Over the last few weeks, the Oxford Union debating society has invited two far-right speakers. Weidel had to pull out under pressure, and Bannon was met by massive protests. Oxford organisers report on what happened and how anti-fascists mobilised.
This month, the Oxford Union debating society* has invited both Alice Weidel (the leader of the far-right AfD party in the German Bundestag) and Steve Bannon (Donald Trump’s former Chief Strategist, the architect of the Muslim ban and a figurehead of the international far right). These events mark the latest instances of the Union’s long-standing strategy of inviting powerful figures on the international far right to speak in order to attract publicity. The Union’s continual active complicity in the normalisation of the far right demonstrates the myopia and entitlement of the small clique of Oxford students who run it – but they are far from being unopposed.
In the end, Weidel never came to the Union. She pulled out due to “security concerns” as it became clear that students and residents in Oxford had been organising against her visit. Ultimately the police and private security hired by the Union were acutely aware that they would be facing a serious demonstration if they went ahead. There were two demonstrations planned to take place, which would have coincided had they gone ahead. One was called by Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) and Unite Against Fascism (UAF), and one by rs21, Oxford Migrant Solidarity and Oxford Left Network (both student groups), working alongside Oxford Anti-Fascists (the local branch of the Anti-Fascist Network). In the coalition-building process, we had support from several student societies, and other activists organised an open letter signed by dozens of societies. Local opposition to Weidel was also registered through public statements from local politicians, and the university’s Student Union passed a motion condemning her invitation.
Weidel cancelling her talk marks a first in demonstrating against far-right speakers at the Oxford Union. While there have been some cases of mass opposition in the past, the Union usually ploughs ahead with the help of police and private security. In 2015, a mobilisation rs21 helped to organise attracted about 500 people and delayed a speech by Marine Le Pen for two hours. During the last year, smaller numbers of protesters have opposed talks by Anthony Scaramucci, Ann Coulter and Corey Lewandowski. After some ambivalent experiences, the complete success of the planned mobilisation against Weidel was a reminder that mass direct action is an effective tool against the far right.
The opposition to Weidel set the agenda in the media; national media in the UK, Germany and the US reported on the opposition to Weidel and how she was obliged to cancel under pressure. The navel-gazing student newspapers ran the typical and tedious pontificating on whether “[a]nti-fascism, while a noble goal, threatens to become anti-liberalism when it is pursued via the wrong means” (Heaven forbid). Even though the demonstration ultimately did not have to go ahead as planned, one concrete outcome was that the coalition-building in the run up to the event created a network of people ready to work together again. An ‘Oxford Anti-Fascist Assembly’ meeting organised by rs21, OMS and Free Education Oxford was held on the evening that the demonstration would have taken place and drew around 40 people.
Only days after Weidel had been scheduled to speak, the Union announced that they had invited Bannon. The announcement was made two days before the talk was planned to take place, despite having been organised in September. The Union President, Stephen Horvath, hadn’t even communicated the decision to the bulk of the Union’s Standing Committee, who only found out when they saw the event page on Facebook. Horvath admitted that he only talked to the committee members who had to be involved in order to hire private security. There was a minor crisis within the standing committee as a last-minute vote was called on whether to cancel the event. They agreed not to rescind the invitation.
Because of the work that had gone into mobilising to oppose Weidel, organisers were well-situated to build a demonstration against Bannon quickly and effectively. Within just two days, tens of thousands of people were reached on social media and hundreds decided to come to the demonstration. There were three event pages: SUTR/UAF, who mostly mobilised residents; a coalition of Oxford University student societies (including the Labour club) who attracted large numbers of students; and Oxford Anti-Fascists and Oxford rs21, who communicated closely with several of the student organisers. We were also joined by comrades from the Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly.
On the day, there was no clear distinction between the different groups. The Oxford Mail and the Mirror estimated of the size of the demonstration at 1000, while the BBC put forward the laughable figure “more than 100”. With Bannon scheduled to speak at 4pm, protesters gathered outside the Union from 1pm and successfully blocked the back entrance down a narrow alleyway. The main protest outside the front entrance continued to grow, succeeding in preventing people from entering the Union through the main entrance, and was also able to hold a third entrance to the Union via a college accommodation building down the road. The Union’s private security did not hesitate to shove students around and intimidate them. Meanwhile, there were confrontations in which Union members threatened to punch protesters in the face, and a small number of neo-Nazi thugs who had come down for the day tried to punch a young Black protester. They were later spotted throwing Nazi salutes in the street.
Protestors did not only have to deal with private security, confrontational Union members and neo-Nazi thugs: the demonstration was also very heavily policed. Thames Valley Police sent in multiple riot vans, used force against protesters several times and stood by as the Union’s private security assaulted protesters in broad daylight. One of the main chants throughout the demonstration was “Who protects the fascists? Police protect the fascists!” Shortly after 4pm, around two-dozen police officers came to the back entrance and cleared the protesters there by physical force.
At that stage, it seemed as if the cops would let in more Union members through the back entrance, but at 16:30, with the chamber still more than half empty, police announced that they would not be allowing any more Union members into the building. This was a major victory for the protesters and the announcement was met by cheers and chants of ‘¡No Pasaran!’ The reason they had bothered to clear the alleyway leading to the back entrance quickly became clear: Bannon was not yet inside the building. Shortly before 5pm, an hour after the talk was scheduled to begin, several riot vans came up the main street. A line of protesters was shoved out of the way to clear a route for the vans. Bannon was smuggled out of one of the riot vans and hurried in through the back entrance.
For the bulk of Bannon’s talk, those inside the chamber would have been able to hear chants of ‘No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!’, ‘Oxford Union – shame on you!’ and ‘From Palestine to Mexico – all these walls have got to go!’ Just before 6pm, a group of organisers made the decision to disperse the demo, as there was a rumour that the police were threatening to kettle. The police around the back entrance seemed to be planning Bannon’s escape route, keeping a line of police and vans around the top of the alleyway in the face of a continued presence from protesters. In the end, at half 6, Bannon left via the main entrance and was driven away in a van with blacked-out windows as a handful of protesters shouting ‘Scum!’ were held back and fiercely manhandled by private security.
Weidel’s cancellation and the protest against Bannon are considerable victories for anti-fascist organising in Oxford. With just two days’ notice, hundreds of people were mobilised, the event was massively disrupted and Bannon’s triumphant appointment was reduced to a hurried and severely delayed presentation to a mainly empty chamber. The swift and effective mobilisation was made possible in part by the organisational foundations laid during the earlier anti-fascist mobilisation against the Weidel visit. A resounding message will have been sent to the Union’s leadership that continued flirtations with fascism will be sternly resisted by students and residents of Oxford. Through coordination, coalitions and militancy, we can keep winning.
* The Oxford Union is an old debating society and the self-styled “last bastion of free speech”. It is nominally independent from both the University and the Student Union and charges a membership fee of £278.