‘Brutality should not be debated’: Protests at Union colonial debate
And the Union decided to serve a “Colonial Comeback” cocktail
Protesters caused a stir at the Oxford Union debate “This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies” last night.
Students from the group #Rhodesmustfall stood and held up posters that read “Who will speak for me?” and “Brutality should not be debated” while the speakers in opposition spoke.
They also handed out leaflets and interrupted the debate with “points of information” – whilst the Union served “Colonialist Comeback” cocktails.
Much anger was stirred by the Union bar’s poster for a ‘Colonial Comeback’ cocktail, with the image of black hands cuffed together.
Posting on Facebook group Skin Deep, one person said: “I really, really hope this is fake because I’d rather look like a gullible fool than coexist with scumsucking douchedicks who think this is in ANY WAY OKAY”.
The poster was disavowed by the Treasurer, Zuleyka Shahin. She said “I would personally like to apologize to any members who have taken any offense by this particular poster.
“I was not involved in the decision-making for this and I will personally make efforts to rectify the situation following this event.”
President Olivia Merrett and Librarian Stuart Webber didn’t comment on the controversy.
Inside the chamber, the bouncer approached the protesters (Simukai Chigudu, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, Marc Shi, and Kiran Benipal), but they insisted that they were within their rights as Union members, given that it was non-violent, non-auditory and non-interruptive.
The President of the Union, Olivia Merrett, allowed the protests to take place, provided that they remained seated.
The movement #Rhodesmustfall stands in solidarity with the movement in Capetown University that removed the Rhodes monument. They felt that this same voice that took this statue down needs to be heard in Oxford, which Benipal referred to as “the centre of colonial violence”.
One of the protesters, Kiran Benipal, said that they were grateful to those who spoke in favour of the motion, which is why they chose not to hold up the posters while they spoke.
Benipal was even approached by the bouncer before the debate when she was handing out flyers and told that she would be asked to leave if she didn’t stop and own up. She asked if the same reaction would have ensued if it were the same situation but with a “nice white lady with nice blonde hair”.
The protesters were shocked that someone employed by the Union thought it appropriate to approach them. Chigudu said: “Everything we did was consistent with the rules”. The bouncer refused to comment.
Chigudu said: “We value freedom of speech but we also value civil protest and this was what this was. I don’t think those two things are inconsistent or incompatible.”
Benipal added: “We were here to protest the fact that this was even a debate in the first place. The fact that we are asking whether a debt is even owed is problematic, not only problematic, but it is overtly offensive to people who are descendants of colonisation.”
When asked whether some topics should not be debated, Benipal replied “we would not have a debate in the Oxford Union as to whether the Holocaust was wrong.”
The protesters said they were criticized for their emotion when speaking and for their lack of respect for the way the Union does things. Benipal said “I came with emotion because this is not history for me.
“Colonialism, and the celebration of colonialism and neo-colonialism are all alive and well in Oxford. This University in many ways is built in blood, the blood of our ancestors.”
Benipal said “we need to stop glorifying the people that are involved in deep colonial brutality and therefore we say Rhodes must fall, not just in Capetown, but in Oxford too.”
Throughout much of the debate, “points of information” were ignored by the opposition as they increasingly became about interrupting the speaker than about giving information, as a fellow member commented. The President expressed that the debate should continue.
The Right Hon. Sir Richard Ottaway, who spoke in opposition to the motion said, with regard to Britain’s colonies, that they “voluntarily recognize the Queen of England as their head of state. They don’t have to, but they choose to”. He later said: “Today’s generation, who are nothing to do with colonialism”.
A member who spoke in the open debate opposing the motion said “the people alive now did not do anything to anyone”, which caused a stir among the audience.
During the debate, Benipal stood and spoke for the motion “reparation is about a personal identity, a national identity, and a racial identity”. She went on to say that teaching black people that all they have ever been is slaves is a “colonization of the mind”.
When a speaker announced that only post-colonial slavery was racial, a comparison was made between British treatment of Irish Catholics and of Blacks.
In reaction, Benipal said “that’s not racism, because I’m on the bottom still”, referring to her own Indian heritage. A fellow member nearby muttered that she is here (i.e. an Oxford Union member, a membership that is expensively bought) and therefore not on the bottom.
A member speaking in opposition talked about the one-sided nature of the debate. Then, when presented with a point of information said “no thank you, we’ve heard enough of that today”.
Some pointed out the irony of the protesters’ poster “who will speak for me?” given their very prominent voice at the Union debate this evening.
Others towards the back noted how the noise made by the protesters prevented them from hearing the speakers. So, were they really pro freedom of speech?
After the debate in the Union bar a member was overheard by another member using the word “barbarian” in conversation, though it was interpreted as being directed at the other member, who was of ethnic minority. The member subsequently threw their whiskey at the first member, missed, hitting someone else in the face with it. The first member was deeply shocked, as were the people nearby.
Some people are beginning to think the Oxford Union lacks a moral compass.