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“Abolition is a fleshly and material presence of social life lived differently” - Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2022a: 48)
Universities are neither inherently nor wholly carceral places but rather terrains of struggle wherein organized forces contest the uses of institutional capacities and resources. Heeding Stuart Hall’s call to “understand how the bloody system works,” I seek to understand the university in order to change it (Jhally, 2016: 341). I argue that the abolition university is the carceral university’s antagonistic contradiction, drawing on Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2022a: 480)’s claim that “abolition geography is carceral geography’s antagonistic contradiction.” Marxist geographer Doreen Massey (1994; 2018: 27) argues that the politics of places are produced by relations that extend beyond them. She (Massey, 2018: 27) asks, “what should be the political relationship to those wider geographies of construction?” and provides the grounding for this article about struggle in the university, a place produced in relation to wider multiscalar geographies of abandonment, violence, labor, and care.. Through brief historical examples of carceral and abolitionist placemaking within the City University of New York (CUNY), I illustrate the contested production of the university as a place and argue for the necessity of movements built around solidarity in and beyond the university.
CUNY: A carceral university
CUNY is a carceral university: a punitive, policed, surveilled place that renders people vulnerable to premature death. As a large public institution, it is intertwined with structures of organized violence. Like schools, public housing, and other parts of the welfare state, US universities have been simultaneously subjected to organized abandonment and carceralization throughout the late twentieth century (Gilmore, 2022a; Hinton, 2016). I briefly outline three examples of the carceral capture of CUNY–campus policing, surveillance cultures, and police training–to illustrate the expansiveness of carcerality in the university and the university’s embeddedness in the carceral state.
Multiple police forces with overlapping jurisdictions police CUNY’s twenty-five campuses. Many of them spend millions of dollars on policing every year. In line with the colonial logic of economic structural adjustment, rooted in the notion that Black, Indigenous, poor, and colonized communities are incapable of controlling their own institutions and finances and must face punitive oversight, CUNY has increased policing on campus amidst a racist austerity regime rooted in the conjunctural shift of the 1970s (Hall 2017; Hall et al., 1978; Woods, 2007). These austerity measures attempt to dismantle academic departments in Black, Ethnic, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, programs such as Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) and College Discovery, free tuition, welfare benefits, childcare centers, and entire campuses (Phillips-Fein, 2017; Pagan et al., 2020). Neither surprising nor contradictory, these measures are foundational to the logics of the carceral state: policing flourishes in abandoned places at the same time as the borders surrounding the increasingly privatized university become ever more policed (Maldonado, 2022; Baldwin, 2021; Katz, 2004; Gilmore, 2022a). At Brooklyn College a tall metal fence with gates patrolled by campus cops encloses the campus, previously open to surrounding Flatbush, an historically Black and immigrant neighborhood now being rapidly gentrified and overwhelmingly policed by the occupying NYPD. By the borders of the university, I do not refer to an easily mappable line separating the physical campus from its surroundings but rather a contested border through which universities define their landscapes of policing, organized abandonment, gentrification, and real estate speculation. Gilmore (2007: 11) writes that, “even while borders highlight the distinction between places, they also connect places into relationships with each other and with noncontiguous places.” Universities’ border-making must be subverted to create geographies of solidarity.
The policing of CUNY is intimately connected to its culture of surveillance. CUNY has a long history of counterinsurgency against Black and Brown, Muslim, anti-imperialist, leftist, and other student organizing. The NYPD infiltrated Brooklyn College’s Islamic Society, using an undercover cop to collect information about Muslim women on campus over several years. In 2013 at the City College of New York (CCNY), the college administration and security forces seized the Morales Shakur Center, shutting down a vibrant hub of campus and community organizing and seizing the personal and organizational possessions of CCNY student-activists. Zoltán Glück, Manissa Maharawal, Isabelle Nastasia, and Conor Tomás Reed (2014) situate this moment of extreme surveillance within a conjunctural shift in the neoliberal governance of CUNY and its incorporation into the Military Industrial Complex and structures of US imperialism. As CUNY has securitized its campuses in recent decades, the university also reinstated the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in 2012, demonstrating the pedagogical and curricular nature of imperialism and militarism.
