I even kept a straight face when a senior UQ staff member implored the Union to host a ‘Diversity BBQ’ after a video of a violent clash between protestors went viral on international media. However, after the events of Friday 2 August, I am putting my views on the record. I do so not as a free speech warrior, a CCP shill, a coward who refuses to support democracy, or a pro-Hong Kong President, though I’ve been given all of those titles in recent weeks. I do so as a President deeply concerned about the University’s behaviour toward its students.
Let me begin when last Friday afternoon, a group of Hong Kong students began to put up a Lennon Wall on the side of the Student Services building. They wanted a peaceful show of support for their loved ones living through intense political unrest back home. Their friends, University students my age, are being arrested and/or are facing persecution as they struggle for democratic freedoms in an increasingly violent context.
UQ’s response to the Lennon Wall? To ask the students to move it off the Student Services building because it might make some students ‘uncomfortable’. Luckily, a UQ Union wall (just five metres away and totally within sight of the Student Services building) was available and the Hong Kongers moved their protest. A few hours later, a group of Chinese students approached me and asked for permission to set up their own wall in response. I welcomed their idea and the Chinese wall is now perfectly visible beside Mr Beans.
The University’s response to the peaceful installation disturbed me. How thoroughly sanitised has the UQ experience become? When did it become more important for students to be ‘comfortable’ rather than exchange ideas about democracy, free speech and human rights at a University? In fact, the area UQ feared could create an less-than-comfortable experience for students sits behind a plaque declaring the space a ‘student forum’. God forbid passionate young people contest ideas there.
While the Hong Kong students moved their installation, I observed the mural to the right of Student Services’ newly declared Comfort Zone. Uncle Sam Watson, descendant of the Birri Gubba tribe, painted the mural during his time as a UQ student in the 1970s. One weekend, someone drew the letters KKK in distinct white paint over the mural, and in defiance, Uncle Sam left the writing there as testimony of white attitudes toward Indigenous Australians. His response to the ugly message of hatred was to paint Aboriginal men holding AK47s and bullets, sending a clear message: We won’t be intimidated. We are ready. We will fight. I imagine a few Aboriginal students over the years have felt uncomfortable at the giant KKK emblazoned over a mural depicting their culture. I even think a few white Australians feel uncomfortable at the scenes depicted in the mural, like white nurses stealing babies from Aboriginal mothers and white soldiers stabbing Aboriginal men with bayonets. Should we paint over this mural in consideration of the comfort of all parties?
I reflected back to the Tuesday prior to the HK installation occurring, when I had faced immense pressure to publicly support the University’s decision to move protestors away from the Great Court for their scheduled protest on 31 July. The student protestors had been pressured to move their protest to Forgan Smith Lawns, a quiet area of campus with significantly less foot traffic than the Great Court.
I refused to let the Student Union become a mouthpiece for the University’s ill-thought out ideas. Not only do I disagree with the idea that free speech can only be exercised in carefully measured boundaries of the University campus, I hadn’t been consulted on the initial idea of moving protests. Had I been asked for my views on the move, rather than received demands to support a ‘free speech zone’, I would have advised the University that asking anti-establishment protestors to move locations would only have drawn the ire of said protestors. It would have encouraged them to protest in whatever location the University didn’t want protests to occur. Lo and behold, the students rejected the Forgan Smith Lawns and assembled on the Great Court.
So what is the role of the student union in times such as now? I like to think that we’re a (mostly) reasonable voice that advocates for students regarding decisions made by the University. UQ executives can call the Union unrepresentative (before asking us to represent their views on Stalkerspace), or they can call our organisation pitiful when we dare to question the status quo. We will continue to truthfully represent the views of the student body. That truth is great and mighty above all things. We will host student meetings in theatres you wanted to bulldoze, and we will support vibrant debate of academia, politics, and UQ history. We will lend our walls to the display of peaceful protest, and we will celebrate the defiant political perseverance that our students are capable of. We will represent the truth, in all of its might.
If you’re feeling despondent about the state of protest and political debate at UQ, take comfort in the Vice-Chancellor’s words earlier this year – you don’t have to be within the walls of the Schonell to criticise him! Last week showed that students are free to do so on the Great Court. They’ll just be acting in contradiction to UQ’s explicit demands, surrounded by dozens of riot guards, and a police helicopter.