As protests surged across the country to condemn George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police in the summer of 2020, police divestment became a serious and pressing demand that has reaped rewards: Many cities have recently taken steps to divert police department money to fund community resources that, protesters argue, would better serve the people and resolve many of the issues cops have historically turned into opportunities for violence.
Students have been making these demands for years now, and not just for local police. Students have to deal with both municipal and campus cops, and so do the people who live around university grounds. And campus have only become more professionalized and militarized in the paste decade. They are frequently armed, equally as violent as regular cops, and—especially at private universities— not burdened with the same expectation of transparency. These are complaints shared by students across the country. To this end, we asked students at universities that have led the way in campus police abolition movements to tell us about what they’ve been doing to hold their universities’ police departments accountable.
While many colleges and universities have only recently started to contend with policing on college campuses in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the University of Chicago’s reckoning with its private police force began in early 2018. Following the shooting of a university undergraduate by an officer of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), students were galvanized to create a #CareNotCops (CNC) chapter on campus and demand reform.
The UCPD has a history of policing Black and brown people on campus, questioning their purpose in buildings, once even forcefully arresting a Black student in the library for making too much noise. Their presence is even more pervasive for the South Side residents within the force’s three-mile jurisdiction, which extends roughly 14 blocks north past the campus. As such, reform efforts have brought together various student groups and faculty members with local residents seeking greater transparency of budget and practice, disarmament, and a defunding that redistributes resources to the surrounding neighborhood, which is largely Black and historically underserved.
At the end of the academic year, the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor lit new fire under these existing demands, spurring protests around Hyde Park and the deployment of more radical tactics by student organizers, which has led to a number of contentious confrontations between the university administration and activists in the past year. At the beginning of the summer, student organizers from a number of campus activist groups staged a sit-in at UCPD headquarters that included, at points, over 100 participants and lasted through the night. In September, the week before the start of the new school year, CNC staged a controversial, week-long occupation in front of Provost Ka Yee Lee’s, calling for her to agree to a recorded public meeting and address their demands. This October, CNC collaborated with the youth activist group Good Kids Mad City to organize a Halloween-night demonstration advocating for the defunding of the UCPD and reduced Chicago Police Department (CPD) presence on the South Side.
In June of 2020, the Chicago Maroon published an editorial endorsing the organizing efforts of students and community members to disband and abolish the UCPD. Instead of an armed force, the Maroon advocated for an unarmed emergency response force trained in seeking to “better trained and equipped to handle particular, commonly occurring University-related situations.” In the editorial, we point particularly to not just the past horrifying actions of the UCPD, but how policing is not an adequate response for students going through a mental health crisis. Student organizing is crucial—the surrounding community can and will be safer without a private militarized force.
The editorial was published following the 19-hour occupation of UCPD headquarters, where student organizers demanded that the university hold a public town hall that fielded comments from students and community members. The university has refused to meet this demand, nor has it offered to consider the broader, abolitionist demands of student organizers. We wrote our editorial with the firm belief that, given the university’s past actions and its claimed interests in serving both its students and the greater community needs, a Hyde Park free of the UCPD will help keep students and the community safer. The student organizing group UChicago United, which is affiliated with #CareNotCops, has been facilitating mutual aid in Hyde Park and now tables weekly by Jewel-Osco, a grocery store near campus.
Amid the gentrification taking place in Hyde Park, student organizing has helped increase students engagement with and support of mutual aid projects. Defunding UCPD as a step toward its abolition would be a direct means of putting resources into the hands of community members and directing funds toward those who need them the most. Abolition is not just a process about taking down systems that may be inequitable; abolition is about creating new possibilities and new ways of helping us all live more fulfilling lives.
In the midst of last summer’s nationwide uprising for Black lives, Phoenix students escalated their #CopsOuttaCampus protests, demanding the removal of School Resource Officers (SROs) from Phoenix schools. The students were from Puente, a human rights group organizing to improve the lives of Arizona’s most marginalized communities. After three months of intensive lobbying and action, they won a resounding victory: the district superintendent announced the dissolution of its police contract and the removal of SROs.
