Agnes Martin, Homage to Life (2003)
VP: Could you explain a little bit about the history of your organization? How did it come together? What does it seek to accomplish? What do you see as the relationship between research and action projects?
The Cops off Campus Research Collective began in summer 2020 when folks involved with abolitionist university studies put out a call for people interested in data analysis to work on a project researching campus policing and helping to consolidate information about campus police for more accessible use in abolitionist organizing. The initial idea was to build a database that would aggregate all kinds of research on campus police, including information on budgets, hardware transfers, local and state partnerships, as well as administrative creep and personal testimony about campus policing. Since policing looks wildly different across campuses, and data on campus police is less readily available than data on city and state police departments, our database aims to build and maintain organizing tools and knowledge that can sustain across the usual cycles of campus organizing with the attrition of student organizers and losses of institutional memory.
The uprisings in summer 2020 sparked sustained and widespread interest in abolition, and the project was oriented toward supporting abolitionist campus organizing from the data and research side. By the fall of 2020, members of the group had set up an Airtable database and put out calls for research on campus policing. At the same time, other members of the group were engaged in lesson and workshop planning to help bridge the research and action projects. Some of the results of this labor were a publicly available toolkit that presents strategies of engaging with the database, and a resource on how and why to talk to university archivists. Over the course of the 2020-2021 academic year, COCRP held workshops with students, faculty, and staff at various institutions, including the University of Michigan, UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Chicago, as well as a large open-event co-sponsored with Critical Resistance that brought together organizers from across the country in advance of Abolition May. Currently, we are working on a workshop to bring more data analysis folks into abolitionist movements on and beyond campuses. Throughout this project, research has always been conceived as a tool for action rather than an end in and of itself, so we are always asking how the research can adapt to better serve organizing efforts.
VP: The Abolitionist University Studies Invitation argues against nostalgic appeals to the “Golden Era” university, and documents how the post-war expansion in public universities was “part of a larger set of accumulation projects designed to direct and manage the anticipation and actuality of postwar surpluses of capital and population,” along with how this expansion was typically “underwritten by militarized funding priorities, nationalist agendas, and an incorporative project of counterinsurgency.” If today the Golden Era university should not, and cannot, be retrieved, what is the vision(s) of the university that inspires your work? What is an “abolition university”?
Rather than setting out any particular vision, we use this concept of “abolition university” to ask what kinds of spaces, relationships, and ways of studying an abolitionist approach to the university could bring into being. We’re inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis’s ideas of “abolition democracy,” which Davis frames as a proposal for “the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render prison obsolete.” Yet, we are ambivalent about whether the university should be radically transformed or should itself be rendered obsolete along with prisons. “Abolition university” could mean a call to make universities into resources that are useful for wider abolitionist movements. We could draw visions for this from historical precedents, such as Oberlin College in the 1830s-1850s which J. Brent Morris describes as a “hotbed of abolitionism.” “Abolition university” could also mean taking seriously the question from Max Haiven’s response to our invitation: “how do we imagine a society that no longer needs the university, or where the needs that are today met by the university are met otherwise?” A similar interpretation comes from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s acceptance of our invitation when they say: “abolitionist university studies, by which we take them to mean, as well, study in and the study of the abolitionist university, and we recognize, along with them, that an abolitionist university would be kinda like an abolitionist prison or an abolitionist plantation. It would be where the generation of knowledge in the university—at the level of its form, content and practices—tends towards the knowing degeneration, disorganization and disequilibrium of the university.”
Trying to grapple with these interpretations simultaneously sets up a complex challenge for abolitionists—a challenge that requires going against the individualizing grain of academic professionalism and forming new collective subjects through practices of studying, relationship building, and organizing around abolitionist projects. For visions of this kind of “abolition university” in and through studying and organizing, we can point to many inspirations: what Jarvis Givens calls the “fugitive pedagogy” of black people’s subversive studying within and against the white education system, the Study and Struggle groups inside and across prison walls, Dechinta Bush University that supports land-based education for Indigenous resurgence, Pu’u Huluhulu University that set up Indigenous-led teach-ins in the resistance camp for protecting sacred Maunakea in Hawaii, and the many studying/organizing groups formed through bringing Black Freedom Movements onto campuses, such as the Third World Liberation Fronts at San Francisco State (1968) and UC Berkeley (1969), the Malcolm X Liberation University that formed out of an occupation at Duke University (1969), and more recently, the many Black Lives Matter campus protests that resulted in at least 80 statements of demands in 2016, with renewed efforts after the uprisings in response to the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, including a wave of Cops Off Campus organizing.
VP: Your research collective draws on the experience of numerous struggles and years of research. How does this background inform how you conceptualize organizing tasks in the present? What are the strategic implications of your analysis and critique of the university?
