The statues surrounding the Sheldonian were ‘gagged’ in a protest early on Thursday morning by students campaigning against a proposed detention centre outside Bicester. The same group was also responsible for a dmonstration in Oxford the next afternoon.
Meeting at just after midnight, ten protesters affiliated with the Students Action for Refugees climbed into the area behind the Clarendon Building and proceeded to climb onto each other’s shoulders and tie white sheets around the mouths of eight of the statues. A banner was then spread, with the slogan “30 minutes from here 200 men are locked up indefinitely.”
The organiser of the protest explained the thought behind the stunt: “It’s symbolic because people in the detention centre have no voice. The centres are a waste of lives. Some of the people in there are our age or even younger.”
The protesters justified using University property in their campaign, “This isn’t so much to do with the University but with students here. We are becoming increasingly apathetic and don’t fight for people’s rights anymore.”
Another student involved added, “People pay more attention when English people do this.”
One of the protesters who put up the gags commented, “there are countless talks about Campsfield, speaker events and debates in Parliament but no one cares.”
Three police cars arrived fifteen minutes after the gags went up and four policemen demanded that the protesters remove their banners and gags. One of officers said, “we were called to the scene by the University Security Services. They didn’t want their property damaged.”
A student who was apprehended by the police described his shock at their swift arrival at the scene: “I don’t know how the police noticed, although it is an insane visual.” He added, “they said to me, ‘we have to be careful, with all these protests going on, you never know what protesters are going to do.'”
The police left ten minutes after arriving, but continued to circulate around Broad Street. While they did not issue a formal warning to the students, a photo was taken of the group.
“This term has proved direct action is an indispensable weapon,” said one of the protest’s leaders, “Normally, tactics aren’t normally thought through. A petition to Guantanamo every week doesn’t solve anything. Stunts attract attention.”
A passer-by remarked, “I definitely think this was effective. It’s horrible to say, but I never heard of this issue before. It’s not in your face, but its noticeable. This experience has opened my eyes and I will look into the campaign further.”
However, another onlooker was more sceptical, adding, “that it all came down makes them walk home with their tail between their legs. It would have been better later in the day say while people are on the way to lectures.”
After the banners were taken down, the organiser of the protests was confident that an effective statement had been made, saying, “it was still an absolute victory. I thought it was good aesthetically but when it went up it provided it a thousand fold.”
James Norrie, a Wadham second-year and member of the Oxford Radical Forum was present at the march in the city centre on Thursday afternoon. He said, “if change is going to happen, mass action is necessary. Stunts by far change less.”
A third year student from Magdalen, Luke Roelofs, refuted this. “This is part of a wider movement of which we are all working together.”
One of the night protesters present explained, “Last night was a precursor. It was a symbolic visual display to draw attention. Now, we are being more vocal and explicit. We are trying to attract attention. At a certain level that’s all we can do.”
The afternoon march started in the same spot as the gagging. Over thirty students shouted slogans and marched to Bonn Square to hear a prominent anti-detention speaker, Bill MacKeith.
Charlie Holt, President of the Oxford Union temporarily joined in on the march. He said, “I’ve been working for Oxford Students for Liberty for ages now. I feel passionately about this. This is a way for us to get a message across.”
He added, “I had no idea about last night’s stunt. I’m just here trying to get others to join in.”
MacKeith supported the statue gagging. He said, “It gave a symbol of the old University a new relevance.”
A similar protest happened in 1995. Oxford students placed sheets over all the statues, which stayed on for eight hours. Suke Walton, who was involved that protest and was present at the march said, “some stunts are more successful than others. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it. It’s hard.”
A University spokesperson reacted the to demonstrations by saying, “Oxford strongly supports the right for students to protest within the law.” However they added, “we cannot confirm that the Proctors will not be involved.”
The Proctors office said, “four students were asked to leave and they promptly did so. We are not considering taking further action.”
The University Security Services declined to comment on the matter.