Image Description: The Oxford Union main building
An open letter, which was released today, condemns an Oxford Union election candidate who invoked the George Floyd protests in America when imploring union members to register to vote. The member was running in this term’s Union elections as a part of the Elevate slate.
The candidate, who is no longer running with the Elevate slate, stated in her message: “Even though this is not the typical content of a union message I feel I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that it feels as though a union election has no place in a world that feels as though it’s unravelling at the seams –
“Today my friends were tear-gassed and streets I’ve grown up in were looted and destroyed and helicopters fly over my head as we speak (it’s nearly 2 am), I’m sending you this link to register to vote because I find that I’m having a hard time making sense of the world right now and, at its best, I think the union provides a place for that to happen.”
The open letter was written by Mo Iman, a former-LGTBQ+ Officer and former-Standing Committee member. Iman stated that “It has come to mine and many members’ attention that a candidate from the Elevate slate has been seeking to capitalise on the troubling and upsetting death of George Floyd and the subsequent events that followed it for electoral gain.”
The letter continued, “For many BAME union committee members, they are chipping away at a broken and often challenging system, a thankless task for many and like Melanie, I too often face comments asking how I could associate myself with such an organisation of people.
“…I am angry and disappointed that a candidate in this election would seek to profit from the unnecessary and brutal killing of George Floyd. Racism is not something for us to look across the pond to, it exists in our everyday – including within our Union.”
Melanie Onovo, former Treasurer of the Oxford Union, posted a Facebook status calling the message “disturbing… profiteering from the current suffering of the African American community in the US and the destabilising political climate for election support.”
Onovo went on to say, “The ELEVATE slate has an all-white officership, an all-white standing committee and frankly abysmal representation of minorities and disadvantaged groups on their slate… He and the leadership of his slate failed to react to the signalling and the attempts to bury this incredibly severe situation is only evidence of their lack of understanding concerning issues of race and their disregard of people of colour at the University and everywhere else.”
The Oxford Student understands that Onovo approached both Harry Deacon, the presidential candidate for the #ELEVATE slate and the candidate who wrote the message to publicly apologise for the message, or she would respond publicly. A draft response, written by the candidate who wrote the message, was sent to Onovo to edit, which she described in a comment to The Oxford Student as “not an apology because she was still trying to justify why she did what she did rather than listen and make a sincere apology, promising to commit to doing better and educating herself”, adding it was not her “burden” to edit the apology.
Regarding the message, the Elevate slate posted on their Facebook page an apology that read:
“Earlier this week, a former member of Elevate sent messages asking people to register to vote in next week’s elections. These messages referenced the protests that occurred in the aftermath of the brutal killing of George Floyd, and attempted to link these incidents to the Oxford Union election.
“To use the death of a black man, and a movement of anger and pain that has resulted from years of institutional racial persecution for a student election is wrong. We condemn any such message, no matter who or where it comes from.
“We sincerely apologise for the deep hurt that was caused by these messages. The member of our slate who sent these messages will no longer be running with us. Having already been nominated, her name will appear on the digital ballot, but she will not be endorsing, or be endorsed by, Elevate.
“We can’t rely on the black community to encourage us to speak out. We need to work harder. We are deeply sorry.”
The Union has had a difficult relationship with race in previous terms, with both Onovo and Iman referencing the treatment of Ebenezer Azamati, a blind black post-graduate student who was dragged out the Union hall last Michaelmas term. Initially, a complaint lodged against Azamati was upheld by the Union’s Interdisciplinary Committee, leading to Azamati’s membership being suspended. This led to widespread protest from members of the Oxford Africa society, as well as international media coverage that led the then Union President, Brendan McGrath, to step down.
In a statement sent to The Oxford Student, the #HOPE slate, running in opposition to #ELEVATE in this terms elections said, “We believe that the most important thing right now is supporting people like Melanie and Mo who have been brave enough to speak out, and we think that all candidates should genuinely reflect on this. Leadership, in our view, takes courage, not silence.”
Image Credit: Meraj Chhaya via Flickr