For more than three years, the Justice4Sanaz campaign has tried to gain the support of Leeds University Union (LUU), all to no avail. The Justice4Sanaz campaign was set up in April 2013 to fight back against racist, xenophobic discrimination at the School of Media and Communication (formerly the Institute of Communications Studies), University of Leeds which lead to Sanaz Raji being forced off of her PhD scholarship, forced out of her PhD studies, into a life of penury and now homelessness while contending with a precarious immigration status.
Despite meeting with LUU for over three years, the Justice4Sanaz campaign has been consistently ignored, our e-mails left unanswered and have had our inquiries, requests for solidarity and support consistently rejected. Therefore, we were surprised to find on the 17th October that LUU was sponsoring the Why is my Curriculum White? talk to discuss white supremacy, racism and Eurocentric teaching within British higher education. While the we welcomed such a much needed intervention by LUU into opening a discussion into these issues, we were stunned to find that Justice4Sanaz campaign sidelined again, with no discussion about a grassroots campaign that is at the very forefront of this discussion at the University of Leeds. Therefore, Ms Raji decided to send Ms Melissa Owusu, the Education Officer at LUU a public appeal on the Facebook event page for Why is My Curriculum White? which you can read here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1519582675000328/permalink/1522652004693395/
For 6 days Ms Owusu refused to answer to the public appeal for the Justice4Sanaz campaign to be included or at the very least mentioned at the Why is My Curriculum White? event. The Justice4Sanaz campaign wants to stress that at all times, Ms Owusu ignored our request to speak and to answer Ms Raji’s public appeal. You can see some examples of this here:
Then on Friday 23rd October, Ms Owusu finally wrote a response after the tremendous support for the Justice4Sanaz public appeal and for the merits of what we were requesting. Ms Owusu’s response can be found here:
The Justice4Sanaz campaign found Ms Owusu’s response entirely deficient in tone and lacking in action. In fact, it was noting more than someone using their power to discipline and silence our voice rather than to engage with the important aspects to Ms Raji’s public appeal. Ms Raji would not need to have gone to such great lengths had LUU worked with the Justice4Sanaz campaign at the onset. If anything, Ms Owusu revealed that she was more interested in controlling the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch to reflect a thoroughly institutional approach to the event that did not ruffle the feathers of the University of Leeds, while saving her own face in order to look in control. With people like this, it is no wonder why we are still having a conversation about white supremacy and racism within British higher education– it allows mainstream student political leaders to manipulate the truly revolution and radical message by distilling it into something that neoliberal “diversity” oriented Black and PoC activists can use to make themselves appear radical- i.e. cosmetic/performance activism, while ignoring the truly radical work of those Black and PoC activists who are engaged in these struggles, day in, day out. After all, Ms Raji is not interested in becoming an elected member of the NUS or becoming a Labour councilor- she simply wants to vindicate her name that has been rubbished by the University of Leeds and to help other non-EU international students of color who experience institutional racism, and xenophobia on and off campus.
Compounding this was that we found out that Ms Malia Bouattia, the NUS Black Students’ Campaign (BSC) Officer was also set to speak at the University of Leeds for the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch. In May 2014 the NUS BSC passed a motion in to support the Justice4Sanaz campaign. The motion, entitled “Black International Students” indicates that the NUS BSC would “support the Justice4Sanaz campaign.” Since the passing of this motion, the campaign has not received any tangible support for over a year. Therefore when we learned that Ms Bouattia was set to speak at the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch event, Ms Raji sent this public message which indicated that speaking at the event without mentioning and/or inviting the Justice4Sanaz campaign to take part would be violation of the motion that the NUS BSC passed in May 2014. Ms Bouattia’s response was equally disappointing- again, you can see everything in the link below, along with her supporters and NUS officers, many of whom have consistently failed to answer messages sent from the Justice4Sanaz campaign, yet somehow finding the time to comment and send a barrage abuse and accuse Ms Raji of things that are again completely unfounded:
As Ms Raji would later remark via Facebook on the 23rd October:
“If people affiliated with NUS spent as much time as answering the many unanswered e-mails and FB messages that I have sent from the Justice 4 Sanaz campaign as they have spent today… dismissing my comments then perhaps people left in my position would get some much needed support.”
Ms Raji again reiterates in a public note on Facebook this particular point further and why she intervened in a public manner via social media to both Ms Owusu and Ms Bouattia that you can read here:
Despite all these interventions and pleas for solidarity and help, the Justice4Sanaz campaign were again ignored by both LUU and the NUS BSC before the run up to the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch event. On the day of the event, Exeter Socialist Students, published this statement demanding that LUU and NUS BSC include the Justice4Sanaz campaign in the panel discussion for the Why is My Curriculum White? event.
On Monday 26th October, Ms Raji attended the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch with Mr Tony Erizia, one of the founders of the NUS BSC and a active member Manchester Palestine Action. We were curious to see if either Ms Owusu, who indicated in her online FB comment that she would say something about the Justice4Sanaz campaign at the start of the discussion, or Ms Bouattia would mention the campaign in her discussion at the event.
As you can see in this recording below there was no mention of the Justice4Sanaz campaign by either Ms Owusu or Ms Bouattia. While Ms Raji was recording the talk, two LUU staff members noticed her filming and alerted security who then asked Ms Raji to stop filming. The reason that Ms Raji was filming was for her own person safety. Apparently, the event took place in a room that did not allow for personal filming despite the fact that there were a few video cameras on premise filming during the event.
