Combatting racism must be a priority for student politics

USI has promised to adapt activism to Covid-19 restrictions, and must use its platform to extend support and solidarity to those facing racism

The murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis last week sparked protests and justifiable outrage across the US. An alleged use of a counterfeit twenty dollar bill at a local deli enabled Chauvin to murder Floyd as Chauvin knelt on his neck for 8 minutes, despite Floyd’s cries of “I can’t breathe”. Ongoing protests broke out in opposition to unchecked police brutality and the systemic disregard of black lives under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM). The deployment of police in riot gear, indiscriminately tear gassing protestors and shooting rubber bullets, has exacerbated tensions.

The Black Lives Matter movement materialised after the acquittal of  George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17 year-old Trayvon Martin for the crime of walking home carrying a packet of sweets.”

The BLM movement materialised after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17 year-old Trayvon Martin for the crime of walking home carrying a packet of sweets in 2012. Since then, numerous high profile killings of unarmed black Americans at the hands of police have garnered international attention and opposition, with countless more going unpublicised.  

Floyd’s murder has sparked international solidarity protests and actions, among them a large demonstration in Dublin on June 1, which marched from the Spire to the American embassy. The current circumstances mean that organisers are learning to adapt activism to pandemic restrictions. This has led to an increased social media and digital presence and creative organisational tactics in order to ensure the safety of all those involved.  The organisers involved marked Xs in chalk on the pavement to indicate two metres social distancing, and attendees wore masks in order to curb the spread of Covid-19.  

“At USI congress in May 2020, much of the agenda was focused on strategies for mobilising people and effecting change online due to the pandemic.”

Students’ unions must play a role in supporting anti-racist activism on their respective campuses and on a national level. At the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Congress in May 2020, much of the agenda focused on strategies for mobilising people and effecting change online due to the pandemic. USI President Lorna Fitzpatrick said that she would work on “ensuring campaigns are visible and inclusive across all platforms, whether that be in person or online,” as well as engaging in “conversations with organisations which are working on online campaigns” to ensure they meet this criteria. She stated that USI are “working on online campaigning” to guarantee that campaigns “will be as strong as they possibly can be” in light of the pandemic. Fitzpatrick also acknowledged and emphasised that “Covid-19 will change the way in which we operate quite drastically in some areas” and that noted that USI has a role to play in ensuring that students are feeding into various campaigns as they emerge. 

While numerous Trinity students attended the demonstration on June 1, the lack of official engagement from Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) or USI was noticeable. The minimal social media presence from TCDSU, and indeed, other students’ unions is disappointing. In the days before the Dublin protest, only two students’ unions from Ireland’s seven universities – TCDSU and Maynooth Students’ Union (MSU) – issued statements on social media expressing solidarity with the movement, and neither of these publicly shared, supported or engaged with the protest that took place on Monday.

 While widespread fear of Covid-19 was a potential deterrent for many prospective protestors, the SU would typically release an online statement on a movement such as BLM once it gains as much traction as it has. On Wednesday, TCDSU released an email template which students can send to their TDs about direct provision, but they had been effectively silent about the protest earlier in the week. Resources for students protesting in a personal capacity could also have been posted, and there are means of protesting online which do not seem to have been explored. Given the gravity of the issue, it would be positive for TCDSU to use its not insignificant platform to do what many individuals have been doing, such as sharing information about bail funds people can contribute to in order to aid the BLM movement. Sharing resources for students affected by racism, or highlighting the work of community lead activist groups such as MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland) or RAMSI (Refugee and Migrant Solidarity Ireland) would be another option. Of course, no student union should in any way co-opt or dominate social movements, but should focus on uplifting the voices of those affected, and lending solidarity on a national and international level.

At the protest on June 1, many placards, speakers and attendees highlighted the importance of recognising state racism as it exists in Ireland, and illustrating that racism is not a uniquely American problem. Direct provision, deportation orders, and ongoing incidents of racial violence continue in this country, which is something that any progressive movement or organisation should stand firmly against. It is TCDSU’s job to represent students, including students in direct provision, students who risk deportation, or students who suffer discrimination on the basis of race. While some have criticised the BLM solidarity protests as “not relevant” in Ireland or to the international community, the reality is that (while it is important to stand against injustice anywhere) as of the 2018/19 academic year, 34% of non-EU international students in Trinity were American. As a result, it is all the more important that TCDSU addresses issues that affect such a large proportion of students that they are paid to represent.

Trinity students have successfully mobilised around a range of issues in recent years, and now more than ever, anti-racist campaigns should be bolstered by the SU, not only when it is convenient.”

Trinity students have successfully mobilised around a range of issues in recent years, and now more than ever, anti-racist campaigns should be bolstered by TCDSU, not only when it is convenient. Aramark Off Our Campus is just one example of a successful, anti-racist student lead movement, as well as Trinity’s Yes vote to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) spearheaded by Students for Justice Palestine, which demonstrated not only international solidarity, but also the power of students to fight for ethical financial practise, and social justice.

However, there is still work to be done. Sodexo, a catering company which operates the Perch café in the Arts Building and Forum in the Business School, has ties to private prisons and detention centres, something that has been largely ignored. As well as this, allegations of racism in college societies have emerged. If TCDSU is serious about tackling racism, they will make the utmost effort to fulfil USI’s promise to support and facilitate activism throughout the pandemic, something their relative silence as of late has arguably not delivered.  

While lobbying for the use of iReport (a tool for reporting racism) was discussed at USI congress, Vice-President for Equality and Citizenship Megan Reilly admitted that fighting racism is “an area of undeveloped policy” for the body. If so, now, more than ever, this must change. 

This article was updated at 22:17 on June 3rd to correct an error which incorrectly stated that George Zimmerman was a police officer.

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News and studies English and Philosophy.