Cecil Rhodes statue, Oxford University. Photo: Geograph Cecil Rhodes statue, Oxford University. Photo: Geograph

The agreement to remove Cecil Rhodes’s statue is a big win for the movement and shows that protest works, argues David Jordan

On the evening of 17th June, the Governing body of Oriel College, Oxford, agreed to the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes which overlooks the High Street at the front of the College.

The campaign to remove the statue has been active since 2015 alongside a similar campaign at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where Rhodes initially built his diamond mining empire. The proposal to take down the statue was originally rejected because substantial donors to the College threatened to withdraw their money if the removal went ahead. The movement has been reinvigorated in the last couple of weeks in the wake of the protests sweeping the US and Europe since the police murder or George Floyd on 25 May.

The felling of the statue of slaver, Edward Colston, in Bristol has provoked a reassessment of the role of statues of historical figures in the UK and the tireless work of activists from the Rhodes Must Fall campaign over the last few years meant that there was a lot of groundwork to build on in Oxford.

Despite many students being away from Oxford due to Covid-19, a demonstration of at least 1,000 people gathered on the High Street in the middle of the city to demand justice for George Floyd and that the statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed from its position.

The vice-chancellor of Oxford University has been criticised by academic staff for suggesting that Nelson Mandela would not have been in favour of removing the statue. This is from a reactionary university leader who has also stood in opposition to the UCU strikes by lecturers and staff at Oxford since her appointment in 2016.

The College’s governing body did not agree to bring down the statue immediately but essentially resolved to recommend its removal to an independent committee set up to take the issue further. Nonetheless, this is a great achievement and a big win for the activists who have been demanding that the statue’s position be consigned to history. It demonstrates once again that serious protest works. The concession by the College acknowledges that, this time, the pressure of the movement has been greater than the pressure of the donors.

The activists leading the movement have stated that they will not back down until the statue has been removed from its plinth. This combative and defiant energy is just what our city and the University needs. Hopefully, the gains that the movement has made this week will lead to more direct pressure on the University to address the race and class-based disparities and biases that run through it. Oxford University has such a disproportionate representation in our governments and state structures that this is not a mere question of making the student population in a particular city more diverse.

With radical demands and the organisation to back them up we can raise questions that go to the heart of the British state and its Imperial history. Let the fall of this statue be the beginning of something truly transformative.

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