Protestors today gathered on Oxford's High Street to call for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes above the gates of Oriel College, one of the colleges that comprise the University of Oxford. It was a revival of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which began in 2015 in the University of Cape Town and spread to Oxford. Unlike Cape Town, Oriel did not take down the statue.
Now, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, the issue has come to the front once more. Rhodes is criticised for his racist and colonial beliefs, and the University of Oxford's ties to him have been contentious. Upon his death, Rhodes established the Rhodes Scholarship, aimed at funding the Oxford postgraduate education of students from other countries. Additionally, he donated £100,000 to his alma mater Oriel College. In return, Oriel placed a statue of Rhodes on the outer wall of the college.
Today, Rhodes Must Fall organisers organised a protest demanding the statue's removal. Thousands of Oxford residents and students attended, filling the street and bringing traffic to a halt. Policemen were stationed on the edges of the crowd and in front of the gates of Oriel, but the protest remained peaceful.
As the number of attendees grew, one man who had been in Oxford for the 2015 protests noted: "It seems to be catching fire a lot more. There seems to be broader support and appeal." Indeed, over 125,000 people have signed the RHODES MUST FALL 2.0 petition on Change.org.
Protest organiser Temitope echoed this, saying that “the heads of colleges have declared publicly their support of Black Lives Matter” and that the city and university are more likely to engage this time. In addition to removal of the statue, the leaders of the Rhodes Must Fall movement would like to see Oxford University “investing into black matters, both from the point of view of welfare and scholarships”. Other demands include a decolonisation of course material and efforts to increase the number of black undergraduates and faculty.
After opening speeches, the crowd was asked to kneel in silence for eight minutes in remembrance of George Floyd. Then, as more people spoke in front of the gates of Oriel, chants of "Tear it down!" and "No justice, no peace!" and "Dismantle the system!" rang out.
A representative from the Oxford City Council, Councillor Dr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini, spoke at the event. She asked that Oriel "please do apply for planning permission to have this statue removed”. This comes after the City Council invited the college to work with them in taking down the statue. Dr. Djafari-Marbini said: “This movement and this moment is so much bigger than statues… This is not the Britain we want. We want structural change."
In their original 2015 petition, Rhodes Must Fall organisers stated: "We find it deplorable that Oriel College continues to glorify an international criminal through its uncritical, deeply violent iconography. As long as the statue remains, Oriel College and Oxford University continue to tacitly identify with Rhodes’s values, and to maintain a toxic culture of domination and oppression."
Oriel said in a statement: "As a college, we continue to debate and discuss the issues raised by the presence on our site of examples of contested heritage relating to Cecil Rhodes. Speaking out against injustice and discrimination is vital and we are committed to doing so. We will continue to examine our practices and strive to improve them to ensure that Oriel is open to students and staff of all backgrounds, and we are determined to build a more equal and inclusive community and society."
At the end of the protest, organisers asked that attendees sit down, emphasising the peaceful nature of the protest and warning against agitation. The crowds dispersed, but they left their signs against the walls of Oriel, with the promise to protest again on Friday if no action is taken.