Phoenix followed a number of other cities—most prominently Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, as well as Portland and Denver. For years, youth and community organizations across the country had raised the alarm on SROs. According to the Dignity in Schools Campaign, Black students are nearly three and a half times more likely to be taken into police custody than white students; Latinx students are one and a half times more likely.
Phoenix in particular has a long history of targeting and discriminating against students of color. In the early 1900s, African American students were segregated in a basement known as the “Department for Colored Students,” where all of their classes were held. In 1969, a group of students formed Chicanos Por La Causa in response to racial inequities. At first, they lobbied the district; after the district refused to listen, they organized a month of walkouts.
Puente’s campaign launched in 2017. Students had already been organizing in response to then-President Trump’s new immigration policies as well as SB 1070, Arizona’s landmark “show me your papers” law. In 2019, an SRO pepper-sprayed a group of middle school students at Isaac School District, ramping up the urgency. Then, last summer, with growing school shootings and Black Lives Matter protests alike, the campaign took off. “There were so many stories of undocumented people coming out,” said Michelle Ruiz, a Puente youth organizer. “Our community was already being targeted, and so we felt like our schools were going to be the next target.”
From the start, the campaign employed a range of tactics—using social media to educate peers, attending board meetings, and holding protests outside district headquarters. In early 2018, following the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, students marched downtown demanding that SROs leave their campuses. “We wanted to remove SROs from schools to make a point of safety and security,” said Puente’s development and financial director Isis Gil. “But there’s always an ask for other resources for our youth, such as more counselors, more nurses, and social services to improve their lives.”
In June 2020, Abia Khan, a North High senior who was part of Puente Youth and is now a Harvard freshman, started a petition to reignite the call for SRO removal. Phoenix PD had become one of the deadliest police forces in America, and Khan felt that there was no reason for a force like that to be present on school campuses. The petition went on to amass 4,000 signatures, putting pressure on the district while helping to build Puente’s base.
“The Black Lives Matter protests were the first time I had heard the phrase, ‘defund the police,’” Khan said. “If I’m being completely honest, it caught me a little off guard because I couldn’t understand the demand. After doing more research, I realized the merits of the demand.”
One of the board members, Stephanie Parra, felt the urgency. “I appreciate when students use their voice,” she said. “What they did last summer wasn’t just personal. They were demanding more from an institution that has a long history of oppression and racism.”
The board’s initial vote was split: three in support of termination, three against, and one abstention. Those who were against it had security concerns for the students. The final decision was announced on July 7, following internal dissension.
Now, students are working to hold PUHSD accountable for the $1.2 million that the district recouped from the terminated contract. In September, the district launched a participatory budgeting process, recruiting student, parent, and staff input. Puente Youth members are trying to figure out the best way to reinvest the funds. They’re also expanding the campaign to other schools in Arizona, starting with Glendale and Mesa, where they plan to launch student programs, like in Phoenix, anchored by training on leadership and grassroots organizing.
“I hope that other people that I know or people who see me on social media will see the work I am doing,” Ruiz reflected. “I hope they will want to go out there and do it themselves, so they are part of a huge community and a larger project.”
In the 2021 Maryland state legislative session, SB0276 was introduced to repeal the ability of Johns Hopkins University to form a private police force. After nearly four years of fighting, student organizers and community members in Baltimore had finally brought opposition to the private police to the state Senate floor.
Our organizing began in 2018, when the university wrote and lobbied for a bill that would authorize the creation of a private police force to patrol not just campus but the surrounding communities. The bill, called the “Community Safety and Strengthening Act,” was introduced to the Senate in 2019; the General Assembly passed the bill, despite significant opposition from Hopkins affiliates and community members who reside in the areas surrounding Hopkins campuses.
