Opinion: On Black Stanford, police, Black Lives Matter and abolition

Opinion by Kory Gaines
June 29, 2020, 8:30 p.m.

Defund the police. Abolish the police. Abolition Now. When these statements are uttered by abolitionists, we actually mean “defund and abolish the police.” But media and local governments are beginning to hear and co-opt “defund the police,” contorting a radical call for change from Black abolitionists into digestible policy for (white) liberals. Black Lives Matters’ “#DefundThePolice” article on May 30 writes: “We call for a national defunding of police. We demand investment in our communities and the resources to ensure Black people not only survive, but thrive.” 

Prison and police abolitionists see defunding the police as one step toward abolition and work to create a world for all of us where we are not constantly policed, surveilled, detained and incarcerated, where people get the services they need and can access restorative justice practices in their communities. Abolitionists throughout the country worked together to form #8toAbolition, a campaign that outlines eight steps to abolition and reinvestment in our communities and in care. Defunding the police is one of the steps, and it is a meticulous policy plan. Removing police from schools is yet another step. 

I begin this article by urging us to listen to the Black organizers and scholars who have committed their lives to abolitionist work in our present day. We do not want law enforcement to exist as is. We do not want policing to exist in any form, not even “community policing,” because American policing is inherently anti-Black. We cannot be content with the status quo of our settler-colonial state built upon genocide and enslavement for the sliver of comfort for the privileged few. Reform has failed us. We will not be asked to reform a justice system that is deeply rotten, wicked and broken.

Black students have had a difficult spring quarter, to say the least. Black students have labored for our academic institutions to work better for us. We have been fighting for the University to back its expressions of care for Black lives with actual substantive support. It is not a big ask for Black students and Black faculty to demand more Black faculty hired; to demand more support for yielding Black admits, especially Black American admits, as incoming students; to demand to be heard by the University; to demand respect for Black scholarship. The University has shown negligence in its lack of support for the departmentalization of the Program in African and African American Studies and the funding of Martin Luther King Jr. Research Institute. Black students rally, raise funds and write up petitions in order to take initiative for our knowledge and lives, Black knowledge and Black lives, while Stanford University has yet to show much care or understanding, let alone initiative.

Black students have advocated for change in the police presence on campus. Last year, former Black ASSU senator Leya Elias ’21 and former senator Jamie Seney ’21 pushed Stanford to consider the role of police on our campus long before this moment. “Cops on Santa Teresa eom” is a commonly shared piece of information for Black students for nights and even middays as police ticket people on the main residential road on West Campus, which leads to Ujamaa and other dorms with large Black student populations. In addition to casual policing on campus, police response to Black students’ mental health crises has also been an issue for our campus police. Police have restrained and handcuffed our peers who have been in crisis, and that is just simply not the right response. SUDPS disproportionately harms Black students and tends to carry out the malicious parts of its protocol only when Black students are afflicted with mental health issues. 

Many Black students and our accomplices are abolitionists. We have participated in reading groups on Angela Y. Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?” The Black Student Union has been a space where abolition has been central to our political action committee’s politics for the last year and a half. A Black volunteer student organization (BVSO) statement of solidarity sent out to the Black diaspora mailing list from June 2 called on Stanford to consider its relationship with the police in our entire community. A collection of BVSOs signed on to the statement, which called for the disarmament, defunding and abolishing the police on our campus. 

“We cannot just sit and wait for a highly publicized death of a Black student before deciding to finally disarm [SUDPS],” the statement read. “Armed campus police are a risk to the students they are sworn to protect, especially as it pertains to Black students. Defunding the police and abolition of the police and prisons will be the future of our democracy. Our microcosm of democracy at the university should consider how it will build a more just and equitable world with its Black students through informed discussions on abolitionist politics.” Abolition today will be another historic installment of Black people establishing personhood and human rights for themselves. “Abolition democracy” will move beyond the limitations and exclusions of our “liberal democracy.” I have a hope that abolition will come with a radical reframing of all our republican institutions. Now is a pivotal moment for the world, and I am not sure our university will stand with the work of Black students. I am not sure our university is up to the task.

That is not to say that this discussion has only been siloed to student spheres. Faculty have caught on to the conversation as well. Stanford’s own Professor Hakeem Jefferson organized a talk on Race and the Criminal Justice System, featuring several academics who study and/or believe in abolition — tapping into an deep body of abolitionist thought that far predates this moment. “When people ask what police abolition looks like — it looks like Palo Alto,” said Professor Jefferson. Though I agree with the sentiment, another step of imagination is necessary. This is not quite what abolition should be: Palo Alto is not policed nor does it know quotidian police violence. So yes, to some extent Palo Alto could be the lived condition of a neighborhood in a new world after police abolition. However, residents of Palo Alto could very well call upon the police to enact violence if they felt “unsafe.” Abolition would mean that no one is calling upon state agents to potentially harm another human being. In Palo Alto, this is still a privilege that we have seen other white Americans weaponize against Black and Brown people minding their own business. If it is not summoning violence via 911, then it is vigilante violence. All vestiges of a system predicated upon policing and state-sanctioned race-based violence must be abolished along with the police and prisons.

Some have considered “defund the police” as a knee jerk reaction to this moment. It is not. Many people have been challenging the public to extend its political imagination. Some of these people are your community members and friends. Others are scholars like Angela Y. Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. We abolitionists are still learning, growing and crafting this new world together for ourselves. It is your choice to extend your political imagination as well. Choose a world rife with violence, militarization, death and wickedness — or a world of care, community self-governance and Black radical unity.

Special thanks and acknowledgement to Harrison Fowler for his contribution in writing a section of this article.

Contact Kory Gaines at kgaines8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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