‘We’re not gonna be quiet’: Students demand WUPD abolition
Carrying a banner that read “WUPD protects property, not people,” students marched from Brookings Hall to the South 40 to call on University administrators to defund and abolish the Washington University Police Department, Oct. 24.
Junior Nana Kusi, an organizer with WashU for Abolition, said that the protest served to honor victims of police brutality and highlight the problems with policing, demonstrating the need to reallocate resources to better serve both students and the local community.
“We really wanted to cement in our campus’ conscience that the area that we occupy and the space that we take up is one that was carved out through violence and continues to be carved out through violence,” Kusi said. “…Wash. U. is probably the largest single agent of gentrification in the St. Louis community.”
Sophomore Aaliyah Allen addressed students from the steps of Brookings Hall, after organizers reminded students to remain masked and distanced for the duration of the protest.
“I’ve had to sit with the cold fact that there is no justice for a lost Black life in America’s justice system, and that in fact, snuffing out Black lives is more core to its function than preserving or avenging them has ever been or will ever be…More and more I’ve had to grapple with the depth of the oppressive systems we’re facing and bear the conscious weight of their insurmountable power,” Allen said.
While she acknowledged that the protest was an important step, Allen urged students to think about it as one small piece in a much larger struggle for equality and liberation.
“The issues we’re facing are not single-pronged, easy-answer, feel-good issues,” she said. “These are complex, messy, life-or-death issues, and they should be treated as such.”
After Allen’s address, students sat or laid on the ground for a die-in, during which an organizer read out the names of just a few of the many victims of police brutality in St. Louis: Isaiah Hammett, Anthony Lamar Smith, Michael Brown, Cary Ball Jr. and Kiwi Herring.
Following the remarks at Brookings, students took to the street, marching down Forsyth Boulevard and then blocking the intersection at Forsyth and Wallace for five minutes, with chants such as “Black lives matter,” “Defund the police” and “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go.”
WUPD cars soon blocked traffic approaching the intersection, and two officers exited an unmarked police vehicle to stand near the protesters, prompting shouts of “Why are you here?”
“For your safety,” one of the officers replied.
“For the safety of the property,” a student shouted back, while others chimed in with calls of “We’re safe!”
The march proceeded down Wallace and onto Shepley Drive, with students chanting “Out of your dorms, into the streets” as they passed Koenig and Liggett Houses.
Students gathered around their final destination of the WUPD office on the South 40 to listen to a speech from junior Lawton Blanchard, followed by an open mic for protesters to share their thoughts about and experiences with policing.
Comparing WUPD’s 66 full-time personnel to the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center’s single staff psychologist, students called on the University to reallocate the money spent on WUPD’s staff, vehicles and weapons toward resources such as Habif’s mental health services, Uncle Joe’s, the Emergency Support Team and other underfunded services that benefit students.
Many pointed out that crimes involving drugs, alcohol and assault are rampant on campus but that WUPD fails to solve these issues, instead over-policing the neighboring communities.
“You want to look for drugs in our neighborhood?” one student said. “Go to frat row.”
While WUPD currently reacts to crime, it fails to prevent it, Kusi said. She cited WUPD’s ineffectiveness at preventing crime within Greek Life as an example of the University protecting property over people and caring about liability more than protection.
“People do party drugs in the frat houses all the time, people have dangerous relationships with alcohol,” Kusi said. “The University knows that this happens, but because they’re able to relegate liability to the fraternities, they would prefer to simply not look at it. If WUPD was hoping to reduce crime, why are we not pursuing or talking about the rates of sexual assault that happen inside of frat houses?”
Students and administrators should interrogate this hypocrisy and what it means, she said.
Kusi also pointed out that University students often discuss crime as if it is an inherent feature of St. Louis and allow it to inform their interactions with the community, rather than attempting to understand the root of and potential solutions to the problem.
“Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum—people commit crimes because they’re coming from backgrounds of poverty, from a lack of access, and I think we really need to interrogate how Washington University directly plays into that narrative of closing off access to different sorts of things that would prevent crime in the long run,” she said. “Instead of a proactive stance, we’re coming from a reactive stance that really serves to overcriminalize the community.”
Although students have long been calling for the University to reevaluate WUPD, Blanchard noted that WUPD’s presence had continued to increase over the past year.
