Well, that escalated quickly. Just when we thought that Covid-19 was the only news we would ever see again, Black Lives Matters blew in from the United States in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer who has since been charged with murder. In Oxford, a pile of glowing embers was stirred by the accompanying breeze, and with impressive alacrity the members of the local chapter of Rhodes Must Fall sprang into action.
Not much has changed since their last outing in 2016, and certainly not their main quarry: the small statue of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist’s imperialist, high up on the façade of Oriel College’s frontage on the High Street. Among other named demands—available on their social-media pages—they made no mention of the Rhodes accoutrements that are just as prominent on the building: his coat of arms on the pediment, recognisable only to the heraldically-minded, and the huge chronogrammatic Latin inscription that loudly proclaims his benefaction in capital letters.
A protest was called for the afternoon of Tuesday 9 June, in aid of the reinvigorated cause. A weekend of unrest had seen widespread vandalism in London, and the Cenotaph desecrated; in Bristol criminal damage had been committed in full view of a supine police force. In Oxford dozens of riot vans were stationed on the roads either side of the High Street; a huge police presence, including mounted personnel on magnificent chestnut steeds and riot officers in full protective clothing, threw a protective ring around Oriel and even appeared on its roof.
There had been talk of arson on social media, and Thames Valley Police were clearly taking no chances. The nervousness of the organisers was palpable; in the opening speeches their intention of running a peaceful process was emphasised time and again, while the blades of the helicopter hovering overhead made its presence amply felt. Social distancing measures went to the wall almost immediately; the 300 attendees anticipated by the organisers might well have been able to be spread out along the High Street, but not the two thousand who turned up.
Hundreds of people, most of them white, gave Black Power salutes
Those in the thick of the throng, between the University Church and the Rhodes Building, dug in for the duration. On the peripheries, people came and went: the to-ing and fro-ing through Radcliffe Square lasted as long as the protest. In King Edward Street a young woman with pink hair sat on the pavement to be photographed in front of an offending bronze plaque, whose removal also forms part of Rhodes Must Fall’s demands. She held her placard in one hand; with the other she gave the plaque the finger. Others were clearly there just to see things for themselves—present but not involved.
All Souls’ links with Christopher Codrington came in for criticism, notwithstanding the posters in one of its windows supporting the gathering. Now and then the microphone found its way to speakers who wanted to use the opportunity of the Rhodes gathering to air their views on their own pet subjects: the Prime Minister; sexuality; Israel. The last did not surface without some problematic statements. That human life is to be cherished, and racism in all its forms abhorred, cannot be gainsaid; perhaps inevitably, however, the latest incarnation of Rhodes Must Fall comes with plenty of other baggage in its train.
In the end there was no trouble. That will have served the organisers well, for had it turned violent it might easily have been dismissed as the deranged rantings of a mob. So well-disciplined was the assembly, in fact, that at times it seemed to take on a quasi-religious character. The penitents knelt when the deacon told them to kneel, and rose when the subdeacon told them to stand. They chanted their litanies in unison, and on cue: “Black Lives Matter”; “Decolonise”; “Silence is Violence”; “Take him Down”; “Shame on You”. Hundreds of people, most of them white, gave Black Power salutes at designated moments. At the end they all sat down cross-legged, like small children waiting to be allowed home. All that was missing was a hymn.
The present furore, which focuses intense scrutiny on a matter of contested built-heritage, comes only three weeks after the Provost of Oriel, the avuncular Neil Mendoza, was named as the Government’s new Commissioner for Culture—uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Rhodes Must Fall is back; its sacred fire has been rekindled, and its genuflecting neophytes have once more filled the temple court. The initiated dutifully chant their mantras after their priests, and loudly demand a sacrifice. Only Oriel can now determine what beast shall be led to the altar, while the world waits for a sign.
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