The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced us to closely examine what measures we believe are necessary to ensure safety in our communities. Stanford’s administration has made many drastic changes to on-campus life since the beginning of 2020, with one of these changes looming particularly large over university life: the “Campus Compact.”
Despite the revisions to the contract made in September in response to widespread student criticism, the Compact has come into focus again in 2021, with reports of large gatherings and threats of disciplinary action making recent Daily headlines. To enforce its rules, Stanford continues to encourage students to fill out the “COVID Community Concern Reporting Form” with details of alleged infractions, including the full names of the individuals involved and photos and video supporting the allegations. Resident Assistants (RAs) have informed Abolish Stanford that they are feeling additional pressure from Resident Fellows (RFs) to report Compact violations directly to this form, sometimes even before or in lieu of speaking to students directly.
After reflecting on the impact of the Compact on the Stanford community, it is clear that the reporting form is not at all useful for voicing “Community Concerns.” It does, however, have some very real, and very harmful, effects on the campus community.
First, the reporting form is rooted in and legitimizes the assumption that institutional punitive measures are effective means of maintaining public safety. By encouraging community members to report their neighbors to an external authority that then becomes the single entity responsible for implementing punitive justice, this system reproduces the ineffective societal paradigm of policing while blunting our ability to implement our own solutions. In addition, as in all forms of policing, the people and groups reported are ones that are perceived to be “unsafe,” a definition whose frequent unequal application is rooted in racism, classism and ableism.
Second, the Compact acts as a convenient means of redirecting community dissatisfaction toward individual acts when it could be more productively focused on the systems and policies that put everyone on campus at risk. During the pandemic, the university administration has jeopardized campus safety by failing to supply campus workers in a timely manner with the resources they need to work safely, ensure support and protection for survivors of sexual violence or adequately train RAs to preserve the safety and mental wellness of their residents. Addressing any one of these issues would make meaningful strides towards a safe campus by allowing community members to avoid situations that jeopardize their own health and more effectively support peers who are dealing with their own struggles. Instead, the university drags its feet on all of these and, as a means of deflecting responsibility, encourages us to monitor and report each other instead.
Third, the reporting form undermines the social fabric of communication and trust that is the key to safety in any community. Effectively, the reporting form transforms every person on campus into a form of police by encouraging them to participate in the surveillance and punishment of their peers. This role is incompatible with a community’s need for empathy and communication among its members, especially residents and RAs. Mandated to report their residents for infractions, the people who are normally tasked with fostering a sense of connection within dorms are being set up to be unapproachable watchdogs.
These issues with the university administration’s approach beg the question: what should we do instead? The administration’s concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic are entirely valid. We are all under an immense amount of pressure as we deal constantly with pandemic anxieties, and we need to promote actual safety and comfort. We should be especially conscious of students who are reliant on campus housing to provide a safe environment that they cannot access elsewhere. The Campus Compact reporting form and the culture that it creates are not the answer, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for more effective practices to take their place. Particularly, we need solutions that address individual needs while shrinking the influence of police on campus, rather than expanding it.
To find solutions that dismantle the influence of police on campus, we look to the guidance of a long lineage of abolitionists, who teach us that abolition is about creating communities of care. By building trust and transformative relationships with one another — instead of staying isolated from and suspicious of one another, as the Campus Compact teaches us to be — we can keep our communities safe, without need for surveillance or policing.
Practices such as mutual aid teach us that all the resources that we need to survive already exist within our communities, but the Campus Compact actively cuts us off from these basic things by undermining the compassion and good faith that are essential for community-oriented solutions. By practicing the radical act of simply helping one another without judgment or gatekeeping, we take the role of safety into our own hands, and shift the focus of blame away from each other and toward Stanford’s flawed COVID response. Certainly, the university cannot be held responsible for individual public health infractions, but it must take accountability for creating the conditions of surveillance, distrust and cynicism that foster such risky behavior.
For example, imagine an RA sees a gathering of frosh in a dorm lounge. The Campus Compact and the recently strengthened COVID policy require the RA to immediately report the time, location and names of all parties involved in the compact violation. In this scenario, the frosh risk potential retaliation from the Compact review board and the RA loses the trust of some of their residents; the culture of the dorm becomes one of surveillance rather than of community. In contrast, the RA could approach the frosh or reach out to them online, communicating why their behavior was unsafe. They could take the opportunity to invite residents into the community through nonviolent dialogue, rather than pushing them out through the application of unequal power structures and blame. Through this alternative approach, the RA could build trust with their residents, and help the frosh feel cared for and welcome in their dorm. When residents feel cared for and connected to their staff like this, they would likely take greater care to protect this community that feels like a community, rather than a detached and distrustful association.
Conflict can usually be resolved without an institutional response, but sometimes the danger or harm may be too great to address within the community. In these cases, we can call upon other resources, such as mental health services, transformative justice circles, resources for survivors of sexual assault or local health clinics — not the police. These resources actually provide the services and support people need to survive, without the added strings of disciplinary action, which are often tied to ableist, racist, transphobic and classist notions of who deserves help and who deserves punishment.
Specifically, regarding pandemic safety, we could address serious instances of unsafe behavior by ensuring all those affected have access to the resources they need to protect their physical safety and educating those involved to reduce the likelihood of future unsafe action. The focus should be on repairing interpersonal harm caused by breaches of trust, not causing further harm. By reducing our dependence on policing and pursuing alternatives, we can start to envision a community rooted in trust, where everyone’s needs are met.
Decreasing our reliance on police requires a cultural shift and concerted effort. To aid in this transformation, we are compiling a list of alternative resources to police, which we will share on our social media. Follow @abolishstanford on Twitter and Instagram throughout this week to learn more about compact-related direct actions, police abolition and total liberation at Stanford and across the peninsula.
Contact Abolish Stanford at abolishstanford ‘at’ riseup.net.
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