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Rhodes Must Fall Oxford 5
Photography Charlie Ogilvie

In Oxford, protesters zone in on the white supremacist Cecil Rhodes statue

‘Black and brown voices are not something you get to hear often at Oxford, but this protest really carved out a powerful space for that’

One March morning in 2015, South African activist Chumani Maxwele headed to the University of Cape Town with a bucket of shit. On his arrival, he turned to a confused crowd and shouted, “where are our heroes and ancestors?” before hurling the bucket’s contents into the face of a bronze statue of colonialist, and former Cape Colony prime minister, Cecil Rhodes.

That day, Maxwele kicked off the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which, just one month later, led to the removal of the British imperialist’s memorial. The campaign didn’t stop there, though. Much like the recent murder of George Floyd sparking global protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Maxwele’s action – and ‘the fall of Rhodes’ – became a rallying cry to eradicate institutional racism and white supremacy at universities across the country.

Maxwele’s movement soon spread to the University of Oxford, where a statue of Rhodes still looms over students of Oriel College. In 2016, hundreds of activists campaigned for its removal, only to be told by the college that it would lose about £100 million in gifts if the statue were taken down.

Ignited by the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests and the recent toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, activists took to the streets of Oxford on Monday (June 9), demanding once again for the racist statue’s removal.

Over 1,000 demonstrators blocked the road outside Oriel College and chanted “take it down”, in reference to the statue. As riot police stood on the roof of the college building, the crowd silently took a knee for almost nine minutes – the amount of time Floyd’s murderer Derek Chauvin stood on his neck for.

“Cecil Rhodes used his power and influence to divide,” Rhodes Must Fall Oxford said in a statement about the figure, who supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa. “Yet, on Oxford’s High Street, the very people routinely divided by his colonial legacy were brought together in the democratic exercise of protest.”

“Oriel College and the University of Oxford have a long history of prioritising archaic traditions or financial incentives over the voices and well-being of students and staff of colour,” 27-year-old University of Oxford PhD student Aaron Gabriel Hughes tells Dazed. “I hope Monday’s protest will change that.”

“Black and brown voices are not something you get to hear often at Oxford, but this protest really carved out a powerful space for that” – Henna Khanom, student

27-year-old postgraduate student Charlie Ogilvie says she joined the protest “to lend my voice and body to it”, and to “make noise about an issue I’ve been aware of but not shouted about for far too long”. She adds: “I can no longer sit by idly and leave the work of dismantling a white-benefiting system to the people who are disproportionately negatively affected by it.”

“It was like the air was vibrating with people’s hunger for change,” 20-year-old Henna Khanom, a University of Oxford undergraduate student and member of Rhodes Must Fall, tells Dazed. “It was probably one of the most powerful protests I’ve ever attended. Black and brown voices are not something you get to hear often at Oxford, but this protest really carved out a powerful space for that.”

20-year-old Henna Masih grew up in Oxford, and says she always “felt betrayed by the education system because I was never taught about the realities of British colonialism”. She adds: “The curriculum needs to be decolonised so that the atrocities that these British colonialists inflicted are depicted accurately. It’s non-arguable that Black people should not be expected to learn, teach, and live under the shadows of slave owners.”

Normally living in New York, 23-year-old New York University masters student and model Kouka Webb tells Dazed that she felt motivated to join the Oxford protests after witnessing the police brutality across the US. “Racism is in no way isolated to the US,” she explains, “and as a British-Japanese woman, I’ve been keenly following the different Black Lives Matter protests in both countries. It’s difficult to find ways to be involved during the pandemic, but I wanted to do something beyond just putting a statement of solidarity online.”

When it comes to the question of whether the movement will result in the removal of the statue, Webb says she remains “cautious in my optimism”, citing their previous refusal to take it down as the reason.

In a statement on its website, the college responded to the protests, writing: “As an academic institution, we aim to fight prejudice and champion equal opportunities for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or faith. We believe Black Lives Matter and support the right to peaceful protest.” The college goes on to say that it will “continue to debate and discuss the issues raised by the presence on our site of examples of contested heritage relating to Cecil Rhodes”. 

The Rhodes Must Fall movement has described the college’s statement as “non-committal, inconclusive”, and as producing “more questions than it answers”.

Hughes says if the university refuses, yet again, to remove the monument, “they are sending out a clear message: we do not care about our Black students or our students of colour”.

23-year-old University of Oxford postgraduate Katja Holtz tells Dazed: “British universities are frequently very white, inaccessible spaces – I mean that in terms of physical as well as intellectual accessibility. The statue of Cecil Rhodes is an icon of so much of the structural inequality that still remains at Oxford, despite what the university would like us to believe.”

Oxford’s MP, Liberal Democrat Layla Moran, expressed her support for the Rhodes Must Fall campaign – but not for the toppling of statues by activists – writing in The i: “My personal view is clear: statues of white supremacists or slave traders should not be standing tall in our cities.” Moran said the UK needs to do “far more than just take down some old statues and put them in museums”, urging for Britain’s colonial past to be taught widely in schools.

“The statue of Cecil Rhodes is an icon of so much of the structural inequality that still remains at Oxford, despite what the university would like us to believe” – Katja Holtz, student

Oxford City Council’s leader Susan Brown also came out in support of the protests, revealing on Twitter that she has written to Oriel College “to invite them to apply for planning permission to remove the statue, as it is a Grade II listed building”.

Referencing the council’s support in an interview with The Guardian, Rhodes Must Fall organiser Femi Nylander said: “It’s good to see public consciousness is changing. We are seeing a paradigm shift. You can see that everywhere.”

The Rhodes Must Fall movement said “the outpouring of support has encouraged us to reflect and think proactively”, adding that it’s the “democratic principle” of decolonisation “that continues to carry our movement forward”.

Speaking to Dazed, Hughes says it’s vital that white people join the movement and “show solidarity in every way we can”. They add: “It is a silent white majority that enables Oriel College and the University of Oxford to continue to glorify racist figures, and we have to do better.”

Khanom says racism is still prevalent at Oxford, and believes the statue only serves to exacerbate it: “I came to the University of Oxford to study this country’s history, but what I have found instead is a distorted and narrow view of history that refuses to see anything other than its own accomplishments. I’ve walked to lectures and had people scream ‘go back to your country’ at me.”

“The persistent racism of Oxford cannot be disentangled from its imperial amnesia. Rhodes is the most prominent manifestation of that – and that’s why he must fall.”

Sign the petition calling for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue here.