Letter: The co-optation of social justice in the AMS elections

On Monday March 2, the Women’s Centre, Pride Collective, Student Environment Centre, UBCc350 and the Social Justice Centre held our first ever AMS Elections Justice Forum for candidates running for positions in the AMS.

We organized this forum in the hopes of focusing on questions relevant to justice-based campus groups and to demand that the candidates be accountable to their commitments and promises — particularly because many AMS candidates have built platforms on critical issues that pertain to justice, such as intersectionality, Indigenous rights, equity and diversity.

Fraternities and the AMS

Of the 10 candidates who attended the Justice Forum, three were members of fraternities: Ian Stone for president, Sly Mensah Jr. for VP admin and Kalith Nanayakkara for VP external. The overrepresentation of candidates associated with fraternities is particularly concerning given the underrepresentation of people who suffer gender-based violence in the AMS elections: there are no Trans or non-binary people running for executive positions and there is only one woman of colour, Lucia Liang, who is seeking executive office. While acknowledging the importance of racialized candidates in the context of racism and anti-Blackness, we understand the limits of identity politics without substantive commitments to transformative justice. Violence can be carried out by anyone — including those who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour — especially if they are aligned with organizations that perpetuate violence.

Given alleged incidents of drugging and sexual assault, fraternities have show that their very existence can threaten the safety of students on campus and that they have been unable to fundamentally change their culture and be accountable to the alleged violence that they have enacted. While there has been a permanent suspension of open social events and the institution of workshops, this is not indicative of the major cultural shift that addressing sexual violence necessitates. Further, the discussion on sexualized violence at the Justice Forum demonstrated that many candidates, particularly those associated with fraternities, were unable to detail specific measures of survivor-centric accountability, including one candidate who claimed that fraternities have a “long-standing reputation of contributing to balance.” We think it is especially dangerous for candidates to pay lip service to issues like sexual violence without recognizing how they are members of an organization that has been accused of being complicit in violence. In part, this is why having members of fraternities in positions of power is highly alarming — a phenomenon that is exacerbated by the fact that fraternities are highly organized during elections and are remarkably effective in consolidating support for members who run for office, regardless of their policies.

Ultimately, we view this as a detriment to creating transformative change, particularly because of the harm that we see the fraternities posing.

Empty gestures of justice

In part, the Justice Forum was organized because we noticed how the platforms of many candidates included the language of social justice. While it is crucial to have student politicians who are committed to progressive politics, we have also noticed the language of social justice being co-opted and used to further build the social capital of being a student politician by people with no sincere history of committing to justice. We find this to be particularly true of language around equity and inclusion. We have noticed that self-proclaimed allies kept gesturing towards representation within student politics, particularly catering to the audience of the Justice Forum, while obfuscating and failing to properly address systemic violence against marginalized people.

It is particularly disappointing to see organizations and individuals who have espoused commitments to justice support an under-qualified and ill-informed VP external candidate, Kalith Nanayakkara. This candidate, who is a member of a fraternity, has built a limited platform based on co-optation and empty words of “Indigenous Support,” equity and diversity, while being unable to speak to the specifics of these issues during the Justice Forum. The support for such a lacklustre candidate is a disservice that is especially disappointing when there is a much more informed progressive candidate in this race, Andy Wu, whose platform and performance at the Justice Forum demonstrated a commitment to upholding justice, advocating for climate and housing justice as well as respecting Indigenous sovereignty and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Ultimately, as student activists, we believe the AMS has a lot of potential for justice-related advocacy. To see these advocacy opportunities be wasted on candidates that are seemingly more interested in social capital is demoralizing. This is an active disservice to the progressive candidates who are in this election and to the entirety of the student body, particularly those who are most marginalized. This disservice has material consequences on the lives of students and contributes to the ongoing violence taking place on this campus and beyond, while undermining the labour of people who actually do the work of fighting for justice.

We hope that this letter reminds candidates of their responsibility to go beyond empty rhetoric and commit to upholding justice and resisting systemic violences. We want to remind everyone that an adequate understanding of justice necessitates prioritizing the transformation and redistribution of power, as opposed to leveraging justice rhetoric for personal gain. We also hope that it reminds the student body of the importance of holding institutions and people who are vying for positions of power accountable. Please vote in the AMS elections.

The organizers of the Social Justice forum are Niki Najm-Abadi, Gabby Doebeli, Mahtab Laghaei, Alexandra Emery, Miles Justice, Chris Munn and Cameron Anderson.