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Rhodes Must Fall Oxford 8
Photography Charlie Ogilvie

‘Only the beginning’: Protesters on Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes statue removal

Rhodes Must Fall campaigners vow to keep fighting anti-Blackness at the university, as governors vote to pull the colonialist memorial down

On Wednesday (June 17), the University of Oxford’s Oriel College voted in favour of removing its statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, a white supremacist and supporter of apartheid measures. Though the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has been ongoing since 2015, the decision came after Black Lives Matter protesters took to the city’s streets last week (June 9) demanding that the institution take action over the memorial.

In a statement on its website, the college said that it’s intending to launch an independent inquiry into “the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue”, namely claims of institutional racism and a lack of education about Oxford’s imperialist past. The college’s governing body also “expressed their wish” to have Rhodes’ statue and his King Edward Street plaque removed.

The inquiry will “deal with the issues of the Rhodes legacy and how to improve access and attendance of BAME students and faculty, together with a review of how the college’s 21st century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past”.

Responding in a statement, the Rhodes Must Fall movement – which started in South Africa five years ago – expressed skepticism at the university’s promise to remove the statue. “We have been down this route before,” the group wrote, “where Oriel College has committed to taking a certain action, but has not followed through.” Activists have been campaigning for the statue’s removal since 2016, when they were told by the college that it would lose about £100 million in gifts if the memorial was taken down.

Rhodes Must Fall said it will “continue to galvanise the goodwill and energy seen across the university” until the statue has been removed. 

Protesters expressed a similar sentiment, asserting that the college’s statement is just the first step in dismantling discrimination and inequality at the univeristy. “I was very excited to hear that Oriel College had voted to remove the statue,” 23-year-old University of Oxford postgraduate Katja Holtz tells Dazed. “However, because the statue is symbolic of the structural anti-Blackness and inequality that plagues Oxford, its removal is only the beginning.”

“Because the statue is symbolic of the structural anti-Blackness and inequality that plagues Oxford, its removal is only the beginning” – Katja Holtz, student

23-year-old Kouka Webb, a New York University masters student and model who attended the recent protests, agrees. “The removal of the statue will be a turning point in the BLM movement, and a sign of public accountability, but the campaign doesn’t end here. Oxford is not innocent, and I hope that other colleges take this as an example and remove their statues of white supremacists and slave traders.”

Last week’s protests in Oxford were sparked by the global demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd in the US on May 25, as well as the toppling of Bristol’s statue of slave trader Edward Colston at the beginning of June. The UK protests have so far resulted in the removal of slaveholder Robert Milligan’s statue in London’s Docklands, as well as a promise from the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, that the city will review all monuments to ensure they reflect London’s diversity.

Although Oxford’s statement marks a milestone in the movement, activists say they will continue to protest until action is taken. “I will continue to speak out against Rhodes, Codrington, and all other colonial figures who litter the streets and colleges of Oxford until long after the statues have fallen,” says Holtz. “Because, as everyone keeps reminding us, we shouldn’t erase history. We must carry this history forward if the University of Oxford is to become a safe, accessible, and just institution.”

“I will carry on joining protests because my optimism is cautious,” says 20-year-old Henna Masih. “This has made me realise how important protesting is, and how crucial solidarity is, because the BLM movement has brought together people from all backgrounds and has made it attainable for ethnic minorities to stand up against colonial attitudes.”

Still, Holtz is hopeful that Oriel College will follow through on their promise “if only because Rhodes Must Fall and BLM protests will continue to put pressure on the college administration to make sure they do”. She concludes: “Holding each other accountable is a fundamental part of the process we are embarking on. Whether they’ve internalised the demand for structural change or are only appeasing the critics in order to end the protests is yet to be determined. Though I’m confident they won’t be rid of demonstrators and our demands that easily.”