On February 23, the Sewanee Young Democratic Socialists (SYDS) presented UC Davis professors Joshua Clover and Seeta Chaganti via Zoom in Blackman auditorium for a discussion with students about police abolition on college campuses, with about twenty students in attendance. The Cops Off Campus coalition extends across University of California campuses, and began with a movement among graduate students striking over a cost of living adjustment in winter 2020.
English professor Matthew Irvin, faculty sponsor for SYDS, met Seeta Chaganti as a fellow Medievalist who visited the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium as a speaker. Her topic focused on thinking about abolition through Medieval texts. Clover, also an English professor, focuses on theories surrounding protests and mass movements. According to Irvin, they offered to speak with Sewanee students after a year of correspondence. Irvin introduced the speakers and prompted them to begin by describing what police abolition means and differentiating the concept from defunding the police.
“Abolition for me first and foremost is an absence…” Clover said, “There’s this whole planet filled with nations, and those nations all have universities for the most part. Some of those nations have high and low crime rates, basically none of those nations have police on campus. The planet is organized by the absence of cops on campus.”
Chaganti differentiated ‘abolition’ from ‘defunding’ as defunding often means reform.
“Defunding means decreasing support for police but it doesn’t actually mean rethinking the entire structure in which we are all operating so that we don’t need them anymore,” Chaganti said.
After the introduction, Irvin opened the discussion for students to ask questions.
After a student asked about their work on the UC Davis campus, Chaganti explained the momentum built around the 2020 graduate student strike across the University of California system. The strike ended with repression from the universities and cases of police violence.
Chaganati said, “Behind that strike for student living conditions was this larger concern about living conditions on-campus in general…where we don’t have unhoused students, where we don’t have food insecurity,…The idea we were really interested in was making this a freer, fairer, more just university where everybody’s being taken care of.”
Many student questions addressed concerns about resources for victims in the absence of police. Clover responded with statistics demonstrating how police are often ineffective in cases regarding property and violent crimes, therefore not presenting the police as a resource for victims in the first place.
Lillian Eells (C’22), serves as the events coordinator for SYDS and knew little about the Cops off Campus movement before this event, however she identifies as a police abolitionist.
“Abolition isn’t meant to create new police under a different name, but to build a community of support where we don’t necessarily need these violent forms of control.” Eells said. “Especially as cops don’t help when things are going on…I thought they could have talked a little bit more about alternatives to policing..it seemed like a lot of the reservations people had were about sexual assault and other forms of harrassment, but they sort of breezed over that…”
As the vice-chancellor serves as Sewanee’s mayor and the sheriff reports to the University president, Sewanee Police Officers operate as facets of the University administration.
“I think it’s difficult for the university to make any meaningful change when they are the instigators of a lot of this. One thing I think can help is instituting more oversight over police officers,” Eells said.
Eells referenced last year’s case with SPD’s former police officer Tony Gillum, who was arrested July 6, 2021 over a burglary in a dorm room which occurred over Thanksgiving break in 2020.
“There was nothing the university said on that whole situation, and [that case] is partly a failure on their part,” she said.
While Eells wants to see a campus without cops in the future, she thinks disarmament of cops would also create a safer relationship between students and campus police.
Eells describes addressing policing as a priority for SYDS, “A lot of issues with policing are larger issues that then the police aren’t helping to fix, but there are also issues that are specifically caused by the presence of police on-campus.”