Oxbridge boat race protest for divestment
Image credit: Cambridge Zero Carbon (This image is of the 2018 boat race protest)

‘Oxbridge Come Clean’ was the message we planned to unfurl across Hammersmith Bridge during the 2019 Boat Race on Sunday 7th April. Over 40 students from Cambridge Zero Carbon Society (ZC) and Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) had organised to meet over the boat race weekend to call upon our Universities to withdraw their investments from fossil fuel companies.

Police intimidation

The boat race epitomises Cambridge and Oxford’s vanity and self-importance, and our aim was to highlight the reality behind these Universities’ existence: founded upon fossil fuel investments and complicity in climate crisis across the globe. We had no intention to cause damage, or to disrupt the race, basing our protest on the peaceful, legal action undertaken by activists during last year’s race. In this context, the police intimidation we faced throughout the day was totally unjustified, and shows the measures the authorities would go to ensure our protest was prevented.

Our team was met with a force of approximately 20 uniformed police officers stationed on the bridge, who tracked our activities and continuously interrogated us throughout the day, before finally preventing our demonstration minutes before it was due to begin. From 11am, the police used intimidation to stop and interrogate members of the group, and just as the final race of the day got underway, police systematically stop-and-searched our members, confiscating zip ties, and finally the twenty metre banner itself.

Oxbridge is funding environmental destruction

The attempted Boat Race protest was the latest stage in fierce Oxbridge-based divestment campaigns. Previous actions from ZC and OCJC have seen mass rallies at Cambridge’s Senate House and Oxford’s Clarendon Building, and the occupations of both Oxford’s and Cambridge’s financial and administrative centres.

Despite support of divestment from students, staff, and alumni – expressed in multiple open letters from Cambridge and Oxford academics – both universities have thus far refused to relocate the multi-million-pound portions of their endowments that are currently funding environmentally destructive sources of energy. Pressure is mounting for Oxbridge to listen to student and staff calls for full divestment, with no fewer than 76 British universities which have already withdrawn financial investments from fossil fuel companies.

A painful surprise

Preparations for the day had begun weeks before, with meticulous planning being undertaken, and precise legal briefing packs sent out to all activists both before and throughout the day of the race. However, despite our knowledge of our legal rights in the face of police intervention, the response we met with on the day of the Boat Race came as a painful surprise.

‘I underwent a stop-and-search procedure, during which my cable tie was confiscated on grounds of suspected plans to disrupt the race’, commented one protester. ‘Following this, I was asked for my name and address by two officers, who repeatedly told me that I would be arrested if I did not supply them. I was frightened, and confused about what my rights were, because I knew I had not done or intended anything illegal.’

An establishment fighting back

Despite our initial disappointment in the prevention of our action, we gradually came to see how such an organised police response goes to show how climate activism is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Contemporary authorities – be they within university or government – recognise that our call for system change cannot go unheeded much longer. Whilst more and more people are joining the struggle against climate change, it becomes increasingly clear that urgent climate action is required. We may have faced the force of the police on Sunday afternoon, but those disproportionately facing the effects of runaway climate change are fighting much bigger battles, which our action on Sunday was attempting to highlight. Unfortunately, the silencing of our peaceful protest is symptomatic of an establishment which wishes for our demands to be silenced, and which systematically suppresses those communities which climate change most affects.

Ultimately, we wish to belong to universities which use their resources and influence for good in the struggle for climate justice. However, it is clear that these institutions are complicit in the damage wreaked upon human populations across the world by the combined forces of natural resource exploitation and neo-colonial forms of power. We hope that they will acknowledge their influence and power to fight against this legacy. A full Oxbridge divestment from fossil fuels would make a valuable statement against an exploitative, carbon-based system that has now become untenable: and it would be one small step towards the fairer, non-profit-driven society for which we campaign.