Police tear down a pro-Palestine encampment by Virginia Commonwealth University students on March 29. Photo by Andrew Kerley (Shutterstock)

By Lewis Raven Wallace / Truthout

Police on the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill campus have been out in force in recent days to shut down pro-Palestinian protests and punish students and faculty for participation in encampments.

On the last day of the school’s spring semester, police came en masse in the very early morning to shut down the peaceful protest; widely available video shows the police shoving students and dragging one by the hair. The violence continued later that day as police chased, pushed and pepper-sprayed demonstrators who had replaced an American flag with a Palestinian one. Massive numbers of campus cops in riot gear surrounded students on the campus, backed up by police forces called in from NC State, UNC Wilmington and Appalachian State Universities.

The behavior of the campus police was so disproportionate that members of the Chapel Hill and nearby Carrboro town councils overwhelmingly condemned police response, according to reporting from WUNC. And thousands have signed letters calling on the school to stop punishing students for their expressions of free speech.

These recent events at UNC Chapel Hill provide a case study in how campus police – rather than making students safer — regularly create a dangerous environment.

Campus police and “campus safety” are used interchangeably in much of the news reporting, reinforcing a key point in pro-police propaganda: the idea that more police equals more safety. Yet for decades now, the presence of police on U.S. college and university campuses has been increasing, but this trend has done nothing to stem the tide of gun violence or sexual assault that it is purportedly aimed at addressing. To the contrary, as police tactics and police militarization have intensified, the fear and reality of campus violence have only grown.

The Militarization of Campuses Isn’t Making Students Safer

The success of the campus police propaganda became starkly clear to me last summer, when friends of mine who work on the UNC Chapel Hill campus described faculty, staff and students cowering for hours under desks, locking doors to their classrooms in the absence of clear instruction, and waiting for word that the campus was “safe” following an active shooter opening fire on the campus.

That August 28, 2023, a UNC Chapel Hill graduate student came onto the campus, armed, and murdered a professor in the science building. Sirens blared. Cops swarmed. The campus went into lockdown — but reportedly in a way that left many teachers and students unstable and unsure of what to do. Eventually, students were evacuated. Most were unclear on how to stay safe — some professors continued to teach through the blaring sirens, and some students described a paralyzing lack of communication about whether and when it was safe to leave. After the police had a suspect in custody, students and faculty received instructions to “resume normal activities”; many were alarmed at the perceived callousness of the school attempting to return to normalcy so soon after an on-campus murder.

Sixteen days later, the school faced a second lockdown related to an active shooter, although in that case, no shots were actually fired. Again, campus leaders issued an all-clear and told students to “resume normal activities.” One Ph.D. student tweeted a common sentiment of frustration and fear: “You try resuming normal activites [sic] after telling your loved ones you love them without knowing if you will ever again for the second time in two weeks.”

Students all over this country, in high school and college and even in elementary schools, have been asked to resume normal activities following ever-escalating threats of mass violence, active shooter situations and frightening drills. This is a crisis in and of itself. However, resources to address it have largely been directed toward security companies and police forces.

Instead of making campuses safer, police are taking an increasingly militarized role as enforcers of a right-wing agenda often tacitly supported on liberal campuses: silencing and intimidating protesters, escalating conflict and scapegoating, and reinforcing rather than undermining the environment of fear.

DEI Funds Are Being Diverted to Campus Cops

At the end of the same school year that kicked off with two open shooter situations, the leaders of UNC Chapel Hill not only ramped up police violence against students — they also moved to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and give more money to cops.

In a capstone effort to make their pro-cop, anti-protest point following mayhem on the campus at the end of the semester, the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees in mid-May voted to divert $2.3 million in funds for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus towards campus police. During that meeting, the Board of Trustees Chair John Preyer threatened to call the police on anyone who “interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts this meeting.”

Most reporting has claimed that the trustees are moving funds from “DEI” to “public safety.” In headline after headline, journalists adopt police language of “campus safety” and “public safety” in lieu of simply naming what this policy does: It defunds campus diversity efforts and gives more funding to a police force that, just within the past year, has become known for fumbling an actual active shooter situation and attacking peaceful protesters.

The situation at many other colleges and universities has been alarmingly similar. For example, at the University of Michigan last week, police in full riot gear knocked down an encampment, pepper-sprayed students and arrested four people following a month-long demonstration in the public university’s famous central square. Two protesters were hospitalized.

Contrast that with a protest 24 years ago, when anti-racist activists on the campus took over the tower of the Michigan Union for 37 days and occupied a dean’s office to protest a secret society that kept stolen Native American artifacts in the public building and used them in private rituals. During that month-long protest, police were never called in, and the demonstration ultimately resulted in the university banning Michigamua, the racist secret society. What resulted, instead, was a spirited and intense campuswide debate about Native American heritage and the right of students of color to feel safe on the campus, a debate which influenced me deeply as a teenager growing up near that campus.

It has only taken a couple of decades for the framing of campus “safety” at Michigan to shift away from protecting the most vulnerable and towards empowering police and scapegoating protest. Today, it’s hard to imagine a demonstration like that one not being faced with militarized police tactics.

“Campus Safety” Is Police Propaganda

Framing the police as agents of public safety is pure copaganda. Increased funding for police has a proven track record — and it is not a track record of making communities, or campuses, safer. Media, university administrations and police unions have played an active role in perpetuating a mythology that is now actively placing students at risk.

Police presence in K-12 schools makes some students pointedly less safe. First of all, police sexual violence and assault is a serious problem, particularly for young Black women. Meanwhile, increased police presence (referred to as SROs or school resource officers) appears to have no effect on gun violence. According to a 2023 study of police presence in public schools published by the Journal of Policy and Management, policing in schools generally leads to increased punishment, particularly for already targeted groups: “SROs intensify the use of suspension, expulsion, police referral, and arrest of students. These increases in disciplinary and police actions are consistently largest for Black students, male students, and students with disabilities.”

This dynamic is echoed in college campus policing. While the increasing numbers of police on college campuses have corresponded with lowering rates of crime overall, the vast majority of arrests by college police forces are for liquor violations, marijuana possession, public drunkenness and driving under the influence, according to a 2020 report by Civilytics based on statistics provided by universities and police departments. As these police forces grew steadily from 1996 to 2016, Black people made up an increasingly large portion of the arrestees. Finally, the number of reported rapes on college campuses has gone up as the number of police on campuses rises. Only a tiny percentage of rape and sexual assault is addressed by campus police, and they contribute nothing to prevention.

These statistics should be no surprise: Police presence in schools is a cultural and political issue, driven by the pervasive propaganda designed to convince people that policing is synonymous with public safety. It is not. Programs focused on sexual assault prevention, programs that build safer spaces for Black, Muslim, queer and trans students, and increased mental health support for both students and faculty are among the simple measures universities have taken and can take to stem violence. True safety on campuses will only come from addressing the root causes of violence — one of which is the violent culture of U.S. policing itself.

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Lewis Raven Wallace 

Lewis Raven Wallace (he/they/ze) is an independent journalist based in Durham, North Carolina and the author and creator of The View from Somewhere book and podcast. He’s currently a Ford Global Fellow, and the Abolition Journalism Fellow with Interrupting Criminalization. He previously worked in public radio, and is a long-time activist engaged in prison abolition, racial justice, and queer and trans liberation. He is white and transgender, and was born and raised in the Midwest with deep roots in the South.

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