“I think of all the people who’ve looked like me, have been doing things that I do…who have been killed for just existing and looking like me,” Blanchard said. “I remember that [and] deep in my soul, I feel less safe. There’s only so many times when you can see someone in a specific uniform kill someone who looks like you…and walk around on campus and feel safe when you see someone that looks like that.”
Executive Vice Chancellor Hank Webber wrote in a statement that the University is supportive of students expressing their views.
“As a community committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, we acknowledge the concerns that have been raised at Washington University and more broadly about public safety and policing,” he wrote. “We seek to examine our approach within an ecosystem of services that includes, and extends beyond, our police department. We have begun the important work of exploring what our different communities at Washington University need to feel safe and supported on our campuses and in our neighboring communities, and how we can come together to best meet the safety needs of the diverse University community and create structures for ongoing transparency and review.”
Webber currently oversees the University’s public safety committee, which is examining the role and scope of WUPD in the context of the University’s broader support services and within the St. Louis community, with the goal of presenting recommendations early in the spring semester.
However, Kusi was skeptical about the University’s commitment to the best interests of St. Louis.
“Our University talks a very big game about being in St. Louis and having a relationship with the surrounding community, but…increasing policing around the surrounding areas and increasing the presence of Washington University patrols puts St. Louis citizens in danger by increasing possible contacts with police officers,” Kusi said.
During the speeches outside the WUPD office, the crowd grew as students walking between the Danforth campus and the South 40 came to listen. Many said that the speakers’ remarks resonated with them, and that they wanted to learn more about alternative models of public safety.
Freshman Jebron Perkins emphasized the importance of students showing up beyond social media activism, whether that meant physically attending protests or financially contributing to relevant causes.
Perkins also noted the University’s significant financial investment in WUPD, as opposed to what he said was inadequate investment into the surrounding community.
“I hope the administration took away that we’re not gonna be quiet,” he said. “This is not a fad, it’s not something that happened [during the] summer and now we’re over it—we’re not gonna be over it until we get the problems fixed that we want to fix…You can’t reform a system that was built broken, so we need to start over from scratch.”
Freshman Shalah Russell said that she attended the march to support her Black and brown peers as well as to learn more about potential WUPD abolition.
“I learned a lot about Wash. U. that I didn’t know before, and how Wash. U. interacts with the neighboring cities and the people that don’t go to the school,” she said. “It was a wake up call for me as well [about] the amount of privilege we have just attending this University.”
Russell said that she wanted to continue to involve herself in efforts not only to abolish WUPD but to help neighboring communities.
While Kusi said she was happy that the protest had over 100 students in attendance, she noted that it was a lower turnout than the vigil for Breonna Taylor held earlier in the month.
“I think [students] should really ask themselves why it is easier for them to come out in a more solemn moment, but not so easy to take the extra step of doing the work to dismantle the systems that necessitate those solemn moments,” she said. “We would never have had to have a vigil for Breonna Taylor if we were having the real conversations about what policing does to our communities and to Black and brown people across the U.S., and particularly in a city as segregated as St Louis.”
Even if students might be unsure of what abolition could look like or held some differing opinions to those stated by organizers, Kusi encouraged them to show up anyway.
“Abolition can be difficult to grapple with because our society, our culture, is so deeply carceral,” Kusi said. “The concepts of the prison system [and] of policing are so deeply ingrained with how we operate as a culture that it’s difficult to separate or see what life could be like without them. I would like to remind people that there was a time before the institution of policing and prisons, and there will be a time after…We’re all at different stages of that learning journey, and if you’re coming to this movement with genuine intentions, we will meet you where you are.”
In addition to protesting, Allen encouraged students to think holistically about community organizing and donate to mutual aid funds and grassroots organizations, as well as educating themselves and others.
“This protest is poised to be a great first swing, but rarely does a fight take one blow, and rarely is each punch equal,” she said during her speech at Brookings. “This is one blow. What’s the next?”
While organizers acknowledged that abolishing WUPD would be an uphill battle, they expressed confidence that the struggle would be worthwhile.
“There used to be a world in which someone decided that they could own other people, and then they made that a possibility. And then there was a world in which people imagined they would be free, and they made that happen,” Blanchard said. “We can change the systems that we live under. By refusing to change them or saying that they are impossible to change, we’re saying that we’re okay with the systems as they are. A better world is possible—we have to fight for it.”
Additional reporting by Julia Robbins