On Wednesday, the Oxford Union announced that Steve Bannon would be giving a talk on Friday, giving protesters two days notice to mobilise. And mobilise they did.
However, the methods adopted by the protesters were ineffective and downright disgraceful. Preventing entry to the Union came at the severe cost of alienating their peers, losing the opportunity for challenging questions to be asked, and incurring a massive cost to the police.
Though I would have preferred for Bannon to not have been invited, the simple reality is that he was. The behaviour exhibited by protesters on Friday, namely in preventing members from entering the Union and accusing the police of being Nazi sympathisers, was childish, embarrassing, and ultimately undermined their goals. There is a vital difference between peacefully and effectively protesting against an ideology, and personally attacking fellow students and law enforcers.
The first issue with the protest was the blocking of people from entering a building they had paid substantial sums to be able to enter, to listen to a speaker they wanted to hear and engage with in debate. Merely protesting disapproval outside would have been acceptable but physically blocking entry was arrogant. Whilst the protesters have a right to protest, the students trying to get in also have the right to exercise their membership rights and go inside the Union. The line must be drawn when one group begins to forcefully impose their own beliefs as to what is acceptable and what is not onto another.
Blocking Union members from entering only alienates them against the protesters’ cause and plays into the hand of Bannon and his supporters. We each have a right to our respective beliefs on whether Bannon was to speak or not but that right stops there: it does not entitle one group to demand the other group agrees with them. Protesters should have accepted that preventing entry would only undermine their cause and that antagonising their peers was not the most effective way to persuade.
Secondly, many protesters on Friday were plainly disrespectful. Many students simply wanting to attend the talk had cameras shoved in their faces whilst being insulted. At the Union entrance on St Michael’s Street, the protest leader repeatedly put their megaphone directly in the face of those trying to enter, which was unnecessarily aggressive and also blatantly ignored any possible health implications.
Many of protesters, though not all, were far too aggressive in their approach and lacked basic decency and respect. Most of those present were members of the University. We see each other around college and in lecture halls. There was no need to accuse those trying to enter of being racists and Nazi sympathisers, an insult which is frankly dangerous. Loosely throwing around such accusations and in particular the use of the word ‘Nazi’ is very harmful and risks distorting what the Nazi Party actually did and stood for.
Finally, the protesters repeatedly yelled at the police who were simply there to maintain public order. Chanting ‘the police protect Nazis’ and ‘the police killed Mark Duggan’ was problematic for two reasons. The former is not only inaccurate, as the police had driven from Reading to protect the protesters themselves, but also misused a very loaded word. As for the latter, whilst true, it was both irrelevant and inappropriate to chant. Misappropriating significant historical events, such as the Holocaust and the police brutality that caused the death of Mark Duggan, is disrespectful to the police present on Friday who were in no way responsible for either event.
The disapproval for Steve Bannon could have been expressed in a much more effective manner which did not play into the belief those on the right hold that the left are incapable of listening to views they disagree with. Antagonising peers, insulting the police, and demanding to see the bod cards of Brasenose students simply trying to get into their accommodation in Frewin Annexe – something which left a few students crying – shows just how poorly the protesters conducted themselves.
Of course, individuals are entirely justified in engaging in peaceful protest and exercising their free speech. However, physical obstruction crosses the line. Many Union members, including myself, felt the entitlement of the protesters to determine who should enter, or who members should be allowed to listen to, was inappropriate and ultimately undermined their cause.
Free speech is essential, but part of that requires that one can choose what speech to listen to. It becomes dangerously totalitarian when a mobilised belief group starts to dictate what speech cannot be accessed.