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Union candidate dropped from slate for messages invoking George Floyd protests

The Hilary Term Treasurer and an ex-Standing Committee member of the Oxford Union have condemned ‘disturbing’ messages sent by a candidate to Oxford Union members. 

The candidate, who has now been dropped from the ‘Elevate’ slate, sent messages to members asking them to register to vote, mentioning the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, and using these as reasoning to register to vote in the Union’s online elections. 

The message read:

“I hope you’re doing well in these challenging times. The thought of us all being together again at Ox in MT20 may be the only thing keeping me sane right now. 

“Even though this is not the typical content of a union message I feel I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the fact 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 the streets I’ve grown up in were looted and destroyed and helicopters fly over my head as we speak (it’s nearly 2am), 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.”

Melanie Onovo, the Treasurer during Hilary Term, wrote in a statement on Facebook that she had “approached the leadership of the Elevate slate”, asking for a public apology, but that “they opted for privately handling her abhorrent behaviour without acknowledgement for the necessity of a public apology.” 

A private statement sent to Onovo from Elevate that was written by the candidate stated: “Hi all. I’ve recently been made aware that a message to friends I wrote related to the Oxford Union may have been perceived as electioneering when that was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. I sent the message coming from a place of pain at seeing widely broadcast images of police brutality against people of colour that reached a tipping point with the murder of George Floyd. 

“These disheartening events cast a spotlight on institutional racism in the US. This pandemic at this moment further brings into sharp focus longstanding inequalities from which America suffers. In the full force of these tragic events, I felt uncomfortable campaigning. For that reason, I made no mention of my candidacy for the Union in my message. However, I thought encouraging people to register to vote to preserve what is best about the Oxford Union was productive at this critical juncture.

“In moments like these it is vital that people participate in the open exchange of ideas. The Union provides a forum to gain nuanced understanding and hear conflicting views. The people chosen as Union representatives determine what speakers and issues receive this important university platform. I wish, as we all do, that the Oxford Union remains a positive force for having conversations that matter.”

Onovo responded that “I have been asked not to call this out publicly and ‘destroy 2 years of work’ but how someone can decide winning an election in a student society is more important than this grotesque behaviour is beyond me.

“THIS IS NOT AN APOLOGY. I recently had to suffer through racial discrimination in Christ Church in relation to the death of George Floyd and this sham of an apology is in total INSULT to the work I, and many of my Black brothers and sisters at Oxford and across the globe have been doing to positively contribute to the fight against racial injustice.” 

Mo Iman, an ex-standing Committee member, also posted an open letter on Facebook, and described the messages as “Another clear incident of a white person appropriating the struggles of a minority community for their own success.”

After Iman and Onovo posted their statements, the Elevate campaign wrote on their campaign page: “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.”

Both Onovo and Iman noted the difficulty of making concrete change at the Union, and their own personal experience as BAME committee members. Iman noted that “it often took hours to pass even the smallest of changes to the rules and procedures of the Oxford Union”, while Onovo stated, “Having to constantly explain why it is problematic to be dismissive of the feelings of minority groups in Oxford who have been ostracised by the Oxford Union with invitations sent to white supremacists and nazis in the name of free speech was EXHAUSTING and I had limited power to change that.” 

Iman wrote that “The Union Melanie and I worked towards, with many others, sought to improve the experience for everyone and particularly the minority groups that had been excluded from spaces like these for many years. It is incidents like these that show that our work has only chipped away at the paint and that there is still much more to be done.”

He added, “I call, and encourage others to do so as well, for the Elevate slate leadership to publicly apologise, seek to educate themselves and resign their positions immediately in order for them to step back and properly understand the roles they were willing to commit themselves to.

“Your position on the Oxford Union committee is a privilege that you should continuously use to improve the lived experiences of members, especially those who have been marginalised and excluded from spaces like this before. Not one to disrespect and dishonour the countless lives lost to racial inequality and police brutality.”

Image credit to U.S. Department of State/ Wikimedia Commons.

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