Abbie, Eli, Nick and Zach entered graduate school in the mid-two-thousand-aughts, each with varying degrees of interest looking to the university itself as an object of inquiry. Abbie and Zach pursued PhD programs with the intention of interrogating the function of the university; Eli initially focused on environmental politics but shifted his research through organizing at the university; Nick had other projects in mind but turned to studying the university in part as a response to their experiences in graduate school. Across our locations in different fields (Cultural Studies, Political Science, History of Consciousness, and American Studies, respectively) and at distinct institutions (UC Davis, University of Minnesota, UC Santa Cruz, and NYU), we were all impacted by and active in the resistance to the retrenchment in funding for higher education in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In this context, we looked for and began to develop theories and histories of the university that would help us to understand the present conditions and provide a framework through which to organize against, within, and beyond our institutions.
Since starting to write together in 2019, we’ve worked to develop a theory of the university that can help redefine what a university struggle is, the kinds of demands organizers can make, and how we need to imagine a radically different kind of institution. A central aspect of this work has been to theorize the question of accumulation across the scales of individuals, institutions of higher education, and broader capitalist regimes. This has allowed us to identify different points of pressure and rupture. We surface the accumulative function of the university in its central and ongoing role in processes of land dispossession to open possibilities for linking organizing around land and place with efforts to confront gentrification and policing. We also look to the noncirculation of wages as a tactic of accumulation implemented by university administrators who have shifted the classification of graduate student workers to undercut labor organizing.
Our theory of the university – how to study it and how to be in relation to it – calls for a fundamental rethinking of property relations. It is a theory that refuses many collective assumptions of the university, perhaps most centrally its benevolence and its inevitable future. To focus on accumulation, capital, and land has the potential to widen the frame of who the stakeholders are in this struggle beyond students and faculty so as to be accountable to and ideally in solidarity with other campus workers and the people who live in areas adjacent to college and universities. To think the university in this way is to shift away from the idea of being “in but not of” to grapple with the ways we’re all of it, whether or not we want to be and thus to refuse a tempting absolution from complicity with the institutions’ violence. We understand ourselves as working in and on the university, with our different and shifting positions in relation to university institutions (tenure-track, tenured, adjunct, staff, grad student-worker, ex-academic) to agitate across our positionalities—particularly in reckoning with the limits and possibilities for studying, collaborating, and organizing in solidarity with each other.
VP: In recent years, university worker militancy has markedly increased. It is visible in numerous struggles around, for example: adjunctification and job security; wages and benefits; union recognition; and rent, financialization, debt and social reproduction. What is the relationship between campus abolition and university labor struggles such as these?
Police play a critical role in labor discipline – as part of an administrative surveillance apparatus and means by which administrators seek to limit organizing through intimidation, arrest, and physical violence. Administrators, in particular, exploit the vulnerability of noncitizen students to the threat posed by police repression and consequent deportation. The archives of university labor struggles are replete with examples of police – campus and municipal alike – acting to suppress organizing and curb militancy. During the 1971 Yale strike, university police acted as the “armed fist of management against labor throughout the strike,” and the New Haven Police Department brutally beat striking workers at the university’s commencement exercises during the strike’s climactic moment.1 University police even polled members of the blue collar janitor and food service workers’ union about plans to strike, and then formally reported what they had learned to the university’s HR executives.2 To these historical antecedents we might append more recent examples, such as the actions of the University of California Police Department during the UC Santa Cruz COLA wildcat strike in early 2020. Transformations in the political economy of higher education have seen a shift during the last century from a situation in which bourgeois college students were enthusiastic strikebreakers (e.g., Columbia students during the 1905 strike by NYC subway workers, or Harvard Students during the 1919 Boston Police strike)3 to one in which the police are the default cudgel wielded against students and other campus workers. But as universities have become so central to the regional labor markets of post-industrial, “Meds and Eds” urban economies, it’s increasingly clear how much these campus labor struggles are about the relationship between universities, capital, and the state, a connection made perhaps most clearly during the explicitly abolitionist strike by the Graduate Employee Organization at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor in Fall 2020.
In current struggles, such as the 2021 Howard University protests, the relationship between universities’ institutional accumulation and the noncirculation of student wages is very evident in the ways that outsourced, mold-infested living conditions extract additional reproductive labor from students who are not paid to study. At Columbia, where striking members of the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) found that the university was not only withholding pay for teaching but also putatively unrelated stipends for study, the strike has revealed the limits of an ideological distinction between teaching as labor and studying as not-labor. Thereby, the strike also uncovered the fraying architecture of a decade-plus old set of reforms that many private universities made to graduate employee funding – attempting to decouple graduate funding from teaching requirements, such as by increasing fellowships and reclassifying TA teaching as adjunct work. These struggles might therefore seem only tangentially related – one a struggle over the outsourcing (and concomitant sorry state) of undergraduate housing, the other a labor strike by graduate students – but they are linked not only by abstractions like “corporate greed,” but also because both are directly struggles over the commodification of study-as-social-reproduction, of study as unwaged and invisible labor students perform for institutions.
