Doors blockaded as NUS conference erupts in fracas
Alexandros Tsathas, Subeta Vimalarajah and Tom Joyner report from the conference floor.
The National Union of Students’ annual national conference has fallen into disarray on its third day, culminating in a physical scuffle where a member of Student Unity (Labor right) aggressively shoved a rival delegate as she attempted to blockade the exit from the conference floor.
Video footage shows Student Unity delegate Martin Zanolla, who is representing the University of Wollongong, engaging in a confrontation with the Socialist Alternative faction.**
Zanolla is then pulled back by members of his faction as others from Socialist Alternative rush to intervene.**
The disagreement stemmed from a debate sparked by Student Unity member* Fahad Ali when he spoke to a “Solidarity with the Palestinians” motion.
Although he supported the Palestinian struggle, he believed the motion belonged in the “unionism” section of the policy book instead of the “ethnocultural” chapter being discussed.
Members of Socialist Alternative then began shouting insults, with calls of “racist” and “Zionist scumbag” heard on the conference floor.
Approximately ten minutes of continuous chanting from Socialist Alternative then made it impossible for Palestinian student, Tarek Muhtaseb, of the Liberal student faction to speak to the motion. This eventually prompted the entire Student Unity contingent to leave the room in protest.
Socialist Alternative members formed a human blockade across the exit as Zanolla entered the fray, with several others caught in the crossfire.
Earlier in the morning, the entire National Labor Students (Labor left) faction walked out in protest in response to a disagreement on the proposed date of a nation-wide education demonstration in 2016.
Chanting, drinking and incoherent speeches have characterised the past three days of national conference. Despite the chaos, the national conference has so far allowed discussion on policies affirming NUS’ stance against university restructuring, queer homelessness, and in support for smaller and regional campuses.
The conference is due to wrap up on Thursday. You can follow the live-blog here.
*A previous version of this article described Fahad Ali as a delegate of Student Unity. He is in fact just a member.
**A previous version of this article used different language to describe these events.
Mr Zanolla has subsequently provided the following by way of statement:
Last year I was elected as my university’s representative to the National Union of Students (NUS); lured in by the offer of a free trip to Melbourne and my genuine curiosity about exactly what it is the NUS (an organisation I’d never heard of before being elected to it) did. I foolishly accepted the offer to attend NUS National Conference (Nat-Con) completely unaware of what I was about to be exposed to.
To clarify, the group of people I attended NUS with, Student Unity were perfectly pleasant; they were clearly there with the best of intentions and genuinely wanted to create positive changes for the wider student community. Notwithstanding our conflicting political standpoints, I found that I also got along quite well with members from the Labor Left faction and the Liberals, with all of their members behaving in a professional and amicable manner at all times. Unfortunately, my whole Nat-Con experience was marred significantly when I encountered a group calling themselves the Socialist Alternative.
I’d seen the Socialist Alternative’s violent and anti-social behaviour on the evening news and read about it in various newspapers. These are the people who recently trashed Cory Bernardi’s office following his opposition to the Safe Schools program (http://www.skynews.com.au/news/top-stories/2016/03/18/bernardi-s-office-trashed-over-safe-schools.html) and while I too disagree with Mr Bernadi’s politics, I believe in rational debate as opposed to violence and criminal damage. Though I’d been warned about the Socialist Alternative by my fellow members, nothing could have truly prepared me for having to spend five days in a very small conference room with them. From the first day of conference I witnessed them using bully tactics to intimidate my fellow Labor members, physically removing the microphone from people attempting to exercise their right to speak, throwing objects at a group of Liberals who were simply attempting to have a meeting, knocking drinks out of people’s hands and screaming in the face of visibly frightened women.
All of the above hostility eventually culminated in the event to which the article I’m responding to refers. It was on or about the third day of the conference a member of the Liberals was attempting to speak on the matter of Palestine. Despite the fact that this gentleman was in fact Palestinian and may have genuinely had something to teach us, Socialist Alternative refused to let him speak due to the fact that he was a member of the Liberal party, effectively drowning him out with a ridiculous and un-democratic chant. Not satisfied with simply chanting, members of Socialist Alternative tried to physically remove the Liberal speaker from the lectern.
It was at this point that my faction decided that we would all leave the conference floor in an attempt to de-escalate the situation, however, as Student Unity attempted to leave, members of Socialist Alternative blocked both exists and became physically violent towards members of Student Unity who were simply attempting to exit the room peacefully. I consider myself a person who is fairly sound of mind, but even I will admit that this was indeed an intimidating experience. At least six people who were involved in the confrontation suffered anxiety attacks, I had to quite literally bear hug one of our male members and escort him to safety as he was sobbing uncontrollably and was physically unable to remove himself from the situation. One of our female members who is a diabetic and needed to check her blood sugar levels was punched in the face as she attempted to make her way to safety; after we all made it outside I had to sprint to the other end of the complex to fetch her an energy drink in a bid to stop her having a diabetic attack. The behaviour from the Socialist Alternative was absolutely abhorrent, however the article to which I now respond inexplicably focused primarily on my involvement.
At the time the video referred to in the article began, I was standing back and trying to avoid any confrontation. Unfortunately three Socialist Alternative members decided that it was acceptable for them to physically assault one of our female members. I was made aware of the three on one attack by a fellow member and knew that I couldn’t stand idly by and let someone be physically assaulted; I remember being taught at school that allowing a fight or assault to continue without intervening is just as bad as being a participant in it.
The video clearly shows me entering the group and attempting to quell the violence by removing one of the Socialist Alternative members from our member. While this was a proportionate and reasonable course of action considering the circumstances, unfortunately this caused the Socialist Alternative members to become even more violent and led to me being punched several times by a female member of Socialist Alternative as I was thankfully pulled out of the situation by a good friend.
Yes, indeed the video shows me in a heightened emotional state, but can anyone honestly say that if they were in the same situation and had just been physically assaulted for trying to do the right thing, that they wouldn’t have been a touch upset themselves.
Following the confrontation a complaint was lodged against me by one of the Socialist Alternative members, which was rightfully dismissed by the Grievance Officer as I was found to be acting in defence of a fellow student.
To wit, I vehemently reject the imputations made by the article that I was somehow to blame for any of the violence and while my time at NUS Nat-Con was certainly eye opening, not in a month of Sundays would I return to a conference where I would have to once again be exposed to the disgustingly violent behaviour of the Socialist Alternative.