Rhodes Must Fall campaign marches through Oxford: 'Standing here in the rain… we have thick skins'
On most days in Oxford, the students appear to be outnumbered by tourists admiring the buildings.
But Wednesday’s walking tour around the dreaming spires had a distinctly different – and sometimes surreal – flavour.
Organised by the student protest group, Rhodes Must Fall, it was designed to take in “the disgraceful imperialist history” of the university, as one of the white students expressed it.
Just over 100 people traipsed through the city, chanting “De-de-decolonise” and “amandla awethu”, the rallying cry of blacks inApartheid-era South Africa: “power to the people”, while boos rang out at the mention of “shameful former colonial governor of Hong Kong” Lord Patten, the university’s Chancellor.
It started at Oriel College, which used to be famous for being named after a window, but over the last year has become associated with another of its architectural features: a statue of Cecil Rhodes, one of its alumni, benefactors and a leading British colonialist. It stands in an alcove high above the High Street.
“Oxford was the centre of imperialist thought and training for hundreds of years. Imperial thinkers were educated here. The purpose of this march is to demonstrate how far ranging the legacies of imperialism are in Oxford,” said Andre Dallas, a mixed race student from Preston.
He is a second-year economics and management undergraduate at St Edmund Hall. He, like some other supporters of Rhodes Must Fall, claim they feel violated walking underneath the statue.
Princess Ashilokun, a British Nigerian student from Hackney, London: “There is a limited vocabulary to express all the pain we can feel: physical pain, spiritual pain, emotional pain.
“When I walk underneath that statue the pain I feel is that I am in an environment in which if I bring up these arguments, I am shot down and told I am just being paranoid. The pain that I feel is not because of the statue, but what the statue represents.”
I gently suggest to her she should grow a slightly thicker skin.
“To say I am being over sensitive that is to diminish this very movement, standing here in the rain, in the cold. We have thick skins,” she says. “This march is making history.”
It did not feel like the Gandhi’s Salt March, or Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery. For starters, it was close to freezing and the banners in support from the university LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bi, trans, bisexual and questioning] group were daubed on the back of cardboard packaging from Amazon.
Dallas started the crowd off with one of his raps which included the line “metaphorically we’re bringing nitroglycerin tanks”. Ashilokiun then read out one of her poems, which talked about “the diamond encrusted tears that were stolen and the black bodies broken” by Cecil Rhodes. If nothing else, it proved an Oxford education still manages to give students an aptitude for a nicely-turned phrase.
The march went past a bronze plaque to Rhodes which sits on a building, now home to Sidleys Chartered Surveyors. The surveyors looked out of the window with an air of nervous bafflement.
After holding up the traffic in the High Street chanting “black lives matter”, the crowd moved onto All Souls College, the elite graduate-only college that is also home to the spectacularly beautiful Hawksmoor-designed Codrington Library, named after Christopher Codrington, the seventeenth century slave owner.
“Codrington must fall,” the chants rang out. “Patriarchy must fall,” was added for good measure. The protestors want Codrington’s statue removed and the library renamed.
A British Indian student, reading history, was standing outside the Kings Arms pub. “Rhodes Must Fall don’t understand historically complexity,” he said.
“There is a statue of Oliver Cromwell outside Parliament. This is a man who reduced the Irish population by nearly 25 per cent. Are they protesting that? No. It’s just moral grandstanding.”
He said he did not want to give his name. “People feel they can’t speak out against this perceived consensus. Sadly, I don’t have the balls to do so.”
The march swiftly passed Oxford Martin School, a research institute, that has taken over the site of the former history faculty library. Before that (up until 1968) it was the Indian Institute.
It still has a rather lovely elephant weather vane atop its sandstone cupola. The Rhodes Must Fall protestors say this is where thousands of British civil servants were trained before being sent out to administer the Indian Empire.
The march ended at Rhodes House, the centre of the Rhodes Trust, which manages the post-graduate scholarships endowed by the imperialist, and which helped fund Bill Clinton’s time at Oxford.
Here, Naseemah Mohamed, 26, a postgraduate student at St Cross College and Rhodes Scholar from Zimbabwe called for the money to be used far more to benefit black African students, and less to fund white Americans.
She says she is not being hypocritical. “Yes, I benefited from it. But I see it as a form of reparations. It came from our people.”
The final protest – after all the chants, raps and poems – was a “die-in”. The remaining 80 or so students lay on the wet, cold grass “to reflect on all all the lives lost to construct this building.” Some chose to keep dry by crouching on the pavement.
Not all students watching the march, however, approved. “It’s completely ludicrous,” said Louis McEvoy, a history first year at Christ Church. “It won’t change anything. And my real problem with Rhodes Must Fall is that it’s very divisive. You can’t call for the destruction of history – it’s not unifying people.”