'people-thought-i-was-too-young-to-protest':-the-rise-of-student-activism

'People thought I was too young to protest': the rise of student activism

In June, Simukai Chigudu stepped up on a plinth in front of thousands of people blocking the streets outside Oriel College in Oxford. The associate professor of African politics addressed the crowds inspired by Black Lives Matter and the anti-racism protests sweeping across the UK and around the world, catalysed by the killing of yet another black man at the hands of police in the US.

Chigudu told the crowds that, yes, he was angry – how could he not be? He is one of just an estimated seven black professors employed by the University of Oxford, an institution that has faced years of questioning over diversity and its treatment of students and staff of colour.

As a postdoc student five years ago, he was one of the founding members of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, a major student-led protest arguing for the decolonisation of Oxford and calling for the removal of the statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes, which stands outside Oriel College.

In early June, the world watched as protesters in Bristol knocked down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston. The energy spread to Oxford, sparking a resurgence of the campaign to bring down Rhodes.

“When I stood up to speak and I was surveying the crowd, I could see the different eyes being cast on me. I saw a lot of people who didn’t have much to do with the university. It felt like there was this convergence of people, that an anti-racism project has to be far-reaching,” he says.

Yet five years prior, the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign had felt like a movement that would never spread past the city’s limestone walls. The activists who launched a campaign to decolonise the university’s curriculum and challenge its racist iconography, inspired by the University of Cape Town’s original Rhodes Must Fall campaign, were continuously challenged on their views.

Yet the pervasiveness of racism at the university was made startlingly apparent when, not long after the campaign began, the bar at an Oxford Union debate on the British Empire sold a cocktail named the “colonial comeback”, accompanied by images of black hands in chains.

After a leaked document in January 2016 warned the college would lose about £100m in donor gifts if Rhodes did fall, the movement lost momentum.

Yet though under the same name, this summer’s protest felt different. There was a realisation, Chigudu says, that “it felt like a city having a reckoning, rather than a closed matter for the university”.

This summer’s tsunami of activism has added weight to the role of students in protests and campaigns that go beyond the campus. Malaika Gangooly is starting her second year of journalism at City University of London, another institution that recently bowed to student pressure to remove the name of John Cass – the 18th-century merchant linked to the slave trade – from its business school.

She led the Black Lives Matter protests in her hometown of Chingford, and now plans to run for diversity officer at the students’ union. “People thought I was maybe too young to start in protests, and too heavily involved. But the younger you are, the better it is to get involved, and the more important it is. If it’s not worked in generations before us, then we’re the generation that has to try and make it work.”

These same arguments have been reproduced in the youth climate movement in the past two years. The urgency of the disaster has been pushed by young people, many of whom are university students. Their campus activism has led to radical divestment from fossil fuel campaigns, while students have played major roles in local branches of Extinction Rebellion or the youth climate strikes. In 2018, for example, two students at Sussex University were claimants on a significant climate change lawsuit against the UK government.

“So much of the change that’s happening now is people my age at university. If we take it into our own hands then no one can complain about it,” says Gangooly.

Something in the atmosphere has changed. For Gangooly’s generation, it’s obvious that issues affecting students are mirrored in society: it is young people who will bear the brunt of the climate catastrophe; there is institutional racism at the universities that breed our future leaders.

“[Recently] there’s been the circulation of many more ideas about how we might change society and how we deal with questions of equality, but also what that means in terms of a world in which there’s so much economic insecurity, in which there’s a looming climate catastrophe, and so on,” says Chigudu. “That’s partly contributed to the willingness of people to really rally around and protest, and for people to see the interconnections between racism, capitalism and climate catastrophe.”

This idea of students questioning their future on a mass scale echoes back to post-financial crisis Britain. In November, it will be a decade since tens of thousands of students occupied streets across the UK, protesting a steep rise in university fees and cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance. Britain’s press was overrun with images of students occupying Millbank, clashes with police and placards repeating the slogan “No Future”.

It was one of the biggest mass movements of young people in British history, and “the first of a series of major mass movements to characterise the next five years, not just in Britain but around the world,” says Matthew Myers, a graduate student of History at the University of Oxford, pointing to movements such as Occupy and the Arab Spring that followed.

Though often discussed as a campaign against fee hikes, the student protests of 2010 addressed issues of austerity and inequality. “It was a very specific moment in time where young people were at the forefront. There was a sense of generational injustice,” says Myers, who participated in the 2010 protests and is the author of Student Revolt.

“A whole generation in 2010 were very motivated by slogans of ‘no future’. They felt the future that they’d been promised – if they worked hard, got a good job, then they’d be able to achieve the level of economic stability and success which their parents had been promised – was no longer possible,” says Myers. “Students were simply the first in a long line of groups who were going to have to pay for the crisis, and pay for austerity.”

A decade on, it seems students are once again realising they will pay for other injustices, and they are now asking what their role is to make changes – particularly with race, climate and inequality.

But this resurgence of student activism will reverberate far beyond their own lives. “[It has] almost become more profound,” says Myers. “The student climate strikers are speaking as much as students as they are as human beings who are going to have to live on a planet which is entering climate catastrophe.”

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