Students protest for Oxford University to cut ties with Rolls-Royce and Barclays over the war in Gaza

A few dozen tents line the sodden lawn in front of the University of Oxford building, home to the Natural History Museum and the Pitt Rivers Anthropological Museum. Students and other young people chat, give interviews or listen to speeches as they walk through corridors of damp cardboard. Most wear masks or scarves that cover their faces, sometimes watermelon-shaped earrings.

Protests in Oxford against the Gaza war have been common since October, but this is the first protest camp set up this Monday, following Columbia University in New York and other campuses in the United States. “There have been protests like this before, such as in the Vietnam War. The United States has clearly inspired this round of camping trips. We have seen occupations in Palestine. And now it's a tactic we use at Oxford too,” says Wren, a student who agrees to give her first name and claims to be studying creative writing. She answers some questions from in a remote corner, because she does not want to be heard by another journalist who is taking notes nearby and with whom she does not want to talk. Wren says she has previously been involved in other climate change protests and is now camping out because the university has not responded to her requests after months of talks.

Since Monday, several dozen people have been sleeping here, although more and more students gather during the day and curious neighbors and reporters draw closer. There is the local press, but also the Al Jazeera cameras. The 'day 2' program posted on a magnetic board includes 'news from Gaza', a lecture on the history of Palestine in the 1930s, 'poetry/wellness circle', a film ('something from Gaza' , says one student), forums (one is called 'democracy') and cleaning, lunch and dinner routines. One store is marked “press” and another is marked first aid.

Donations and investments

Just like at universities in the United States, Protestants have a list of requests that mainly have to do with the financing of the centers where they study.

Oxford University accepts anonymous donations – in fact: is in the middle of a legal dispute to defend that this remains the case in all cases – and is not very transparent about its finances, although it has a code of conduct that prevents it from investing in companies or receiving donations that could damage its reputation, and all money goes through ethics committees and other financial filters.

In a letter of support to the camp's students, signed by 170 professors, visiting academics and other staff, asking that the university review all its investments and donations to sever any relationship with the production of weapons in an 'indirect' way. The focus is in particular on the British company Rolls-Royce, which produces cars, aircraft engines and other parts for land and air vehicles, including military aircraft also used by the Israeli army.

Rolls-Royce, a philanthropic company for universities across the United Kingdom, donated at least 17.5 million pounds (about 20 million euros) to the University of Oxford between 2017 and 2023, according to OpenDemocracy, the transparency media that has most thoroughly investigated donations to British universities. As the company itself explains, Roll-Royce has been funding research centers for five decades and scholarships in Oxford. The university's code of conduct in accepting donations prevents accepting money from illegal or non-transparent sources and which could also pose a reputational problem for the university, although it has for years accepted donations from Russian oligarchs and other people who related to authoritarian regimes. The letter asks the university to “publish in detail all items that may include investments in weapons or other instruments of war, such as aircraft.” The teachers also call for free online library access for Palestinian scholars and other distance learning assistance so “they can continue learning.”

The students go further in their demands, such as canceling study programs and relationships with universities in Israel and with banks that have investments in Israel or relationships with military and technology companies.

A group of students has already demonstrated against Barclays in January for an office in the city center. The list of demands can be read on a handwritten sign at one of the lawn entrances, with 'stop having accounts with Barclays' being the most specific point.

Meetings with the rector

Students willing to speak claim they have had personal meetings and discussions with the chancellor, Irene Tracey, and other university administrators, but their requests have not been heard. “One of our first demands is that investments and various types of academic links with military or military technology companies are published in Oxford. And we want to boycott these relationships because they represent an indirect flow of aid to Israel's military machine,” said a student who says she is 24 years old, originally from Lithuania and studies geography, but prefers not to give her name “for security reasons. .”

There are several posters referring to the destroyed schools and dead teachers in Gaza: “Israel has killed 5,479 students, 261 teachers, 95 professors and three principals,” says one poster, without citing the source. The Gaza Ministry of Education has provided similar data, but it has not been updated.

One of the students' requests is that Oxford help rebuild education in Gaza.

Most humanitarian aid for Gaza and the West Bank to date has come from governments, mainly the United States and the EU. In the case of the University of Oxford, the help usually consists of studying in Britain: it is a 'sanctuary university', that is, it provides scholarships and accommodation to displaced people, and Palestinian students are candidates for this. scholarships like other refugees. Each secondary school, which functions as an autonomous entity within the university, has its own support. For example, Rueben College, right across from the current camp, offers scholarships to students living in Israel and scholarships to refugees of any nationality.

The Pitt Rivers

Students from the universities of Cambridge, Liverpool and Edinburgh have set up small camps in recent hours, similar to this camp in Oxford. For the time being, these are symbolic protests due to the small number of participants. The decentralized structure of some of these universities lacks a central point of protest. In the case of Oxford, the chosen space is even one of the few open lawns for university buildings.

The students' statement mentions the choice of the site as a symbol of colonialism due to the presence of the Pitt Rivers Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum, considered a model for the whole world for their work of explanation, return of objects and collaboration with communities whose objects are or were exhibited in the museum.

“This is a symbolic choice because the museum has many artefacts brought from the colonies of the British Empire. And our mobilization for Palestine is also a mobilization against colonialism as force majeure,” says the 24-year-old Geography student, who studies in a nearby building. He has never been to the museum that is just a few steps away.

The Pitts Rivers is full of signs that critically explain the traces of colonialism, the Eurocentric view of the original descriptions or names of the objects and why human remains are no longer displayed and what it has given back. The student acknowledges that she is not “familiar” with this story, but believes that “Oxford says a lot and does little.”

The museum, admission to which is free, remains open and operating normally, with groups of children and tourists strolling quietly this Tuesday. Next to the entrance, a blue and pink presentation board that takes up an entire wall states that the museum is “the trace of colonialism” and “is not a neutral space” and that “the history of the Pitt Rivers is linked to the expansion and colonial mandate of the British Empire to collect and classify objects” and that this process “of 'colonial collection' was often unequal and even violent towards the peoples being colonized.”

The students protesting outside say museum staff encountered no problems during their camping trip.

A spokesperson for the museum tells that they have no instructions other than to refer to the university's statement, which states that it is “aware” of the concentration and “the right to freedom of expression in the form of to respect peaceful protests'. “We ask that everyone who participates do so with respect, courtesy and empathy,” says the university statement, which also emphasizes that “there is no place for intolerance.”

So far, no significant incidents have occurred in the camp, although other protests have seen moments of tension with insults and scuffles between students. A student was arrested during a protest at Barclays in February.

Unlike in the United States, where the course has ended for lack of a graduation ceremony, in Oxford the final semester of the course has just begun and will last until the end of June.

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