What was even more disturbing and odd was the heightened security presence at the event. There was a total of 4 security guards at the event, 3 big men, and one woman, all white, who were guarding the the two exits. Supposedly Ms Owusu via the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch FB event page claimed that the event would be a ‘safe space’ but with all the security presence around, Ms Raji indicated that she felt neither safe nor very much welcomed at the event. Additionally, there was no threat of far-right, racist violence at the event or organizers so exactly why was there so much security presence at the venue on the day of the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch?
After the panelist concluded their respective talks, Ms Owusu opened the floor for a Q&A. It was at this point that Ms Raji began to read this statement:
“As Arundhati Roy stated once:
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
I start with this quote because for more than 3 years, the Justice4Sanaz campaign has been fighting against institutional racism and xenophobia at the University of Leeds. I was forced out of my PhD program and scholarship, put into penury and made homeless and now in a precarious immigration situation with the Home Office due to the actions of the School of Media and Communication. In June 2014 the campaign did a Freedom of Information request on the University of Leeds and found that professors and lecturers circulated in e-mails, racist, xenophobic and ableist comments about me, which were later published in an investigative piece by Ceasefire Magazine.
In the 3 years that the Justice4Sanaz campaign was established, we have consistently asked Leeds University Union to provide solidarity for our activism and, more importantly to support us in helping to vindicate my name and to safe-guard the rights of many non-EU international students of color who face victimization on and and off campus. At all times, our requests have been dismissed and ignored by LUU despite 8 other student unions supporting the Justice4Sanaz campaign. It is not “irrelevant” to bring this up, given that we met with both Gemma Turner and Freya Govus who are also on this year’s student executive. I mention this to underscore how consistent the silencing has been from LUU with regard to people like myself fighting the very racism at this institution that we are speaking about tonight.
While the Justice4Sanaz campaign welcomes a discussion about decolonizing education and the endemic white supremacist discourse within British Western academia, we are perplexed that LUU has organized this talk from a purely academic discourse without injecting the voice of a grassroots campaign that is apart of this very struggle. As we have always maintained in the lead-up to this event, it isn’t conducive to have a panel on decolonizing education while ignoring my case.
In closing, an event like this, no matter how well-meaning, rings hollow for those that fight with these struggles everyday, while ignored by the very structures that should be supporting and protecting the rights of all Black, PoC and non-EU International students.”
While reading the statement, Ms Raji was manhandled and roughed up by two big white male security guards, who proceeded to drag her down the stairs case where she was standing, reading the statement. What is even more shameful was that in an audience discussing the harmful effects of racism and white supremacy, no one intervened to prevent Ms Raji from being brutalized by these security guards! Ms Bouattia made a half-hearted attempt at preventing the security guards from dragging Ms Raji’s body outside the venue. Mr Erizia demanded that the security guards end their brutal aggression towards Ms Raji. Ms Raji quickly read the rest her statement while flanked by security guards around her. After Ms Raji finished, Ms Owusu began to speak on a microphone, dismissing the finer points of the Justice4Sanaz statement, not taking responsibility for the years of failure on behalf of the LUU’s deplorable response towards the Justice4Sanaz campaign, and adding insult to injury claimed that Ms Raji came to disrupt the event because she did not like Ms Owusu, which could be further from the truth.
We found all of Ms Owusu’s accusations against Justice4Sanaz bizarre and totally unfounded. Equally bizarre was the manner in which Ms Owusu sought to portray Ms Raji as unstable and to down play the very seriousness of Ms Raji’s pleas for help and solidarity. In fact, the manner that Ms Owusu behaved at the Why is My Curriculum Event? Leeds Launch was no different to how the racist behavior by the University of Leeds, which has attempted to stifle and criminalize Ms Raji’s voice and present her as nothing more than an “angry Brown woman.”
Because of the heightened security presence at the event, Ms Raji and Mr Erizia did not feel safe and proceeded to leave the venue. As both of them were exiting the building where the talk to place, a young woman from the audience began to intimidate Ms Raji, screaming “Selfish bitch” while walking very closely alongside Ms Raji. At some point, a security guard had to restrain this woman because she was harassing Ms Raji and preventing her from safely exiting the University of Leeds campus. It is strange that LUU, Ms Owusu and others tried to construe Ms Raji’s call for support and later intervention at an event designed to discuss the very same issues that she still affected by as nothing more than being “selfish” when the LUU and NUS BSC has consistently ignored Ms Raji’s pleas for support and solidarity in the days leading up to the event.
Interestingly, at no point did Ms Bouattia, NUS BSC representatives or any other LUU representative check on Ms Raji to see if she was fine given the manhandling by security guards hired by the event. In fact, what is even more grotesque was while Ms Raji was being brutalized by these 2 security guards, all of the NUS BSC passively sat and watched! Given the fact that Ms Bouattia and the NUS BSC have organized talks centered around PREVENT and police surveillance, #StudentsNotSuspect, we found it extremely strange how unconcern and utterly neglectful they were to prevent security brutality and to safe-guard Ms Raji from further attacks. Ms Bouattia spent far more time comforting Ms Owusu’s supposed hurt feelings, rather than caring for a campaign that she purports to support, if only on paper.
In closing, we like to quote in verbatim a comment left on Ms Raji’s Facebook left by Ms Ananya Rao-Middleton, which encapsulates the very problems with the manner in which the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch event was organized:
“And still both the LUU and NUS BSC remain silent on what happened before and during the event — including the physical violence Sanaz endured at the hands of security guards! It’s also very telling that the ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ event at LUU was highly securitised, something entirely unusual at these types of events. How can these campaigns claim to support vulnerable students in white supremacist elitist institutions, when they’ve failed so terribly to support a grassroots activist in a very precarious position who is seeking justice and solidarity?