The Black Student Union Demands to Abolish Police Presence at UCI
A petition published on Monday by the Black Student Union (BSU) demanded that Chancellor Howard Gillman and the UC Irvine Administration abolish the UCI Police Department (UCIPD) and any form of related “paramilitary force” on campus.
The petition, which as of Jan. 28 had 257 signers, was written by seven members of BSU, known as the Demands Team of the group.
The petition first references the controversial flag incident in March 2015, in which six ASUCI Legislative Council members approved legislation that prohibited any display of national flags within the confines of the Associated Students of UC Irvine (ASUCI) common room.
According to the petition, the six members received a “multitude of death threats and vulgar insults.” The most severe threats were directed towards Khaalidah Sidney, the only black student among the six students, who received “multiple emails and phone calls in which people threatened to lynch and rape her.”
However, the petition states that Sidney and the five other students were denied administrative protection from these threats until they agreed to write a public apology letter.
The BSU notes that Mark Deppe, the Associated Students of UCI Professional Staff and Edgar Dormitorio, the university’s Chief of Staff in Student Affairs, questioned the six students in a manner akin to “a police interrogation scene.”
“Dormitorio and Deppe called the students into a room for hours and did not inform them of their right to leave the interrogation scene at any time,” states the petition. “They had no will to refuse to write the apology nor agency as elected student officials.”
In response to the petition, the Chancellor’s Office stands firm in its support for the UCI administration, arguing that the administration, staff and faculty are committed to promoting a diverse environment.
“The [petition] letter makes false, malicious accusations against several staff members, many of whom worked diligently to address the BSU’s earlier demands and advance a safe, comfortable environment for all students,” said Cathy Lawhon, senior director of UCI’s Media Relations and Publications Department in a prepared statement released to the New University through e-mail. “We continue to encourage an open, productive dialogue with BSU and remain dedicated to a campus that is safe, inclusive and celebrates diverse cultures and opinions.”
Although the petition does not cite a specific instance of violence originating from UCIPD, it presents a descriptive discussion on the historical nature of institutionalized policing and its implications on anti-Black violence. The petition asks for the abolishment of UCIPD because of the very nature of “the anti-Black paradigm of policing.”
In contemporary times, the police and all other paramilitary forces intimidate, imprison, sexually assault and murder Black people,” states the petition. “The police operating on UCI’s campus problematizes the notion that the university is, in fact, a safe space to learn, think and grow for Black students.”
The BSU does not believe its request is unconventional. The petition compares its demand to dismantle UCIPD to the 1998 Critical Resistance demand authored by California students and professors at UC Berkeley to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, stating that the 1998 demand was akin to saying “‘no’ to the plantation” while the current demand is akin to saying “‘NO’ to the slave patrols.”
At the “Black Resistance: Understanding Black Positionality and the Importance of Resistance” symposium hosted by the Cross Cultural Center on Tuesday, BSU members presented their petition to an audience of students, faculty, staff and supporters. Sandy Johnson, the UCI BSU co-chair, spoke about the purpose of the petition.
“This demand is an anecdote to question the position of Black people today and thousands of years ago,” said Johnson. “We may not see tomorrow. A Black person dies every 23 hours. So the question of whether the police will surrender or stop shooting Black people is the question we should all explore.”
The petition mentions that the UC system favors police reform. However, the reform suggested by President Janet Napolitano is to implement police body camera programs. To the BSU, this “initiates another gradation in the nation’s long history of anti-Black surveillance.”
Regardless of these demands, the prepared campus statement states that the administration will continue to support UCIPD.
“The UCI Police Department is comprised of a highly respected team of officers who risk their lives to ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff,” the statement provides. “We are proud of them and will continue to support the department.”
Shortly after the online release of the petition, many students expressed disagreement towards the full abolition of campus police department, which the BSU demands.
“I think that the police serve a crucial role in terms of keeping crime and violence curbed, and the UCI student population has the right to the protection that the police provides,” said Zeina Mousa, a third-year English major. “If we remove the police, and UCI is suddenly put in a position in which a gunman is on campus — as occurred two years ago — or a riot breaks out, there will be no one trained to settle the situation.”
However, students and UCI faculty members have also offered support towards BSU’s demands.
“The conversation is not done about what the meaning of having police on campus is,” said Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, UCI Associate Professor of African American Studies, at the symposium. “I think there is actually more support for this than you would imagine.”
At the Tuesday symposium, Herard recalled an incident in University Hills last September, during which a resident called the police on the 18-year-old, black son of a UCI faculty member. Five armed officers pointed guns at the young man on his porch until they were assured by bystanders that he lived and “belonged” there. In the community meetings that followed the incident, Herard shared that many people voiced their support for a weakened police force.
“In that series of community meetings, there were plenty of people who suggested the police should be unarmed, the police should not have cars, the police should be on foot, and people who suggested that there is no ethical reason that we should have police here,” said Herard.