By Anna Fenton-Jones, BA Middle Eastern Studies
Last month, a post on SOASk Me Out ‘warned’ students planning to join the UCU picket line: ‘if I cannot get into SOAS during the strikes, I will call the police.’
The post, published by the popular Facebook page on 19 January, was amongst several that appeared as part of a developing, contentious discussion on planned industrial action by unionised university staff. SOASk Me Out has since deleted the post.
SOAS Union’s Anti-Racism Officer, Sohane Yahya, publicly replied to the post: ‘Congratulations on making the picket line unsafe for people of color, ironically those most affected by the causes for this industrial action.’
SOAS Anti-Racism Officer: ‘I really questioned whether I would be safe on the picket line’
Speaking to the Spirit, Yahya said: ‘The post made me sad, and scared. Everyone involved in the SU has tried to make the picket line a safe space for marginalised students and staff, and a direct threat like this undermines the many open meetings we’ve held and all the information we’ve worked so hard to make accessible for all students.
The language here is explicit; this is a threat, a threat that puts students like me in danger, and it terrifies me that a fellow student would recognise that and still choose to say it. After the post appeared I really questioned whether I would be safe on the picket line, I really did not think I would be able to go.’
Since 2017, the Metropolitan Police has recorded information about incidents where force was used. Data from the last three years shows that black people are disproportionately likely to experience force at the hands of the police.
Of the 62,000 incidents where the Met used force between 2017-18, over one third involved black people.
The SU has also maintained a ‘Cops Off Campus’ policy for almost ten years. In 2017, the SU said, ‘The racial profiling and harassment of black and brown students by the police results in students feeling distressed and uncomfortable, and our campuses are meant to operate as a safe space for all students.’
On ‘Cops Off Campus’ Yahya told us, ‘The reality is that police brutality exists, and if we want to maintain the political activity that everyone associates with SOAS, we need to protect politically active minority students.’
An inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released in October found that roughly a quarter of ethnic minority students experienced racial abuse and harassment during their course. 8% of all students surveyed also said they had experienced racist harrassment in the first six months of the last academic year, roughly 180,000 across the UK.
In 2014, the social media platform Yik Yak, which provided localised, anonymous message boards for university campuses, came under fire for providing a platform for racist and sexist abuse at several US colleges.
We asked Yahya whether SOASk Me Out has the potential to become a platform, like Yik Yak, to promote structural racism. Yahya replied: ‘Whether people decide to post these things anonymously or not, they’re still thinking it. At least everyone is confronted with the reality of racism on campus when it’s posted publicly. I think the SU made the right decision in creating a seperate forum for students to post about the strike – it helps maintain safe spaces online.’