Guest Commentary: Police Violence on College Campuses Is Unacceptable

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Police aggression in disbanding protestors and encampment takedowns only fuels the fire instead of putting it out.

By Nicholas Turner

Late last Tuesday night, counter-protesters attacked pro-Palestinian protesters on UCLA’s campus. Officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and California Highway Patrol arrived almost three hours later and, for nearly 90 minutes, failed to intervene as counter-protesters continued to attack with physical force, chemical agents, and fireworks. The same day as the UCLA incident, an NYPD officer discharged a gun in Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, and on Wednesday the NYPD disseminated an operatically boastful police video aggrandizing dominance as opposed to a duty to protect and serve. That same day, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, police forcibly wrestled a 65-year-old professor to the ground, and police in riot gear forcibly removed protestors from Tulane University’s campus in New Orleans. The week prior, police used rubber bullets and tear gas on protestors at Emory University in Atlanta.

Armed police officers. Riot gear and billy clubs. More than 2,500 arrests across dozens of campuses around the country. Images and reporting of militarized escalation and police violence in response to student protests about Gaza are in plain sight. And while many high-profile public figures and politicians have weighed in to condemn the disruption that protests have caused to campus property and student life during end-of-semester finals and graduation ceremonies, too few have condemned the egregious deployment and overreach of the police.

If you believe, as I do, that everyone deserves to be safe, no matter who they are, where they’re from, the color of their skin, or their political and religious beliefs, then you should agree that these incidents of police failure to protect are unacceptable. You should agree that gratuitous violence on the part of police is unacceptable. Since last October, students and faculty alike report that both antisemitism and anti-Muslim bias have been on the rise on college campuses. Many say they simply feel less safe. Those fears about bias and harassment are valid, as is the desire to be safe.

Sending in armed police to disband protestors and take down encampments by a show of force only fuels the fire instead of putting it out. After all, the clashes between police and protesters that have been the subject of much condemnation began after the decision was made by dozens of college presidents and campus leaders to send in police.

The war in Gaza is, without a doubt, one of the most polarizing issues of our time. I weigh in here to make an urgent point about policing and not, as others have, the war itself or the importance of the First Amendment and the right to peaceful protest. I lead the largest criminal justice reform organization in the country. I have been a part of the justice reform movement for decades—from Rodney King to Ferguson, Eric Garner to George Floyd. I write this three weeks before the anniversary of Mr. Floyd’s murder. This latest wave of aggression, violence, and escalation by police demands accountability, most especially from leaders and those who set our national tone.

Last Thursday, President Biden—for the first time—addressed the conflict roiling college campuses across the country. He affirmed a commitment to free speech and the right to protest. He also spoke of the rule of law and declared that there is no right to cause chaos. Yet he said nothing of the rule of law as it applies to police. He failed to denounce these acts of violence and escalation and this abject failure of police to protect. In his omission, he also failed to speak not only to the Americans for whom police violence and brutality is a painful reminder of this country’s shortcomings, but to the Americans who believe that no one is above the law, including our public servants in uniform. We cannot let polarization on one issue divide us on another that is so consequential and that has real consensus.

In a recent national poll commissioned by our sister organization, Vera Action, to better understand what voters take to the ballot box on issues of crime and safety, 89 percent of respondents agreed, and 59 percent strongly agreed, that we can support police officers who put their lives on the line for us every day and we can hold police accountable if they use excessive force or abuse their power.

I feel the urgency to point this out because we must correct course before it is too late. These protests, and others at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, will continue as we face an election of outsized importance at the end of this year. Our leaders must express complete intolerance and condemnation of police excess and violence. Otherwise, any talk about protecting democracy and the right of all Americans to feel safe will ring hollow.

Many have compared this moment to the protests during the Civil Rights Movement and against the Vietnam War. Just like now, many in power then were quick to condemn students for protesting. And, just like now, the police were deployed to dismantle the demonstrations and intimidate protestors. What is different now is that the United States as a nation has evolved when it comes to policing and accountability. The collective tragedy of lives lost at the hands of police has inspired a shared understanding that we can have safety, we can have accountability, and we can have justice. In fact, we must have all three—no one alone will do.

Originally Published by Vera Institute of Justice

Nicholas turner is President and Director of Vera Institute of Justice

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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