There is a longer history of symbiosis between campus labor and abolitionist struggles. Three members of GESO (now Local 33,) the graduate employee union at Yale, wrote the 2001 report “Yale, Slavery, and Abolition” – a precursor to much of the contemporary research on universities and slavery. Those three scholars, two of whom went on to become union staffers, wrote their report to puncture the autohagiographic narrative the university was constructing during its tercentennial celebrations and to build connections between the struggles of campus workers and working class New Haveners and the historical legacy of the university’s traffic in human commodities. Another member and organizer of the same union, five years later, led the campaign against Yale’s investments, through Tom Steyer’s hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, in the largest private prison company in the US, The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), since renamed CoreCivic. That campaign, unable to persuade the university’s investment office to divest from the hedge fund, instead succeeded in forcing the hedge fund itself to divest from CCA. As we write, the largest strike in the US is the six-week walkout by the graduate employee union, at Columbia university SWC-UAW Local 2110, where in alarmist and distorting emails, provost Mary Boyce has sought to frame the picket lines as violent and disruptive spaces in need of policing. Contingent academic workers in the US increasingly constitute an important source of labor militancy and union membership – graduate and undergraduate student employees now make up nearly ⅕ of the membership of the UAW. Abolition movements have helped to unsettle union organizers’ subscription to a narrow, “bread and butter” trade unionism and shift them to a solidarity unionism approach that tries to intersect labor struggles with other antiracist and feminist struggles.
VP: The last year has witnessed an explosion of abolitionist and anti-racist organizing at universities across the country along with increasing coordination and networking between struggles at different campuses. Yet victories have arguably thus far been limited, and there have also been notable setbacks. How do you interpret the current moment in abolitionist campus organizing? What are the specific obstacles faced? And how do you envision that we’ll finally get cops off campus?
Over the 2020-21 academic year, much of the organizing was done on a campus-by-campus basis, with the emergence of larger, Turtle Island-wide organizations like the Cops Off Campus Coalition helping to connect campus abolitionists to share tactics, build solidarity, and coordinate action. The signature event for the COCC was 2021’s Abolition May, in which the coalition worked to fill the calendar with actions nearly every day on different campuses. As is often the case, the political economy of university activism has over the intervening months stemmed some of the tide. With the emergence of vaccines, campuses that had been mostly remote during 2020-21 have reopened to in-person learning as of the Fall.
One of the strengths of Cops Off Campus organizing had consisted in its creative use of remote and videoconferencing technologies to mitigate the effects of distance (between organizers on different campuses, as well as between organizers and the campuses with which they were affiliated).
In the main, however, our collective strengths and experience were less seasoned in some of the tactics that might have enabled us to take better advantage of the return to campus. Perhaps more pressingly, the interval between one academic year to the next always taxes activism that is deeply related to undergraduate student movement. From one year to the next, graduation itself removes from campus the most seasoned undergraduate student organizers.
At the same time, we might do well to understand that the effects of an anti-policing struggle play out over a much larger field, and have their impact on the tactical range available to campus administrators. As we noted in our Cops Off Campus Toolkit, the most recent origins of the phrase “cops off campus” came in the context of picket line chants during the graduate worker wildcat strike at UC Santa Cruz. In the University of California system, much of the practical infrastructure that ended up transforming into system- and statewide Cops Off Campus work was already in place before the catalyzing moments in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It grew out of solidarity work with graduate workers, in a moment where UCSC spent millions of dollars to mobilize riot cops in a strike-suppression campaign. That work required drawing links that many organizers had not necessarily been in the habit of making—between the growth of policing, rent and real estate inflation, and anti-labor politics.
When we see, for instance, UC-AFT’s success at leveraging a strike threat to force UC administration to make some considerable concessions to organized lecturers, what we may well be seeing are the indirect effects of the kinds of coalitions that abolitionist struggle has been able to build. It is difficult to cultivate the basic habits of solidarity among different academic constituencies. We have not yet succeeded in getting cops off campus, clearly. But what we have been part of building are the solidaristic habits in which labor organizers feel increasingly emboldened to see policing as part of the institutional architecture that they must struggle against. And moreover, we think that we’ve worked to do something meaningful to interrupt the tactics that universities feel safe in deploying against labor, in a way that may in the future encourage more militant action.
Our struggle ultimately is not only against policing but against the social work that policing is deployed to do, and the problems that it appears as a solution to. Not necessarily to stretch the concept of policing so broadly that it applies to every social practice. But rather toward a more thoroughgoing understanding of its social and institutional impact. Toward that end, we may also need a broader range of ways to measure success. We want policing gone, but one of the ways of understanding whether we’re getting there is to notice where, tactically, universities have come to flinch at using it—even if they have not taken it off the table entirely. Our work, after all, regards abolition not simply as the disappearance of police but in making the work of policing impossible.
↑1 Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, “Beneath The University: Service Workers and the University=Hospital City, 1964-1980,” Unpublished PhD Dissertation, New York University 2015.
↑3 Stephen H. Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker: College Youth and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of Social History Volume 28 number 2, Winter 1994.
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