People often treat university students as if they live in a bubble sheltered from the realities of the outside world. But the university is not a bubble. It is a microcosm of our society where so many of the same kinds of violence occur, such as increasing corporatization, gentrification, and militarism. The growing presence of university police forces presents students with the question of how to best resist and press for abolition while also living, learning, and working at university campuses.
I know this first hand. For five years, I was one of the lead organizers of the campaign Disarm PSU at Portland State University. In 2013, university administrators let it slip that they were looking into creating an armed and deputized police force for the campus, coinciding with the first explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Students, staff, and faculty on the increasingly diverse campus were horrified at the implications of this decision and fought back hard, but lost. Two years later, we launched Disarm PSU, a call to reverse the decision by the board of trustees and the school administration to create the police force. In August 2020, the university announced it would disarm campus police officers in the following academic year, a massive win for our years-long campaign.
When your organizing is focused on municipal, state, or federal police forces, it can be difficult to make far-reaching calls like disarmament or abolition seem politically viable. Many people find it genuinely difficult to imagine their communities functioning without police. The more recent implementation of police forces on campuses like PSU can make abolitionist demands seem less unrealistic and create ample opportunity to change community narratives and ideas around the necessity—or lack thereof—for police. Just as anti-racist organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made important political and strategic contributions to the civil rights movement, there are many important lessons we can take from student organizers in this new era of protest defined by the abolitionist bent of calls to “defund the police” to maintain forward momentum into the Biden era.
Here are three of the most powerful lessons I’ve taken as a student organizer against campus police that speak powerfully to where the broader police abolition movement is today.
1. Community policing is a farce
Community policing is often proposed by those who wish to maintain the power of police forces as the solution to end racist police violence. In Biden’s “Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice,” he proposes mitigating this violence by reinvigorating “community-oriented policing” through funding police hiring and training to the tune of about $300 million. Community policing, while it may sound nice, is recognized by police abolitionists as a misnomer for increased police presence and surveillance. Student activists know this well. During the anti-war movement, when the number of campus police forces began to rise, it was largely because of lobbying done by college administrators who wanted officers to seem as if they were a part of a community, rather than have student protestors feel like they were facing off with an “invading army.” Decades later, as universities increasingly operate less like communities and more like corporations, university representatives still insist on using the language of community policing to quell resistance to the creation of campus police forces. At PSU, administrators insisted that having our own police force would serve as a positive alternative to the much detested PSU police, more connected to the community and therefore less violent. Still, three years ago, two people died at the hands of campus police, including Jason Washington, a Black man breaking up a fight who police killed less than 30 seconds after arriving on the scene. PSU police and security have also been accused of abusing mentally ill students on multiple occasions.
Mechanisms for safety should be created and overseen by communities without involving inherently racist police forces with a monopoly on violence. Community policing is language used by those in power to justify the presence of police. The idea of campus police forces being more appropriate for the communities they serve has been used for decades now, but campus police forces still violate and kill people just as their municipal counterparts do.
2. Police protect property over people
Campus police forces largely protect the business interests of universities. These forces are often created by university boards of trustees, made up of members who rarely represent the interests of students, staff, and faculty. At PSU, the board of trustees, which voted to implement our campus police force, is an unelected body primarily made up of business executives—such as Pete Nickerson, former general manager of Nike in China. The few dissenting voices at the table when discussing whether to implement the police force were women of color, and some of the few members who actually worked at the university.
Portland is a rapidly gentrifying city, with a massive houselessness issue, exacerbated by the level at which people in the city are being displaced from their homes due to rising rent. Houseless folks are harassed and brutalized by police in Portland on a regular basis, including the PSU police. Much of PSU police’s energy is spent removing houseless people from campus looking for shelter, aligning with patterns of over-policing houseless folks in affluent downtown Portland, right outside of PSU’s borders. Where PSU ends, Downtown Portland Clean and Safe begins—one of three enhanced business districts in Portland where businesses pay a fee collected by the city’s chamber of commerce to pay for enhanced cleaning and security services. PSU is a leading investor in the Portland Business Alliance, which oversees this enhanced business district. The driving influence behind PSU’s relationship with policing and security forces is the maintenance of property and business interests predicated on the control of houseless people’s bodies.
This is not unique to PSU. Harvard University students have been calling for the abolition of the Howard University Police Department (HUPD), and their efforts have gained visibility since the Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer. It’s estimated that 95% of HUPD’s caseload is made up of property crimes. Across the country, houselesness and poverty are policed in a disturbingly similar manner by police whether they are campus police or not.
3. Organizing gets the goods
One of the most powerful lessons we can take from the history of resistance to campus police is that consistent organizing produces powerful wins, even if it takes a while. In August 2020 when PSU announced they would finally disarm campus police, it came as a response to campus police’s growing visibility as a result of this past summer’s uprisings. However, disarmament would not have been on the table without the tireless organizing efforts of students seven years beforehand. This was true for campus organizers across the country, as the surge in energy for anti-racist struggle following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery brought attention to their organizing and resulted in the development of powerful coalitions of campus organizers. This resulted in other powerful wins such as the University of Minnesota cutting ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. Organizing wins are about movement building work colliding with the right political moment. We can’t predict when the energy of last will arrive, but through consistent organizing we can try to guarantee that we’ll be prepared.
Being a student organizer has provided me with many lessons that have strengthened my belief in abolition. The tradition of student organizing has continually strengthened anti-racist movements, and provided those movements with powerful knowledge about what we should be fighting for. Today, the knowledge gleaned from campus police abolition organizing tells us that we should cast a wide net, not settling for small reforms, but calling for full abolition, even if that means entering into a difficult, long-term struggle.