The Movement to De-Cop the Campus

Students, educators and staff across the University of California system are organizing to abolish campus police.

Emily Rich

A Cops Off Campus member during the Cops Off Campus Coalition’s Transnational Day of Refusal on May 3. Students held a walkout and community art day on the UC Davis campus quad to demand the removal of all campus police. Photo Courtesy of Emily Rich

Police abolition has become a national conversation since the George Floyd uprisings. Many university police chiefs are encouraging the misconception, however, that campus police are somehow different from other police forces — despite their long history of racist violence. 

Because police serve no positive purpose, the abolition of policing is a necessary precondition for a thriving and equitable community.

To take just one example, a campus police officer at the University of California, Los Angeles shot and wounded a Black man he assumed was unhoused in 2003; in 2009, that same officer repeatedly used a Taser on an Iranian American student studying in the library. 

But police violence is not confined to these dramatic incidents. It appears in the routine, everyday functions of policing. UCLA police logs reveal, for example, that campus police stop and arrest Black and Latino people at higher rates than their white counterparts.

Like local and state police, campus police also have a hand in suppressing protests. When graduate students held a wildcat strike for a cost-of-living adjustment in 2019-20 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, police partnered with multiple state law enforcement agencies and responded with military surveillance equipment from the California National Guard.

In June, after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill refused to grant tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, campus police aggressively removed student protesters from a board of trustees meeting; one Black student-organizer says the assistant chief of police even punched her in the face. Earlier that week, campus police allowed two far-right demonstrators to desecrate a memorial honoring the enslaved and free Black people who built the university.

University police departments also often share resources and personnel with local and state police, a practice known as a mutual aid” agreement. During the George Floyd uprisings, University of California police were sent to Oakland and San Francisco to quell protests. In North Carolina, Elizabeth City State University used campus dorms to house officers brought in after the police slaying of Andrew Brown Jr.

Cops Off Campus is committed to abolishing campus police. We are an autonomous network of students, educators and staff across the University of California system and — since gathering in summer 2020 — across other universities making similar demands. In California, we formed a statewide network called University of California Fuck the Police. Each University of California campus also has a local Cops Off Campus organizing group.

Here at UC Davis, the effort isn’t a hard sell. Despite the short memory academic institutions lean on to forget past violence, anti-police activism solidified following a 2011 pepper spray incident. After university police pepper-sprayed peaceful students protesting tuition hikes, a general assembly of as many as 5,000 people gathered to call for the resignation of the school’s chancellor and the UC Davis police chief. Increasingly organized efforts have since been made to disarm campus police; they came close in 2019.

Cops Off Campus is not interested in police reform” (which leaves the institution intact) nor the shuffling of police funding; we see attempts to retrain or reform as red herrings. We are also opposed to so-called task forces that exist only to preserve the status quo. 

What Cops Off Campus is committed to is direct action. Throughout the pandemic and fierce wildfires producing toxic air quality, we have held events from community art builds to dropping a 45-foot banner next to the campus police station. We joined the nationwide Abolition May month of action by holding a noise demonstration outside the university chancellor’s house, banging on his door and setting off smoke bombs. We also table on campus and in the community. After a long year of remote learning, we are excited to cause more trouble and connect with more students, many of whom (it turns out) have experience organizing against police and prisons in their own communities.

People always ask us what should replace the police. Instead, abolitionists imagine a world in which we decide as a community how we will live, respond to harm and encourage human flourishing. Because police serve no positive purpose, the abolition of policing is a necessary precondition for a thriving and equitable community.

The University of California system is one of the largest employers in California and its police have jurisdiction over vast areas of the state. As university students and employees, we have the opportunity and responsibility to get cops off our campuses. Seeing the power of abolitionist organizing, the administration has tried to redirect our energy while drafting proposals that actually increase police funding

Our response? Fuck that. We’re just getting started.

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Emily Rich is a Ph.D. candidate in English at UC Davis.

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