in its concerns about the commission’s sincerity. “The college promised to engage in a six-month-long “listening exercise” in 2015, but it reneged on that promise after just one month,” explained Misra, who was part of the June protests.
But many are hopeful. “The numbers at the protests this year tell a very different story to 2015-16,” says a spokesperson for RMFO. “There seem to be fewer outright critics, and much more discussion about symbols and statues.”
As demands for the removal of statues of racists, imperialists, and their iconography continue to be issued alongside ongoing BLM protests, it is becoming increasingly clear that constituents want to see their countries acknowledge their violent pasts to help forge a fairer future for all.