That April, student and community activists staged a 35-day sit-in at Garland Hall, the administrative building. At least seven protesters, both students and local residents, were dragged from the building and arrested. Rather than address the concerns being raised by these activists, university President Ron Daniels called the Baltimore Police Department.
The Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins formed during the 2020 nationwide protests. The university also acted in the wake of a global reckoning with police brutality: it announced a “two-year pause” on the creation of their police force to “reevaluate” the role of policing in public safety. The “pause” included disbanding the student advisory board, the police accountability board, and the school has stopped holding meetings with community members.
Then, despite the two-year pause, earlier this year Hopkins sent administrators to testify at the SB0276 bill hearings. They spoke against the bill, saying that a police force is necessary for the safety of Hopkins affiliates. Organizers here noted that this position flagrantly contradicted their previous claim that during the so-called pause, the university would “reevaluate” the role of policing. Every person who testified spoke about the police force as an entity that will absolutely exist after their “pause.”
While the university disbanded its advisory boards, we with the Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins—made up of student organizers and Baltimore community activists from over a dozen groups like the Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment, Greater Baltimore Democratic Socialists of America, Teachers and Researchers United, and the Hopkins graduate student union—escalated the opposition to the Hopkins private police force.
CAPH and concerned faculty circulated a petition calling for the full abandonment of the JHUPD that received over 6,000 individual signatures from Hopkins affiliates, alumni, and Baltimore community members, which we delivered to university president Ron Daniels’s house at the end of a protest march across campus.
Though our pressure led to significant movement of this bill, it failed to pass committee. Now, CAPH is organizing communities to make clear its opposition both on the campus and among the surrounding residents who would be directly impacted by their neighborhoods being patrolled by Hopkins police officers.
Immediately after the failure of SB0276 to pass from committee, Hopkins announced that it is renewing the search for a vice president of security and public safety, thus solidifying plans to create JHPD.
This work is far from over. CAPH is ready to continue this fight as long as Hopkins plans to force police on Baltimore City. We’ve slowed them down by four years—and we’re not going anywhere.
Amid a global pandemic and calls for defunding the police around the country, the University of California system maintained and even increased the UC Police Department (UCPD) budget. The UCLA police budget, for example, was projected to increase from $21,663,372 to $22,182,739 in the next year—a 2.4-percent increase.
This money goes toward initiatives like predictive policing technologies, surveillance softwares, and community policing partnerships. These harmful carceral alliances not only inflict violence; they also extract money from the students and communities without keeping them safe.
It is clear that the UC system has prioritized its allegiances to policing, upholding policing logics and colonial structures of violence.
The exorbitant amount of money spent at UCPD is only one example of the university’s inability to prioritize community over state violence. This is coupled with several inevitably failed attempts to “hold police accountable” for instances of state violence, including the harm to student protesters.
Cops Off Campus is a coalition of graduate students, undergraduate students, faculty, staff, and community members who have come together to organize around the abolition of police at UCLA and beyond.
We are demanding the removal of the physical manifestations of the police, as well as a disbanding and refusal of all police partnerships and technologies within academic spaces and other university supported spaces. These spaces include student housing and community hospitals owned or managed by the university.
We acknowledge that UCLA, and academia more generally, is a space of complicity. Our school has been the site of extensive state violence and has created various forms of policing technologies, producing research that inflicts harm on campus and within communities.
We are not calling for attempts to reform the police or attempting to hold them accountable.
Over the last year we have organized protests, held reflection spaces, and launched a map of carceral violence on our campus. Throughout May, we are joining a national alliance of faculty, staff, and students to call for the complete removal of cops from all academic spaces and to educate and activate members to collectively imagine a community without police through the creation of spaces for protest, reflection, healing and mutual aid. But it’s not just that. We are also demanding a cost-of-living adjustment for equitable pay for all workers at the university. We are demanding a reinvestment to community healing, mental health, and student support. We are demanding land back. We are demanding an end to all forms of policing violence and harm through the university and beyond.