Founded as the College of Police Science (COPS), John Jay College of Criminal Justice is an institution where the nexus of education and the carceral state is unavoidable. Formerly housed within NYPD’s police academy, the on-campus presence of police from multiple agencies contributes to an atmosphere of police power. Audre Lorde, a professor of English at John Jay in the early 1970s, grappled with the contradictions of doing Black feminist work in a college with such foundational commitments to policing, asking, “How does a system bent upon our ultimate destruction make the unacceptable gradually tolerable?” (Lorde, 2009: 32). Lorde provocatively gets at the heart of John Jay College’s institutional mission and the pedagogy and curriculum that shaped the classrooms of her colleagues. Police science serves a legitimizing function by making the carceral state appear softer and more precise, when in reality it more precisely learns how to inflict violence. More recently, comrades argue that CUNY’s carceral curriculum “provides continued justification for the spurious notion that police and correction officers can be ‘trained’ out of anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-trans, anti-immigrant, anti-ableist violence.” As the NYPD, ICE, CIA, and FBI recruit John Jay graduates to build the diverse future of US policing, they understand the power that education can have in the reformist expansion of the carceral state, capturing resources and legitimacy under the auspices of transforming the institutions of policing and prisons without straying from their carceral foundations (Gilmore and Gilmore, 2022; Rodriguez, 2021; Schept, 2015).
CUNY: An abolition university
“What does a Free CUNY mean to you?” Free CUNY, a student-led collective working toward a liberatory university, often begins meetings with this question. It is a brilliant and useful question because it encourages everyone in the room to use their most radical imaginations and organize with a vision of the university and world we want to build. Students, workers, and community members respond to this question with everything from “books,” “open campus to community,” and “no ICE” to “child care,” “no debt,” and “a better future.” That those various meanings of a Free CUNY were articulated together shows that abolitionist presence and absence exist in a dialectical tension; the building of life-affirming and destruction of death-dealing institutions are inseparable (see Rodriguez and Herzing, 2022; Gilmore, 2022b).
Through organizing with Free CUNY, I began to understand what abolition could mean at CUNY. Gilmore teaches us that, “What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities.” This idea helps us see abolition not in a romanticized past, distant future, or far-away location but here and now. Historical and contemporary experiments and possibilities at CUNY show that the abolition university exists in radical pedagogical and political projects. These projects are deeply rooted in local and institutional struggles in New York and committed to a fiercely internationalist vision of liberation. If, as Gilmore (2022: 474) argues, “freedom is a place,” these examples demonstrate the ways that students, teachers, workers, and community members engage in placemaking practices when they struggle for freedom within CUNY, in the process changing the university, city, world, and themselves.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Black feminist poets and organizers came to CUNY to teach in the SEEK program. Writing about radical educators in SEEK, Makeba Lavan and Reed (2017) claim that “[Toni Cade] Bambara and her colleagues [including Adrienne Rich, David Henderson, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan] modeled an anti-authoritarian position as teachers with ‘very little academic distance’ from their students, which provided the interpretive space to explore their curiosities and make demands upon higher education together.” Their Black and Puerto Rican students soon tore down the gates to the university, leading to one of the most radical experiments in higher education through the Open Admissions policy, by which Black, Brown, working class, and poor students entered CUNY en masse.
This policy would be replicated across the United States. However, free college education for all was short-lived. At a CUNY Board of Higher Education Hearing on May 5, 1976, to impose tuition, Jordan criticized the racist crisis at CUNY, calling it “the death of the future,” and declared that she and her comrades would resist the death of CUNY by any means necessary. She promises, “We live here and here we must learn what we need to survive; we will not be moved.” The intensity of struggle was also felt by Jordan’s contemporaries teaching in SEEK at Queens College, including Margaret Prescod, Wilmette Brown, and Andaiye, who helped found the Women’s Action Group and Black Women for Wages for Housework. Their on-campus political work linked struggles for community control of schools in Ocean Hill–Brownsville and expanded rights for public housing residents with anti-colonial socialist struggles in the Caribbean, the overthrow of the South African apartheid government, and access to CUNY for women on welfare. The work of SEEK faculty shows the inseparability of pedagogy and politics in the construction of an abolition university.
