The AMS Walkout was nothing but performative activism

Student governments need to use their platform to propose change, not allow for virtue signaling

Erika and Livi believe student governments must exercise their agency to aid their student bodies.

This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424. The Centre's online chat feature can be reached hereThe Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

On Sept. 27, we donned our raincoats and made our way to Summerhill to participate in a student-led walkout to show solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. With activism and advocacy being a large part of both our lives, it was only natural we would both attend. 

Unfortunately, we were soon disappointed as we watched our student government host an insensitive and thoughtless “rally.” It became clear that Queen’s and its student government had much more work to do than we thought. 

It’s well within the scope of the AMS’s platform, influence, and resources to host an event for survivors to collectivize student action against sexual violence—unfortunately, this didn’t happen. 

First, a person cannot walk out against an institution if they operate within that institution. If this was a real walkout, it wouldn't be hosted by the AMS in alignment with Queen’s preferred public image, and it certainly would not have the public support of Principal Patrick Deane

A walkout doesn’t happen if services on campus shut down to accommodate the walkout. And a walkout certainly doesn’t work if it’s conveniently filtered down to a bite-sized and performative ordeal. 

The AMS walkout also lacked concrete demands for the university. 

While we listened to speeches given by prearranged speakers, we kept waiting for a distinct set of goals we as a collective should strive for. Instead, we heard insulting chants and survivors’ stories with no trigger warnings given at the beginning of the event. 

The AMS’s criticisms about the University’s sexual violence policies and resources were that they were too inaccessible to students to be of service. This was touted as the primary fault of inequities on campus rather than the enduring rape culture, the repercussions of reporting sexual harassment and violence, and a lack of actionable policies. 

What this event did accomplish was a smothering of the movement against sexual violence. 

When student governments host events like this, students on campus feel the issue has been addressed or that by showing up, they have contributed to aiding the cause. Instead of capitalizing on the frustration of attendees and their desire to create change, students’ drive was coaxed to a dull rumble via broad statement after broad statement.  

Throughout the event, we felt the actual needs and feelings of survivors were a second thought. It was as if the AMS slapped the words “protest chants” and “second-wave feminism” into Google and did no more research. 

At an event where the responsibility should have lied with the host to ensure speakers had the tools for an accessible speech that didn't contain triggering content and dismissive language, the AMS failed to deliver this for the student body.

The majority of individuals attending the event already likely understood the gravity of the situation and empathized with survivors. They came, like we did, to join together and challenge the status quo of mere institutional rhetoric against sexual violence and instead work towards actionable community empowerment. 

While the event was meant to support survivors of sexual violence and draw attention to the urgency of the sexual violence crisis on university campuses, it instead consisted of virtue signaling from student leaders. 

One speaker even asked the crowd to “raise your hand if you have ever been groped”—we were appalled. 

Though the act was meant to foster a sense of bonding by seeing who had also experienced assault, it had the opposite effect. 

The question made survivors feel they were expected to reveal an experience that's at minimum uncomfortable and at maximum traumatic in front of a crowd of their peers. This insensitivity to the difficult and emotionally taxing process of deciding to share your story was reduced to a casual hand raise like you were answering a question in class. 

From that point on, organizers and speakers continued to isolate survivors in attendance.

The crowd was led through a number of chants with no explanation or purpose. The use of various gaudy chants like “hey mister get your hands off my sister” made a mockery of the gravity of the situation and failed to consider institutional failure in responding to and advocating for survivors.

The AMS’s flippant appropriation of chants from other social movements further demonstrated their performative activism. 

Chants like “no justice, no peace,” which belongs to the Black Lives Matter movement, were used. This was a disrespectful and unnecessary co-opting of sacred language that had no place being used at this event. 

This provided more than enough evidence to indicate this event lacked critical research and an intersectional approach.

The AMS also subtly elected who could and couldn’t be a survivor, as they assumed all “male-identified students” in attendance were allies rather than survivors and neglected to address the fact that sexual assault can happen to anyone regardless of their sexual or gender identities. 

Even if this was an attempt to help women feel seen, the AMS didn’t give survivors of all identities a sufficient space to feel heard. 

Though we want to make it clear that speakers at the Queen’s Walkout deserved to have a platform and to share their stories, the language used and the overall dilution of the problems at hand garnered a harmful insensitivity towards survivors. 

Through the lack of representation of survivors within the student body, the walkout failed to act in the interests of those affected by sexual assault on campus. It satiated the need for action  and, because of that, acted to keep Queen’s and other institutions safe from having to acknowledge thedeep-rooted nature of sexual violence and rape culture on university campuses. 

The University continues to promote a number of superficial policies and employs reactive support services in light of sexual violence. The failure of the AMS to effectively call on Queen’s for action means that it’s failing survivors on campus.  

When Queen’s students choose to collectivize to demand action, that collectivization must disrupt the status quo to be effective. For a walkout to be effective, everyone must actually leave their classes, physically disrupt movement on campus, and not simply return to regularly scheduled activities an hour later.

A walkout must also empower students with resources for next steps. Students don’t need more bystander training—they need an administrative body that listens and believes in us and a student government that advocates for tangible changes while actively pursuing the needs of the students.

While we don’t know what amendments to propose to make sexual violence response policies more effective and survivor-focused or how individual students can help, we do know that we want student governments to continue to advocate for change. In the future, the AMS must move forward, question their institution, and not be complacent. 

Erika Gow and Livi McElrea are third year Political Studies students.

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