The limits of being out on campus

Orchestrating a Standoff

The state of academic organising of the November 2nd protest at SFU

Hailey Heartless
Oct 28, 2019 · 6 min read

What Brought Us Here?

It’s been a while since I’ve published to Medium, and unfortunately I find myself in the uncomfortable situation of returning to this platform in a way that will draw attention to some oversights by a local organisation. I don’t write this piece with any wish for harm or judgement towards Out on Campus or their leadership, but rather in order to prepare people, particularly trans people and people of colour, wishing to attend the protest against the Meghan Murphy event being hosted at SFU. I’m writing because the limits of an organisation such as Out on Campus, and an organising style rooted in academia and the protection of individuals with the ability to access it, which leaves important voices behind and may expose individuals to harm.

I also write this after attempting to contact Out on Campus through official channels and being met with a wall of defensiveness. I have also asked a sex worker community liaison to the police to attempt to contact the specific police officers involved to which we received no response.

While reading these words might feel difficult or uncomfortable to members of the SFU community or their friends, I have also extended the offer to help de-escalate the situation and work with specific organisers on understanding how their actions may have hurt members of the community. That offer to meet and unpack these issues together still stands. In the meantime, I feel it’s important to let the community know what they may be walking into if they plan to attend the protest at SFU on November 2nd, and ask that we all be able to come together before the protest and, at the very least, share notes on what our presence will look like and how we plan to protect the most vulnerable from police violence.

On Friday, I began receiving a flurry of texts and seeing status appear on social media warning about the actions of SFU Out on Campus at recent protest planning meetings. I’d like to break the alleged harm down into two pieces, because I feel that they represent different errors which require different warnings, but together they combine to create a situation that will place the most marginalised protesters in a dangerous situation.

Sidelining Grassroots Trans/POC/Sex Worker Voices

From the meeting minutes of the OOC security briefing:

TM pointed out that other groups may attend the protest and attempt to hijack it for their own ends. AB suggested that CATA’s messaging and approach may be incompatible with ours and that we need to ensure student safety and good standing. TM suggested contacting CATA to gauge their progress and approach. As well, CATA may need approval for 3rd party protest (see GP36).

CATA refers to the Coalition Against Trans Antagonism, a collective of mostly transgender POC and/or sex worker experienced individuals who work to fight transphobia in the lower mainland. TM is a former police officer who was brought in to assist Out on Campus with their planning (more on that later) and AB is the current chair of Out on Campus.

The message conveyed in the meeting minutes is a reluctance of those organisers to meet with or discuss plans with a grassroots organisation of mostly poor QTBIPOC individuals who have been successfully pushing back against transphobia in Vancouver, instead leaning towards an approach of cooperation with the police.

When an academic organization or nonprofit works to decenter and further marginalised voices of colour in our work, we are upholding white supremacy and colonialism by gatekeeping the voices are at the table. While SFU OOC has a mandate to protect students, they forget that racism, colonialism, ableism, transphobia and sex worker stigma also keeps certain groups outside of the academic world. If we want our work in the nonprofit and academic sectors to be inclusive, we need to do the work of creating a space where those missing voices can safely participate, and work along side those who are already doing the work. If we plan to do it alone without those voices, we put ourselves in the position of policing those communities and gatekeeping activism.

Working With Police

The second issue is brought up in the same agenda item, where it’s revealed that SFU Out on Campus plans to work with police. Later in the agenda it’s noted that OOC will liaison with Dale Quiring of the VPD, on top of calling on the assistance of a former police officer who’s past initiatives have caused tension with student communities.

The meeting minutes reflect that the retired officer identified as TM ‘has experience with protests,’ but leaves out whether that experience is as a protester, or as a police officer suppressing those protesters. Both are different experiences which require different, competing tactics. Ultimately, it’s hard to know whether the involvement of police is intended to help protesters, or make it easier for police to control protesters.

While I will concede that sometimes we do need to work with police, I also understand that being able to work with the police is a privilege usually dependant on our ability to access whiteness. By inviting the police to collaborate in a protest, we are creating a space that is hostile, particularly towards indigenous, POC, impoverished and transgender voices. We may say that everyone is welcome to attend, however if we have police officers at the table, or at the front of the room, our actions are delivering a powerful message that our work is only for the type of people who have safe access to the police.

Putting it Together

By choosing to sideline QTPOC people already doing the work of fighting transphobia in Vancouver, and inviting police to collaborate on a protest disproportionately affecting that community, Out on Campus has created a potential situation at the protest which, in my experience as a social justice activist, is volatile and likely to end in the arrest, or at the very least harassment, of vulnerable community members. Out on Campus has a mandate to protect students, however their actions seem to create a preference for students who are the least likely to face police violence.

When we organize, it’s not enough to say that we welcome all voices at the table, we need to actually work to make sure they’re reflected. The names of attendees of the Out on Campus meetings are publicly available, so it’s clear whose voices are present and whose are absent. When we choose to center academic men and police, and dismiss grassroots community groups as ‘incompatible,’ we are not creating an environment of collaboration or community building. Given the racist and transphobic nature of the event being held at SFU, we can expect a large turnout of people of colour and transgender people expressing their hurt, who now may be walking into a trap unwittingly set by organisers.

I would like to ask that allies show up at the protest at SFU. I would like to see you put yourself between people of colour, transgender people and police, and I’d like to ask that if you’re not likely to be arrested, be mindful of your actions and insure you’re not escalating tensions or inciting police violence.

I’d also like to see SFU Out on Campus take action to bring in grassroots organisations, specifically CATA, by collaborating and communicating directly with them on what the limits of your organising are, and allowing those groups to at least consider that in their own planning.

We will all be in the street together, it’s better that we’re all at the table as well.

Solidarity.

Hailey Heartless

Written by

Transsexual dominatrix & sex worker rights activist. BC Canada.

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