This year’s mass protests against police brutality are thought to have been a major contribution to the record-breaking youth voter turnout that played a decisive role in Joe Biden’s victory, particularly among young people of color. But it isn’t only abuses perpetrated by city and state police departments that are being called out; there are also many movements happening at colleges dedicated to transforming public safety and ending police violence and racial profiling on campus.
Many campus police departments are affiliated with local police, which brings general policing problems to colleges. To tackle these issues, student groups organizing against racism and police violence have sprung up across the country since the racial justice protests this summer, among them Temple University’s Defund TUPD, Tulane University’s Abolish TUPD, and Northeastern University’s BlackAtNU coalition. Due to coronavirus concerns, for now these groups are focusing their energies on using social media to tell stories and educate their peers about the ways campus police perpetuate racism.
There is no shortage of stories to tell. There are countless testimonies from Tulane students of color on Abolish TUPD’s Instagram claiming officers harassed and profiled them or their friends. One student of color complained that police pulled them over and were “immediately aggressive.” The student described being handcuffed and accused of carrying a knife only to receive a ticket for a small amount of marijuana found in their car.
“TUPD pulled me over for no reason, unlawfully searched my car, and potentially exposed me to coronavirus while blatantly ignoring social distancing guidelines,” the student wrote. “I don’t understand why Tulane has designated them as the enforcing agents of social distancing guidelines when they clearly don’t even take COVID-19 seriously themselves.”
Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated incident. “Although our movement wasn’t created in response to a specific instance of violence perpetrated by campus police, since the beginning of our movement, numerous incidents of police brutality and sexual violence have occurred at the hands of Tulane police,” Uma Kumar-Montei, an organizer with Abolish TUPD, told Refinery29. “We have received over 20 testimonies of witnessed and alleged police misconduct.”
In Boston, students made similar accusations of racial profiling and harassment against Northeastern’s campus police. Like many other campus police departments, Northeastern's is equipped with weapons like assault rifles that the institution says are only for emergency use. However, far from making students feel safe, BlackAtNU campaign coordinator Charles Wallace-Thomas IV noted that the discrimination he has seen perpetuated by Northeastern police is “pretty standard for campuses with large quasi-militarized police forces.”
All three groups see their mission as not only addressing policing issues, but also rooted in creating safe, sustainable communities both on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods. Defund TUPD co-founder Lindsey Farrell told Refinery29 that there is not a lot of communication between Temple students and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, which the university has contributed to gentrifying. “We're organizing for community accountability in terms of justice. So that looks like knowing who your neighbor is,” Farrell said, adding that having deeper relationships with community members would encourage students to reach out to them for support or assistance, as opposed to calling police. Asked what public safety would look like without police, Wallace-Thomas IV echoed Farrell, “I think public safety at Northeastern looks like closer and more accountable community relationships, rather than the armed social control of students.”
The student activists all said they hope that by showing the effectiveness of alternative systems of public safety on campus, including more robust mental health resources and restorative justice, a practice where resolution comes through repairing harm and making amends, the effects will trickle up, ultimately encouraging transformation on a larger scale. “As we get Northeastern to defund campus police, maybe that gets some other colleges in Boston to defund their campus police, and maybe colleges across Boston defunding their campus police gives the city precedent to say, ‘Okay, we can defund BPD,’” BlackAtNU campaign coordinator James Lyons told Refinery29.
As we get Northeastern to defund campus police, maybe that gets some other colleges in Boston to defund theirs, and maybe that gives the city precedent to say, 'Okay, we can defund BPD.'
James Lyons, BlackAtNU campaign coordinator
Alongside discussions of race, groups are also engaging in a broader critique of the way schools allocate their resources, just like defund police organizers nationwide. On the Defund TUPD website, for instance, Temple students argue that the department’s 130 officers is an excessive number and that the $27 million budget for “Campus Safety” comes at the expense of other programs. Farrell added Defund TUPD wants to see more robust counseling services and greater use of the nonprofit Women Organized Against Rape, so survivors can avoid going to the police for help with a sexual assault. The organization offers a 24-hour hotline as well as free counseling and court accompaniment services to survivors.
The National Women’s Law Center notes that forcing survivors to report to the police ultimately results in less accountability and more violence. Kumar-Montei echoed this sentiment, explaining, “Students who have experienced sexual violence do not see Tulane Police as a valid support system. Investing the money currently allocated for the Tulane University Police Department into more mental health services, especially for students who have experienced sexual violence, would be a much more effective way of dealing with this important issue.”
Lyons said that involving the police in mental health crises is also problematic for Black students. “I can tell you as a Black person, if I'm going through it and a police officer shows up at my door, my mental health is only going to get worse from there.” With a relatively supportive administration behind them, BlackAtNU is in the early stages of working to establish a Restorative and Transformative Justice Center that would provide an alternative to policing and tackle a diverse range of issues “from a Title IX sexual assault case to a dispute between roommates to a conflict that a staff member has with their supervisor,” said Lyons. BlackAtNU hopes to transfer funds from campus police to the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution, expanding it to build the center.
At Tulane, Abolish TUPD also hopes to reallocate funds from its police department to the community. The group lists a Citizen Police Accountability Council (CPAC) as part of a slate of demands it sent to the university this fall. The proposed council would consist of “abolitionist BIPOC students, workers, and community members” with diversity in gender, sexuality, carceral history, disability, and income, as well as representatives from student cultural organizations.
The group would hold the administration accountable to an abolitionist view and reimagine public safety at Tulane. Kumar-Montei explained that the council’s ultimate goal would be to create “institutions on campus that address the root causes of crime and don’t reproduce white supremacist ideologies in their structures.” At the time of our interview, Kumar-Montei had not heard back from the administration with regards to the group’s demands.
All of these parallel efforts eventually ladder up to one overarching goal — safer campus environments for marginalized students, particularly Black students. While students have a long history of organizing against campus police, this particular moment feels transformative: Students are addressing longstanding issues with policing with small-scale, meaningful action on their campuses. “At [the protests over the summer], Black and Indigenous activists called on white and non-BIPOC POC to directly confront white supremacy and the ways it manifests in our own lives and our relationships with others,” said Kumar-Montei. “For us, as students at a primarily white institution in a predominantly Black community, that means putting an end to the violence our university exerts on BIPOC students and community members by destroying all remnants of white supremacist institutions on our campus.”