This summer, in the wake of the tragic murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, #BlackLivesMatter activists and organizers called for a national defunding of police departments and a reinvestment in communities. This was never meant to be an empty slogan; it was meant to be an initial step in the total abolition of the prison industrial complex. To that end, a group of Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Muslim, white, trans, queer, migrant, disabled, sex-working, caregiving and working-class abolitionists created an #8toAbolition framework, providing communities and organizers tools and strategies for building a society without prisons or police. An important goal in this framework is “Removing Police from Schools.” And among many steps to realize this goal, they “[c]all on universities to dissolve relationships with police departments.”
Black student leaders at Stanford University did just that in a June Letter to the Stanford President. Simply, they demanded that the University dismiss and disarm non-Stanford police officers; defund the Stanford University Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) budget and divert money toward avenues to reduce crime and its impacts; desist from over-reliance on police and train all community members and staff in de-escalation; and disclose policies on deadly force, use of force, ethical behavior and commitment to de-escalation techniques. In response, the University has issued countless platitudes about “support for the Black community” and its “commitment to anti-racism.” Not once have they even acknowledged Black students’ demands.
In light of the University’s disastrous campus compact rollout and overall COVID-19 response, we know that neither do police nor the University administration keep us safe: We do. We may very well die waiting for the University to show any meaningful commitment to Black students’ demands; after all, it has gone without departmentalizing its AAAS program for over 50 years and has ignored renewed calls for departmentalization. As a community, we need to decrease our reliance on police and commit to community care and mutual aid. Understanding the history and nature of campus policing at Stanford, learning more about what prison and police abolition entail and collectively reimagining community safety are critical places to start.
In the late 1960s, spontaneous student protests took over San Francisco State College (SFSC). For more than four months, students went on strike to fight for greater representation in the institution. As a direct result, Black students earned more equitable admission practices and helped establish a College of Ethnic Studies. However, along the way, the SFSC administration called for the San Francisco police department, who rallied reinforcements from across the Bay Area and attacked unarmed protestors with bayonets to spill “blood all over the place,” as one attendee described. To prevent future student resistance, SFSC greatly increased policing on campus. The California Governor at the time, Ronald Reagan, rushed to implement these changes across public universities in California, and eventually, the country. The reaction to student activism in the ’60s ultimately gave rise to an unprecedented increase in policing on college campuses, as well as the first steps toward militarization of the domestic police force that we today take for granted.
Around the time of the SFSC protests, students at Stanford also staged a number of protests, including one against the unjust firing of a Black janitor and another series against the Vietnam War draft. The reverberations from these protests were felt nationally: The students’ actions received attention from major press outlets, and the subsequent police response involved a search of the Stanford Daily office that culminated in a 1978 Supreme Court case.
During these protests, Stanford’s administration sought to convert its campus security team into a force of sworn deputies, with all the additional power for policing and civil suppression that such a unique legal status would supply. Within months, they pushed legislation in Sacramento to make that possibility a reality. The proposed law was highly contentious: Stanford effectively wanted a police force without the public funding and oversight that typically comes with it. Even the Santa Clara County Sheriff James Geary opposed the law, arguing that such a police force “would be subject to the whims of campus administration.”
When the bill failed to pass the legislature, the University leadership eventually found another means to its ends: It directly established a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Santa Clara Office of the Sheriff. The University relied on its relationship with California’s attorney general, Estelle Younger, to prevent the MoU, which bypassed state law, from being overturned in court. Marvin Herrington, the experienced head of security at Stanford in the ’70s, was astounded, declaring “the University did something that I don’t know of any other university that’s ever done this.” In spite of this, University administration got what it wanted: today, the sworn deputies at Stanford are funded and operate without any input from voters in Santa Clara County, even those within the jurisdiction they patrol. SUDPS is not like a typical private security force because it has been endowed with the set of legal protections afforded to sworn officers. SUDPS is not like typical police departments because it is not accountable to public officials who have been elected via the democratic process. SUDPS exists in a realm outside of typical accountability because of the power and pressure that Stanford’s administrators have been able to exert on state and local governments over the last 50 years.
This unique police force has set an alarming precedent across the state of California. Within AB 2361, an amendment to the California state penal code passed in 2016, the state legislature permitted other higher education institutions in California to fund and deputize officers with a similar lack of accountability to work on their campuses. This bill, which was opposed by the ACLU and the California Public Defenders association, directly cites Stanford’s deputization of Santa Clara sheriffs as a prior example.
Around the same time, Facebook donated $11.2 million to the Menlo Park government and secured increased police officer hires for five years, who, while nominally not directly accountable to Facebook, have been assigned to focus on patrolling the Facebook campus and neighboring East Palo Alto. There are accounts of these Facebook-funded officers engaging in racial profiling and overpolicing of the city’s large Black and Latino population, who have been forced into East Palo Alto by notoriously discriminatory housing practices in Palo Alto that were recently mentioned in a civil lawsuit against the city by the ACLU and NAACP. Essentially, the structure of the police force at Stanford — which emerged from specific efforts by Stanford administrators and lobbyists to target student activists — has directly influenced not only other college campuses, but also corporations and the communities they occupy.
We care deeply about public safety in our community, but campus police — and police in general — do not support that safety. Policing did not support public safety when a Stanford Police deputy, along with Palo Alto police officer, was involved in the fatal shooting of Pedro Calderon, an unarmed Latino man from East Palo Alto. Countless reports from our community, day after day, have highlighted that racially biased policing not only occurs but violently influences all Stanford communities — undergrads, graduate workers, contracted and subcontracted employees, faculty — as well as people who reside or work near campus in cities like East Palo Alto.
Our current historical moment has placed new pressure on Stanford to transform its existing unjust practices. Following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, more people protested this summer than in any movement in American history. Rising to answer this demand for change is vital for any institution that claims to take promises of racial equality and justice seriously. To provide adequate public safety for our communities, we need to draw inspiration from the decades of work on police and prison abolition from scholars like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba. We need to learn from their visions of justice that policing has never been the solution. We need to confront the reality that incarceration and safety are not connected: Data show that despite historic reductions in California’s prison population, statewide crime rates have fallen consistently since 2015. The United States has both a high crime rate and the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world — our punitive policing and justice systems not only disproportionately target Black and brown communities, they fail entirely at addressing the root issues that lead to crime in the first place.
Rather than taking the existing structure of policing for granted, as scholars we must engage critically with it; we must interrogate how to create a safe community without discriminatory practices and ineffective, punitive approaches. The type of police review board that Stanford is proposing, with no accountability and only the power to review and report, is a half-measure at best. Its membership is not made up of experts in policing or prisons, the process for representation hasn’t been clarified, and with no real power the review board feels more like a tokenist rubber-stamp than a real accountability measure. In the middle of a pandemic, with revenue shortfalls and laid-off service workers, Stanford is building a new $33.5 million police station. Amid calls for increased police oversight and accountability across the country, Stanford continues to renew its police contract, which fails to provide basic protection to community members. Ending Stanford’s private deputization is essential to creating a safe, welcoming campus for all. Reopening negotiations on the Memorandum of Understanding with the Santa Clara Sheriff’s department, and involving members of the communities most heavily influenced by policing in any such negotiations, is a necessary first step.
Our actions today will shape the lives and survival of those on the campus, both in the present and in the future, and, like the actions of the student activists that came before us, they will reverberate across the country for generations to come.
– Abolish Stanford
Contact Abolish Stanford at abolishstanford ‘at’ riseup.net.
Contact the editors of opinions at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.
The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.