COVID-safe Activism on Campus26 April 2021
Due to COVID restrictions, students and organisations at the University of Melbourne will have to rethink the way they protest this year.
The University has a rich history of student protest, from Invasion Day marches to the die-in staged in the Arts West foyer on Open Day to protest the University’s participation in the 2019 International Mining and Resources Conference.
Such actions have stalled due to concerns over the safety of in-person protests, which Victoria’s former Minister for Health, Jenny Mikakos, previously denounced as “incredibly irresponsible” given the public health risk they pose.
In response, students have gathered online, embracing digital platforms to continue their work remotely. University of Melbourne Student Union Women’s Office Bearer Srishti Chatterjee said that students were already aware of how to “do things online and over Zoom” and could continue campaigning in lieu of in-person rallies.
Chatterjee told Farrago about the importance of this for inclusivity.
“[Students] with disabilities are usually largely excluded [from in-person protests] due to lack of introspection regarding accessibility.”
The shift to online activism has so far resolved this issue (and raised others such as internet access) and sparked much-needed conversations around exclusionary protest practices of the past as well as inclusive ways forward for those with accessibility needs.
The University’s National Tertiary Education Union branch president Steve Adams said an added bonus of digital protesting is that it allows students from different campuses to be involved.
“One of the problems with protests on campus is that it’s largely … people from Parkville.” Digital protests counteract this, allowing people from different geographic locations to convene online.
However, in terms of raising awareness, Adams said that on-campus campaigns have the advantage.
Posters and physical rallies increase visibility for the group’s campaigns from students from a range of different backgrounds. In contrast, digital protests often only reach those already engaged with the issue.
Both Adams and Chatterjee are confident about a safe return to on-campus protesting, citing the use of COVID marshals to ensure social distancing and mask-wearing.
Students share in their conviction. Already this month, over 100 University students and staff convened on-campus for a snap rally to protest against the transphobic views of a University staff member.
Off-campus, students also participated in-person protests against refugee detention and the national March 4 Justice in opposition to sexual assault and gendered violence in the workplace.
Farrago reached out to the University for comment on the issue, but did not receive a response.
In light of current restrictions, it appears that students will have to continue to make their voices heard online until a revision of safety guidelines allows for the return to on-campus protesting. The question remains as to how students and organisations will make better use of digital platforms to achieve the impact of in-person protesting.
For more information on upcoming rallies and how to get involved visit https://umsu.unimelb.edu.au.