The 1990s and 2000s Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM!) built on the work of previous generations of Black and Brown radicals at CUNY by opposing budget cuts, tuition hikes, and the end of CUNY’s open admissions policy. The organization’s politics extended well beyond critiquing the neoliberalization of CUNY as organizers understood their position within complex and multiscalar geographies (Marston, 2000; Smith, 1992). SLAM! organizers understood that the local political terrain on which they struggled was contested by capitalist and imperialist forces with a global reach that also exerted power over Chiapas, Oakland, and Palestine, linking disparate places and creating possibilities for building solidarity and scaling up movement. The anti-globalization movement shaped their political analysis, and they believed that internationalism was globalization’s antagonistic contradiction. SLAM! helped plan the 2001 Critical Resistance East conference in NYC and sent busloads of students to Philadelphia for protests in support of freeing political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal who was on death row.
The organization stood in solidarity with the Welfare Action Committee at Brooklyn College’s organizing against the pushout of students on welfare from CUNY in the wake of welfare reform. SLAM! took part in anti-imperialist struggles in support of Palestine and against war in Iraq, and students traveled to Mexico to support the Zapatista movement and striking students at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Through participating in coalitions and mobilizations, sharing university space with radical organizations unaffiliated with CUNY, and training a generation of organizers (largely due to the mentorship of Kai Lumumba Barrow and Ashanti Omowali Alston), SLAM! directed the institutional capacities of CUNY toward radical ends at a time when the university and city were deeply entrenched in neoliberal and carceral projects.
Today, students and workers across CUNY are building abolitionist movements rooted in this institution and city yet are deeply internationalist. In January 2020, Free CUNY worked with radical student organizations in NYC public schools to organize a speakout against policing in schools, at CUNY, and on the subway. The following year, CUNY for Abolition collaborated with many CUNY and city organizations to lead a protest and walking tour of CUNY focused on geographies of campus policing. Blocs committed to anti-racist and anti-colonial politics within the Professional Staff Congress union have organized campaigns to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel and to divest employee pension funds from extractive corporations that engage in landgrabbing practices against Black and Indigenous communities in Brazil. Grounded in a long history of internationalist struggle at CUNY and with the understanding that in order to build a world without borders we must abolish the borders in our movements, heads, and hearts, we join forces with comrades everywhere in the struggle to change everything.
The university is a contested place where people struggle and experiment. Universities are major employers, institutions of professionalization, owners of real estate, providers of healthcare, and play roles within systems of organized violence. These institutions must be spaces of struggle for abolitionists, both because they are places where we can work to build life-affirming institutions and abolitionist presence and because the right is organizing within these places to intensify processes of organized abandonment and strengthen the mechanisms of organized violence.
As Gilmore teaches us, abolition necessitates that we change everything. C. L. R. James argues that in order to do so, we must try everything, or take up Mariame Kaba’s call to engage in a million experiments (Gilmore, 2022a). While the space for radical study, imagination, and experimentation at CUNY is under attack, it remains a place where students, largely working class women of color and long-distance migrants, have time to learn, think, and build relationships across difference. It is by no means coincidental that I cite so many scholars who work and study at CUNY in this article: Neil Smith, Cindi Katz, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and the countless scholars participating in the Lost & Found series. This citational practice demonstrates the intellectual life of CUNY as an abolition university.
The university is a structure of possibility for engaging in radical experiments. Importantly, these are not a million discrete experiments; rather the call to change everything is rooted in a politics of solidarity that understands the interconnectivity of struggles across borders -- including between campus and community -- and the imperative that we scale up our organizing. This borderless politics also necessitates transcending the borders of time by studying our history and understanding that our organizing today is entangled with past and future work. Our solidarity must extend to 1970s SEEK classrooms, 1990s SLAM! demonstrations, and the university yet to come. Countertopography provides a framework for understanding and making geographies of solidarity, as it allows us to “produce a geographical imagination for a more associative politics — one that [i]s scale and place crossing with practical entailments that c[an] work across and against received distinctions of ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Katz, 2010: 58). This means that abolitionist organizing in the university must not be confined to the university, neither in the strategies we engage nor the horizons we build toward. We have universities to change and a world to win.
I would like to thank the folks at Society & Space for organizing this forum and at the American Association of Geographers for organizing a series of sessions at the 2022 meeting. In particular, I would like to acknowledge Megan Ybarra, Daniel Gonzalez, Robert Chlala, Leah Montange, and Jah Elyse Sayers. Many thanks to Conor Tomás Reed, Grace Watkins, Bryan Welton, Jah Elyse Sayers, Mieasia Edwards, and Robert Robinson for their comments on drafts of this article. Finally, I would like to thank my comrades in Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition for their analysis of the university and commitment to changing it.
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Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their research focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education, and they organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition.