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his is a transcript of the opening panel on “Cops off Campus, and Everywhere Else” sessions held on February 25, 2022 at the virtual American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting as part of an informal working group to make abolition geography, sponsored by the Socialist and Critical Geography Specialty Group. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Megan: This conversation came together as thinking about the broader movements for Cops Off Campus across Turtle Island. I’ve been thinking about how we don’t all mean the same thing when we say ‘abolition.’ How do you understand the political orientation of campus organizing? And how do you navigate the tension between reformist and abolitionist strategies?
SA: My immediate answer to the question would be "I don't think about it" because the question is an identitarian one. I study literature and care about what words mean, but Stuart Hall taught us to orient ourselves in relation to identifications, rather than identities. And so for me, it's really about who is willing to do the work to end policing. If abolition is indeed a horizon, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2022) has taught us, then it doesn't matter if we mean precisely the same thing. We don’t need to get bogged down and then deflate our movements with prescriptive limits around abolition in our various geographical contexts if we attend to what collective actions we must take to abolish the police. I personally am moving away from doing that as well and more naming myself "a student of abolition," or "someone who's willing to do the work of abolition," in part as a refusal to hold a fixed identitarian position to police the work and contributions to others who we will need to join our movements, and in part to signal an ongoing process of growth and commitment.
Megan: I think it's important to ask: ‘what is the good work we are doing and what are the ways in which we in this movement end up policing each other?’ I think many of us have seen that. You’ve got to think about how the work of policing each other often just [becomes] counterinsurgent work. We are tearing ourselves down rather than building ourselves up.
How do we think about the relationship between this campus-based Cops Off Campus organizing, and the broader off campus abolition movements? And also, how do you see that work changing and developing on your campus or wherever you’re at?
Carlos: I think this is a moment of political gearing up with global education. There's something beautiful about being in a movement and studying and figuring out, what is an abolitionist, what are abolitionist principles? Just thinking about what the university is -- It's not just the buildings where we learn and teach with but it’s real estate, right? It's a healthcare system, it’s office buildings in downtown, it's apartment buildings. As the university expands outwards towards the community, which we know leads to the displacement of poor, Black and Brown communities and neighborhoods, which then means more policing. I think we have an obligation of commitment and trying to be accountable to the larger campus community where our universities and schools are. So that's one thing. The other thing I was thinking -- it's turning into a cliché to quote the Undercommons, but there is something I always think about, is when they write that the left has that slogan, "Schools not prisons," but what if schools and prisons are two sides of the same coin? What good does it do to say we want to abolish campus cops, but then students go back to overly policed, surveilled neighborhoods, right and vice versa? Campus is only a microcosm of what's happening in communities for a lot of us.
Camille: I really like the language of "being a student of abolition." I think that's something that I have personally been coming to. I'm TA-ing a class right now that's called Prisons and Public Education, which is taught by my advisor Damien Sojoyner, and he talks about it. So, the crux of his class is seeing the ways that schools not only replicate prisons, but are a carceral setting in and of themselves. And thinking of my own experiences at Haverford, what really I think was the shift for our group from being Rethinking Incarceration, to Students for Abolition and Liberation and Transformation, was the police murder of Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia. When that happened [Fall 2020], we had already done some student organizing during the summer of 2020 with a student demand for abolition and rethinking campus safety. And of the ten demands of that letter that we put out, that was one that was just completely skipped over. So, we brought it back to administrators in the fall. The administration was discouraging students from going to protest in West Philly and saying that, "We're Haverford, and that's West Philly... You don't really need to bother with those things." As a Black person who was attending a predominantly white institution, West Philadelphia was where I went to seek refuge from campus and to be around other Black folks. This distinction between organizing on campus and off campus, it was never super separated for me because I felt as policed as I did on Haverford campus as I did in West Philadelphia for different reasons. This idea of separating universities as a bubble, it's not real, it doesn’t really exist.
Megan: In summer 2020 at UW Seattle, one of the things that I began to educate myself about through public records requests because we're a public university, is that the University District is large, far beyond campus. So, much of the purpose of policing at UW is to protect fraternities and sororities in the U-district from encountering Seattle Police Department. But at the same time, in this moment of gentrification -- building the light rail, redeveloping -- there is massive policing of people who are perceived to not belong on the basis of race, gender and class. I began to see that the ways that the president of UW describes needing armed police to address issues of people in mental distress is code for talking about people who are perceived as houseless. This policing of people who are nowhere near campus, they're not affiliated with campus, but because they are in the University District that is getting gentrified. UW spends $8-10 million per year on campus policing alone, much of which comes from the Office of Student Life and student fees. Reading Davarian Baldwin's (2021) In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower helped me think through the ways in which the things that I had seen at Berkeley as a graduate student and at UW as a professor are baked into the university system, whether it's public or private. Oftentimes universities do have parasitic relationships to cities. Those of us who are part of university communities need to be accountable to that, particularly those of us who are often attracted to those universities because we're BIPOC academics seeking BIPOC community life.
SA: I also was definitely a person who's drawn to public institutions. I've only been educated at them and I have committed to only working at them. Even though, as far as the University of California is concerned–it’s a “public” institution, but still occupying Indigenous lands, right? My specific campus is on Tongva land. It's not just about the town-gown divide, but needing sustained layers of resistance to all borders, because the borders of policing are not real to the police. The University of California has ten campuses, law schools, and medical centers throughout the state, and UCPD has a jurisdiction across the entire state of California. Beyond this, since war is newly on European-oriented people's minds, the University of California also has a stake in Lockheed Martin, among the world’s largest military defense contractors. So, there is no way that we can only be invested in our alleged local, when the machines that are working against us are already national, transnational, and settler-colonial.
Megan: Let's get geographic for a minute and talk about: where did radical placemaking happen for you, particularly in this moment of thinking about abolitionist work. Were there sites on campus, off campus, via Zoom in the pandemic? How do you think about the work of radical placemaking in abolitionist practice in the Cops Off Campus movement?
Navon: This work started off in May following George Floyd's passing. Originally the first thing we turned towards was looking at the administration at the University of Washington and asking, "Okay, it's time to clean house. Now it's time to really start to look at some of these things that we always want to kind of change." I was Vice President of the Black Student Union (BSU) and we had already been talking about how do we convince people to get rid of this large monument [of George Washington] to, you know white supremacy, subjugation, and a history that is negative and exclusive. You know, some people think it's ironic because I go to University Washington, but I don't. I think it's a very ugly statue, in my personal opinion. So yeah, Black August comes around and we're just, every single day -- ourselves the Black Student Union as well as another group that doesn't exist or has a new name (now it’s Subvert UW, at the time they went as the Black Lives Matter Chapter at UW) -- We just posted up every day, outside of the statue, covering it with words that spoke to what it meant to look at every day. A lot of people think it was graffiti or just trying to tear it down. The University of Washington does not give you 24/7 mental health care, but they will make sure that [George Washington] statue was clean within 24 hours of it being covered. You know, they are a united front on that effort. For Black August, it was just 30 days just consistently coming back, covering it. Reaffirming, no we're not gonna let this issue go. Any statues to finish with histories that were painful to Black bodies, that were, you know, dismissive of Black existence. We don't want monuments to that. What are we saying? We're saying "we're boundless" and that we're diverse on one hand and on the other we're saying "this is the history that we uphold and respect and that this is a part of what we as students should be." So UW BSU was constantly going back to administration, telling them "this is a clear and obvious contradiction. And we must work to move past it." I loved Black August, it was one of my favorite times. We were out there, we covered that thing. It's actually covered in graffiti residue still, the statue’s forever stained, it just needs to be removed. So that's kind of my memories of that time.
Megan: What was really beautiful to me was that without necessarily having done the reading about radical placemaking as geographers, it was undergraduate students who were rethinking the relationship with university as a carceral space, but also enacting the world they wanted to see at the statue that they identified as a site of pain. So, when people had reading groups, they would do that shit in front of the statue. When we want to talk about [Students for Justice in Palestine] and divesting from Israel, we would do it there. It transformed from the site of pain where people would walk by every day and be like, "fuck that statue, fuck that enslaver," into a space where people would get together and be like, "so who do we want to be together?" And that to me was really inspiring. Previous to this moment, I didn't know about the histories of undergraduate organizing at UW. And so we go back and we look at Odegaard who's one of the Presidents -- we got a library named after him. It turned out that the BSU formed to articulate demands with a sit-in at his office, and these different coalitional groups made demands with communities we would now call Latine and Indigenous – that’s the history of how we have an Ethnic Studies department. I read their 1968 statement and some of their demands were met, but there's a through-line on some of those bigger demands that are still there today. And then I was like, [Ramón] who I know as a leader in the farm worker organizing movement in Oregon. Turns out he was a UW student who was in the sit-in in 1968, and then went on to do all of this organizing that brings together farmworkers and forest workers in Oregon and has been doing a lot of the work around protecting undocumented folks from the carceral system for decades. This radical placemaking work, it spreads out in constellations that I never would have guessed. So, there were negative statements about George Washington, the UWPD budget, and other harms that were all spray-painted on that statue. There were also affirmations of who we are and who we want to be that I thought was really powerful.
