A few days after the event, the Rad Cam carries no scars of an environmental protest against our own university’s involvement in the fossil fuel industry. Squinting for a tinge of orange on the sandstone, only a good imagination could recreate the scene, patching together information from Oxfess, group chats, news articles, and gossip. The event was the work of Just Stop Oil, a British environmental activist group campaigning on a larger scale for an end to UK Government licensing and production of new fossil fuels. Wednesday was another in a series of protests at UK universities.

However, just 10 minutes after the main event, you could barely even tell. Tourist and school tours alike still clung to the outside of the building, marvelling at its pure historical and architectural beauty. It felt like a normal day – students cycling, tourists photographing – far from the recent scene of vandalism and a double arrest. From any other angle, the Rad Cam looked its same imposing self. It was only on rounding the bend you saw the zigzags of orange paint on the wall, accompanied by flustered librarians and security guards redirecting students to the Glink. 

One tourist who witnessed the event noted “the whole thing only took a minute”. A student, who stood facing the Rad Cam, had not even realised what had occurred until we asked him for his thoughts. Even in the immediate aftermath, the principal reaction was one of underwhelm, both due its rapidity, and seemingly small-scale nature. At the same time, passers-by were heard saying “that’s terrible”, advocating for the supposed unfair targeting of Oxford’s ‘sacred’ building by the famous paint throwers. Here we meet the dilemma of the Just Stop Oil protest – was the disruption not enough, or too much?

A student, who was sitting inside when it happened, emphasised that the whole affair was not very loud and “most people didn’t even notice, they had headphones in”. Wrapped up in our essays and deadlines, how is it that so many could not have even realised what was happening? Is this the fault of Just Stop Oil for not going big enough, or is the Oxford bubble really that thick? 

For other students, they heard librarians running around saying “we knew this was going to happen” and using language such as “terror attack” to describe what was going on. This pre-warned disruption meant that students were rerouted to walk out of the Glink rather than using the main entrance of the Rad Cam. For some, this was annoying. 

However, this is perhaps nothing in comparison to the disruption and rerouting that had to happen during the Dartford Crossing protest that has resulted in imprisonment of over two years for both protestors. In both cases, people have underlined the hypocrisy of an organisation that stands against wasteful draining of resources and energy when the staging of their protests often necessitates just that.

Just Stop Oil’s activism, like the highly publicised protest involving Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and the disruption of sporting events such as Wimbledon 2023, has often sparked heated debate. One can’t help but wonder if their reputation breeds an almost automatic negative response and whether the Rad Cam protest was stained before any paint even touched its exterior. 

We asked George Simonson, a recent graduate who threw paint at an Exeter University building a few days ago, what he had to say about this. George did not deny that “a lot of the tactics” of Just Stop Oil “do end up disrupting people”. He stressed that “we have empathy with the people that are disrupted, that is valid, that’s real”. However, for him, the disruption of a shut-down library is not comparable to “what we are going to suffer in our lives”, which he labelled “existential disruption”.

For others, the negative reaction was provoked by the underwhelming scale of the event. It became a joke on Oxfess and other social media sites. One Oxfesser (#oxfess27152) noted “Babe wake up the RadCam just got stop oiled”. Whilst this highlights the indifference of the student communities, it also raises questions about the effectiveness of the protest itself. Was their statement big enough? Did they intend for the buzz at the Rad Cam to die in a matter of minutes?

George felt that they had achieved their aims. The Rad Cam protest, just as with the other recent university protests, aimed to expose the student population to the truth. As George put it: “these universities are not standing for us, they are not acting on our behalf”. 

Indeed, it took the event at the Rad Cam for many Oxford students to learn of the university’s involvement in the fossil fuel industry. Since 2022, Oxford University has received £1,209,221 in fossil fuel financial commitments, according to the Guardian. A 2021 report from Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (Money, People, Reputation: Oxford’s Ties with the Fossil Fuel Industry) also details what these funds are involved in: research institutes, internship schemes, item donations and more. It is understandable why Just Stop Oil would target the Rad Cam –  the architectural emblem of our university.

After all, even if Just Stop Oil fell short of their aim to “put shockwaves through the student population”, they may have succeeded in initiating the conversation. In the last few days, the response has proven to be not entirely indifferent. Many students have expressed a stronger interest in Just Stop Oil and their upcoming march in London. George described this as “the main show”, a potent display of activism that will overpower police and “bring London to a standstill”. Just Stop Oil’s recent student campaign is propelling onward and its crescendo is just around the corner. 

The passion is clearly there, but is the Oxford community the right one for it? Despite the protest occurring less than 5 days ago, it feels as if it is already forgotten. In the fast-paced intensely busy environment of Oxford, it is easy for us to forget about the bigger picture, to become swept up in essay crises and last-minute reading. But clearly some of our peers have dared to look beyond the Oxford bubble. In a Just Stop Oil press release, Daniel Knorr, the Oxford student who painted the Rad Cam, passionately expressed the need to remember the world outside of our academics: “It is no good to study the annihilation of everything we care about and do absolutely nothing about it, we have to act!”

Some might view this only as an act of vandalism carried out by a predominantly white group who border on self-indulgence. For others, it was a brave move in the name of an undeniably important cause. An attempt to navigate the often messy road towards environmental justice. The intention may not have fully translated to the reaction but after all, isn’t something better than nothing?