Discrimination at Oxford Union

Ebenezer Azamati is pulled from his chair by security guards during a debate at the Oxford Union. Photo: Supplied
Ebenezer Azamati is pulled from his chair by security guards during a debate at the Oxford Union. Photo: Supplied
Winter is gathering here in Oxford, the streets are icy, and it seems that all hell has broken loose in the Oxford Union.

On October 17 this year, Ebenezer Azamati (25), a postgraduate student from Ghana studying international relations at St John's College, arrived early at the Oxford Union to reserve an accessible seat for a debate, as he was concerned that there was no special provision for people with disabilities.

Azamati then left for dinner at his college, but upon arriving back at the Union before the debate began, he was refused entry. A friend arrived to accompany him, and Azamati went inside and sat down. Shortly afterwards, security officials appeared and pulled him from his chair, confiscated his union card, and thrust him out of the building.

Azamati, who is visually impaired, told the Sunday Times: ''I felt that I was treated as not being human enough to deserve justice and fair treatment.''

There is a video recording of this distressing incident. Watching the first few seconds is enough to convince anyone that Azamati did not in any way deserve such inhumane treatment. What is perhaps almost more nauseating about the incident is the sheer inaction on the part of everyone else in the building at the time.

Throngs of students sit passively watching Azamati defend himself against the manhandling guards, and some people even laugh.

As my dear friend Rahul Bajaj has pointed it, it may be argued that Azamati's ethnicity or visual impairment had nothing to do with the way he was treated. And in a sense, this is correct, as the security guard did not turn Azamati out because he is blind. Yet one cannot deny that disabilities can render one more vulnerable in some situations, including this one.

The Oxford Union has a responsibility to care for all of its members and visitors, including those with disabilities. As the Oxford University Africa Society (AfriSoc) puts it: ''should the debate have even begun already, the Union ought to have a well thought out procedure for a situation where a physically impaired individual may need to exit and resume their place within your chamber.''

The Oxford Union has taken its time to even address the issue, let alone issue an apology or set about making amends. After the despicable treatment of Azamati, Brendan McGrath, the president of the union - who was himself absent at the time of the incident - lodged a complaint against Azamati for violent behaviour. McGrath then insisted on overseeing a markedly unfair hearing wherein Azamati was denied sufficient time to bring forth his witnesses, and was eventually stripped of his membership.

After Helen Mountfield QC stepped in to defend Azamati, the charges against him were successful appealed, and McGrath eventually and somewhat reluctantly apologised ''for the distress and any reputational damage'' to the student. But as Nwamaka Ogbonna, president of AfriSoc puts it: ''You can't put this man through all of this trauma and expect everyone else to move on.''

This incident also speaks to a wider problem of discimination in the university.

This incident and the horrific manner in which the Union committee acted is especially troubling, given that the Union is seen as a stepping stone towards high office.

Founded in 1823, the Oxford Union is one of Britain's oldest university unions and one of the world's most prestigious private students' societies.

Britain's Prime Minister was president of the Oxford Union in 1986, and although his presidency was not particularly distinguished or memorable, it was angelic compared with that of Brendan McGrath.

It is disappointing that AfriSoc was the only Oxford Society to make a public statement on the issue. Azamati may be a member of AfriSoc, but he is also a student at the university, and his mistreatment at the hands of the union is not merely a union matter, but a moral one.

Harry Hatwell has formally begun impeachment proceedings against Brendan McGrath, by pinning a motion of impeachment on the union's noticeboard. To quote Hatwell, who saw the incident, ''The union holds itself to be a bastion of democratic debate and liberty but it is hard to see such values have been upheld here. The actions of the union and the impunity with which our elected representatives have acted cannot go unchallenged.''

As I write this, news has just broken that the union president has resigned. I have no doubt his resignation was reluctantly occasioned; McGrath's resignation letter smacks of self-centred pity and reads as a last-minute attempt to cover his hide.

Ultimately, his failure to foster equity and fairness, his refusal to listen to the voices of the Union's members, and his inability to combat ableism and racism in the union will be his disappointing legacy. I can only hope the next president will actively work towards ensuring such a horrific incident never occurs again in the first place.

The matter is not over. I wholeheartedly support AfriSoc's demands for a public announcement by the Oxford Union on the appropriate disciplinary process and punishment to be meted out to its staff, the security guard who assaulted Azamati, and their request for details on how the Oxford Union intends to compensate Azamati.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

Comments

Oicks. Good there were consequences. One wonders what McGrath secundus is reading.

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