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Serious About Racial Justice? Then Divest From Policing

Ananya Roy, Hamid Khan and Pete White weigh in on the university’s role in defunding the police.

As the national uprising for Black Lives continues to gain strength, institutions of every stripe are donning the mantle of racial justice. From charitable foundations to sports leagues, public gestures such as taking a knee and solidarity statements filled with good intentions abound. But these institutions remain deeply invested in the system of racial capitalism, perpetuating the exploitation and policing of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities through their continued practices. Some, such as the Ford Foundation, are repositioning themselves as leaders of racial justice work despite only recently having condemned abolitionist movements as “extremist” and advocated for an expansion of jails under the guise of reform.

Universities are no different. Especially proficient in the language of equity, diversity, and inclusion, universities have turned racial justice into a brand, lining their quads with posters of students of color. The time has come for institutions, including universities, to demonstrate that they are serious about racial justice by divesting from policing — ending collaboration with and funding for law enforcement.

On June 2, 2020, the Jackie Robinson Stadium at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was turned into a field jail by the Los Angeles Police Department. Protesters, arrested at different locations in the city, were detained here for hours in crowded buses, under conditions that were deliberately cruel. After a few days of prevarication and after being exposed by a statement from LAPD, UCLA leadership admitted they knew of the use of the site by LAPD (although not of the actual field jail), and called the incident “a violation of our values.” Since then, despite sustained outcry by faculty, students, staff, alumni, community organizations, and of course by those detained at the stadium, UCLA leadership has not initiated any process of accountability for the field jail. The silence is instructive.

The DIVEST/INVEST UCLA Faculty Collective is a UCLA faculty collective that organized in the wake of the Jackie Robinson Stadium field jail scandal to hold our own university accountable for its role in racialized policing and to insist on the structural transformation of educational institutions. The pathway to that structural transformation is divestment from policing. Our letter of Divestment Now Demands states: “As long as UCLA collaborates with LAPD and other police forces, it is complicit in, and bears responsibility for, police brutality and racialized state violence… and will not be a credible home for research, teaching, and community engagement that promote racial justice.”

The matter of credibility is worth dwelling upon. We, the Los Angeles Community Action Network and Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, are long-standing organizations in Los Angeles committed to Black liberation and abolition. While we have allied with UCLA scholars whose research advances racial justice, we have also repeatedly challenged the harm done by the university to our communities.

From where we stand, in the heart of Skid Row, a home built amidst Black dispossession and death, UCLA and other universities remain deeply enmeshed in the circuits of money and expertise that undergird policing, militarism, and mass incarceration. The use of Jackie Robinson Stadium as a field jail came as no surprise to us. The investment of universities in policing is as much our concern as it is theirs because our communities bear the costs of such racialized violence.

On the night before Juneteenth, UCLA leadership sent a letter to members of the UCLA faculty collective hailing action on racial justice. With divestment demands sitting on their desks, they announced: “We commit to continuing our improvement in policing, both on campus and off, including how we can further address issues like use of force protocols, racial bias and racial profiling, effective de-escalation techniques, data transparency and other pressing racial equity matters to ensure that we protect the safety of all in our community, including Black Bruins and other Bruins of color.”

What we have at hand is precisely how many institutions will adapt to the national uprising. Taking cover behind an anodyne language of racial equity, UCLA has seized the moment to renew its commitment to policing. After all, the police reform business — from #8CantWait to Community Policing — is both convenient and lucrative. It maintains the status quo of policing and invests even more resources in it by promising reform. In many cases, it allows institutions to avoid taking responsibility for their collaboration with police violence, as is the case with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which has side-stepped calls from its own staff to dissolve its partnerships with LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

We at the Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, along with Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, have decisively rejected policing reform noting that “these rules ultimately amplify police powers to inflict harm and evade accountability.” We reject UCLA’s efforts to reform but maintain policing.

Policing is expensive. Defunding the police and redirecting those financial resources is a worthy cause. But our argument is about structural racism. Policing is expensive because it destroys the capacity for life. With its roots in slavery, policing has been a tool for the forced removals of people of color from their communities and homes. Such banishment is premised on the disposability of Black, Brown, and Indigenous life. If universities are serious about racial justice, then they have to divest from such disposability.

A police-free world, as abolitionist scholars and organizations remind us, is about imagining and creating “life-affirming institutions.” There is no blueprint for this new world. If there were, it would not be worth building. Abolition isn’t a grand challenge that universities will solve. There will be no patents for a police-free world. Instead, as our co-authorship indicates, a new era of racial justice will rest upon accountability, solidarity, and reciprocity across the gates and walls of our shared city. This moment of uprising demands nothing less from all of us.

Ananya Roy on behalf of the DIVEST/INVEST UCLA Faculty Collective

Hamid Khan on behalf of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition

Pete White on behalf of the Los Angeles Community Action Network

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