This is a letter Clare Walker-Gore is going to send to the union society committee. If you are a member of the union and after the protest on Friday you want to resign your membership, please consider signing it or writing your own letter.
Dear Union Society Committee,
I am writing to you to resign my membership of the Cambridge Union Society and to demand a refund of my membership fee on the basis that I was mis-sold membership of the society. When I joined the society, it was on the understanding that it was committed to the promoting of free speech. That claim was made a mockery by the actions of the society over the last week, and is I believe now untenable and irrecoverable unless a full apology were to be made.
When I joined the union society in my first year, I was proud to think I was part of a society committed to debating the most challenging issues of our day, that brought such eminent speakers to Cambridge and enabled me to hear them. But on Friday evening, I found myself standing on the pavement outside the society building, on the other side of a metal barricade erected to protect the rapist inside, being stared at by lines of hired security guards and watched nervously by police, as woman after woman stepped forward to the megaphone to share her testimony, to speak out about her experience of sexual violence. From that makeshift platform, the speakers moved me beyond tears. I learnt more about the reality of sexual violence in our society, about rape culture and what it does to women’s lives, than I would have thought possible in a single evening, and I learnt more about feminism than I have learnt from any book I have read or from any lecture I have attended.
But it is an outrage and a travesty that those women were speaking on the wrong side of those barricades, excluded, by force, from the chamber that is supposed to be a forum for real learning and real debate, while Strauss-Kahn was wined and dined, heard and applauded, privileged and protected. Later that evening, I watched some women’s anger boil over as they tried to scale the barricades and force their way into the chamber to confront Strauss-Kahn, to make him hear what they had to say, and I watched them thrown to the floor by security guards, I watched them being grabbed, tackled, beaten. I watched all this knowing that the society of which I am a member had made this happen, had directly caused this brutality by inviting a rapist to speak in the chamber, then by refusing to allow these women a platform inside the union to express their feelings, and finally by hiring security whose sole priority was to ensure Strauss-Kahn was not embarrassed, at absolutely any cost. You put the personal pride of a serial rapist above the dignity and safety of your own members: you ignored the rape survivors speaking out in the cold so you could listen to a rapist in peace.
If a politician whose politics are controversial or even hateful is invited to speak at the union, then the rationale has always been that the politician will be questioned on those issues, that the platform he is being given will become the platform by which his ideas are disproved. Yet Strauss-Kahn was invited to speak as an economist: we were asked to forget that he is a serial rapist. This sidelining of the issue of sexual violence – why do you care so much? If he hasn’t been proved guilty in court why does it matter to you? – would be impossible if you had heard the testimonies of the women outside the union, if you had come to understand the prevalence of this experience, right here in Cambridge, and understood that when so very, very few women ever see justice, Strauss-Kahn’s evasion of criminal responsibility becomes an exacerbation and not a mitigation of the offence his presence causes. No platform was provided to debate the really pressing issue that Strauss-Kahn’s continued presence in public life raises, which is the question of why rape is thought so trivial that a man’s career can survive rape allegations.
Worst of all, the society changed the rules of entry at the last minute and without proper consultation with its own members. We could no longer queue up to hear Strauss-Kahn speak and to challenge him, but could only enter on the basis of a ballot. The system that had been deemed good enough for every other speaker was dismantled, for a man whose presence was not a unique honour but a disgrace for the society that has hosted so many better men – and no longer could the most committed students, who wanted to hear him the most, queue up the longest to get a place. The message was clear: no silent protest would be tolerated, no show of dissent, not even hostile questioning. The principles of free speech by which the society has always claimed to operate were overturned, and all in honour of a man whom even members of the society’s committee have been unwilling to defend.
The union society has been debased by these actions out of all recognition, and it is no longer the society I joined. This was not the controversy of a difficult issue debated and explored, this was the cheap sensationalism of wilfully caused offence and wilfully mistaken priorities, to which I would never have thought the union society would be capable of stooping.
I will never be able to enter the chamber again without knowing that it is the place where Strauss-Kahn’s platform was upheld and defended; I will never be able to walk past without seeing those barricades. There was a time when the union society had no need of protection from its own members, and I am sickened to think that the committee have taken no responsibility for bringing things to this pass.
I therefore wish to resign my membership of the society, and to call on the society to refund my membership. Yours Faithfully Clare Walker Gore