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

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

A couple of dozen tents line the rain-soaked lawn in front of the Oxford University building that houses 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, established this Monday in imitation of Columbia University in New York and other campuses in the United States. “There have been protests like this before, like in the Vietnam War. The United States has clearly inspired this round of camping trips. We have seen occupations in Palestine. And now it is a tactic we also employ at Oxford,” says Wren, a student who agrees to give her first name and claims to be studying creative writing. She answers some questions from elDiario. She is in a secluded corner because she does not want to be heard by another journalist who is close to her taking notes and with whom she does not want to talk. Wren says she has been involved in other climate change protests before and that she is now camping out because the University has not responded to her requests after months of talks.

Several dozen people have been sleeping here since Monday, although during the day more students gather and curious neighbors and reporters approach. 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 talk 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

As in universities in the United States, those who protest have a list of requests that has to do mainly with the financing of the centers where they study.

The University of Oxford accepts anonymous donations – in fact, it is in the middle of a legal dispute to defend that it remains that way 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 receive donations that could harm their reputation, and any money goes through ethics commissions and other financial filters.

In a letter of support to the camping students signed by 170 professors, visiting scholars and other staff, they ask that the University review all its investments and donations to sever any relationship with “indirect” weapons manufacturing. The focus, in particular, is the British company Rolls-Royce, which manufactures cars, aircraft engines and other parts for land and air vehicles, including military aircraft that are also used by the Israeli Army.

Rolls-Royce, a philanthropic company for universities throughout 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 media specialized in transparency that has further investigated donations to British universities. As the company itself explains, Roll-Royce has been funding research centers and scholarships in Oxford for five decades. The University’s code of conduct when accepting donations prevents accepting money that comes from illegal or non-transparent sources and also that could pose a reputation problem for the university, although it has accepted donations from Russian oligarchs and other people for years. related to authoritarian regimes. The letter asks that the University publish “in detail any 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 remote educational assistance so that “they can continue their learning.”

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

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

Meetings with the rector

Students who agree to speak claim that they have had face-to-face meetings and conversations with the rector, Irene Tracey, and other University administrators, but their requests have not been heard. “One of our first demands is that investments and different types of academic ties with military or military technology companies at Oxford be published. And we want to boycott these relations because they represent an indirect flow of aid to Israel’s military machine,” says a student who says she is 24 years old, originally from Lithuania and studying 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, three rectors,” says one poster, without attribution of the source. The Gaza Ministry of Education has provided similar data, but it is not updated.

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

Most humanitarian aid for Gaza and the West Bank has so far come from governments, particularly the United States and the EU. In the case of the University of Oxford, the aid is usually for studying in the United Kingdom: it is a “sanctuary” university, that is, it gives scholarships and shelter to displaced people, and Palestinian students are candidates for these scholarships as well. than other refugees. Each college, which functions as an autonomous entity within the University, has its own support. Rueben College, right across from the current camp, for example, offers scholarships for students residing in Israel and scholarships for 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 one in Oxford. They are, for now, symbolic protests due to the small number of participants. Due to the decentralized structure of some of these universities, a central point of protest is missing. In fact, in the case of Oxford, the chosen space is one of the few open lawns in front of University buildings.

The statement written by the students cites the choice of the place as a symbol of colonialism due to the presence of the Pitt Rivers archaeological and ethnographic museum, considered a model throughout the world for its 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 artifacts that have been taken from the colonies of the British Empire. And our mobilization for Palestine is also a mobilization against colonialism as a force majeure,” says the 24-year-old Geography student, who studies in a nearby building. She has never been inside the museum 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 it no longer displays human remains and what it has returned. The student acknowledges that she is not “familiar” with this story, but she believes that “Oxford says a lot and does little.”

The museum, whose admission is free, remains open and operating normally, with groups of children and tourists strolling peacefully this Tuesday. Next to the entrance, a blue and pink presentation sign that occupies an entire wall says 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 the 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 who were colonized.”

The students protesting outside say that museum staff have not made any problems with their camping trip.

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

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

Unlike what happens in the United States, where the course has ended in the absence of a graduation ceremony, in Oxford the last term of the course has just begun and lasts until the end of June.

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