Megan: What are the challenges that you experienced in organizing? and also what advice or what thoughts do you have for folks who are just getting into this movement?
Camille: I really like this framing of radical placemaking, especially for our organizing in 2020 particularly in the fall, when we did the [Haverford College] Strike. We led a strike for two weeks. It was invigorating, but miserable. During the strike we were almost entirely online. Thinking about placemaking and building community, when we can’t actually be together was something that we were really intentional about. And I, you know, in many ways, I've never felt more supported in my time at Haverford than in those two weeks when we were leading the strike. I think we were really fortunate that we were organizing with people that we were super close with, like I got to organize with 20 of my best friends. As challenging as it was, it was a really fruitful experience. We literally had a Google Doc where we were logging hours, not to check how much people were doing, but to make sure that people weren't doing too much and that you were getting sleep, making sure you ate… We were trying to take care of each other even though we couldn't be together. I think that was one the most beautiful experiences to come out of my undergraduate education. As challenging as it was, I've never felt more supported. That makes me hopeful for what can be possible through online spaces.
SA: I think a major challenge has been organizing faculty. I'm going to start it right there. I was trying to figure out a non “faculty GET IT THE FUCK TOGETHER” answer, but -- what are we going to do? The University of California system’s Cops Off Campus was organized, including digital or physical infrastructure, 100% because graduate student workers were organizing for a cost of living adjustment (COLA) at UC Santa Cruz. The very few faculty comrades at that campus that stood by them, including Nick Mitchell, are still navigating ongoing trauma and repercussions from the university. Without those student-built infrastructures leading to the development of a UC-wide digital space for contingent and other faculty to show solidarity with the COLA movement, we wouldn't have a listserv to tap into during summer 2020’s Black uprisings to ask “How do we expand this movement and respond to this moment?” This was possible in part because student worker demands were already anti-carceral. When the University of California president/Assistant Deporter-in-Chief Janet Napolitano decided to pay $375,000 per day to external police to come down to Santa Cruz and assault students at the picket line -- instead of giving the cost of living adjustment of $1,412 a day that student workers were asking for -- they deepened this anti-carceral demand. The Cops Off Campus movement and mobilization of (some) faculty was already embedded in the economic and geographical struggles that the students were taking up by themselves. It has been a challenge to get a majority of faculty to see ourselves as workers first, and in solidarity with that student worker-led movement.
Megan: Alright, SA, last word.
SA: Listen. Abolition is a big word. Let's acknowledge that defund is a smaller shittier word, but abolition is a big word and no matter how much you read, or how much you think you know about the thing, it means nothing compared to what you are specifically going to do on the path to horizon to make police irrelevant. So, we might not be able to take out their money straight away. We might not be able to get these cops fired. Or indicted in the same system that we are also struggling against. But what I mean is, what will you specifically do to make them obsolete? If you see that your neighbor is struggling with groceries, and you may not have it, is there a way to collectivize labor so that you can get homegirl her groceries? Or babysit, or do these things so that 911 is also not relevant? There are things that you can always do that don't necessarily require money, which a lot of us need right now, in this capitalist system. They don't require us to take up arms or do the sort of frontline work --that looks different to different folks. I may feel like I'm not doing well in the classroom or as faculty, or know what it means to be a professor, when I don't have models for that. But I know that I'm a reliable person for my community. I've identified who that is, as somebody who is on the land that is not my own, that means a lot to me. And to know that people will show up for me in return, and I don't have to dial 911, you know: phone-a-friend is the thing I can do instead for me, is a little chip away from the work of white supremacy and carcerality to divest us from each other. So that's my last word.
Baldwin DL (2021) In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities. New York: Hachette
Gilmore RW (2022) Abolition Geography: Essays towards liberation. New York: Verso Books
Harney S and Moten F (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive planning & Black study. Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions
Navon Morgan was Vice President of External Affairs, University of Washington Black Student Union, coalition member of Decriminalize UW. He is currently Black Student Commission Director at UW and will graduate in the class of 2023.
Camille Samuels was an organizer with Black Students Refusing Further Inaction (BSRFI) at Haverford College and is currently a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.
Carlos Serrano is a graduate student in Geography at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
SA Smythe is Assistant Professor of Black Studies and the Archive at University of Toronto; and was Coordinating Committee Member of UCFTP and the Turtle Island-wide Cops Off Campus Coalition.
Megan Ybarra is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Laura Chow Reeve is a writer and illustrator based in Richmond, VA. She is currently writing a novel, studying transformative justice practices, dreaming about abolitionist futures, and supporting movement organizations through her graphic recording practice, Radical Roadmaps.