Open Letter: The call for prison and police abolition is consistent with support for Palestinian liberation

The following letter was a joint effort by SJP West–a coalition of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters on the West coast—and the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM). Given the request for feedback for the University of California’s Task Force on University wide policing, both organizations felt it was important to issue a response drawing the linkages between divestment from Israeli colonization/occupation and the need to remove the presence of police and policing from UC campuses. Students recognize that these patterns and structures of oppression are deeply interlinked, often enabling and sustaining one another, and that the call for prison and police abolition, even in local spaces/contexts, is consistent with the imperative to support Palestinian freedom and liberation.

Dear Presidential Task Force for University wide Policing,

We hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits. We are writing on behalf of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)-West and the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) in regards to the solicitation of feedback for the Presidential Task Force on University wide policing. Both of our organizations are committed to engaging students and youth in educational activities that illuminate the egregious assaults on Palestinian life and land under Israeli military occupation and colonization in Palestine. We work to empower young people to become protagonists of social change in our own Universities, locales, and globally.  Our advocacy for justice in Palestine and for the right to return of Palestinian refugees is deeply embedded in an intersectional analysis and political commitment to justice and freedom for all oppressed, marginalized, and displaced peoples everywhere. We acknowledge our presence on stolen indigenous land and that as land grant institutions the UC system is linked to the ongoing legacies of colonization that demand redress and justice.

Our movements are pluralistic and comprised of young people from various racial, ethnic, religious, gendered, class, sexual orientation and social backgrounds, who have come together to challenge how institutional life in the US is complicit with Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing. Within our movement, we do not tolerate anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, anti-Black, anti-immigrant/refugee, Islamophobic, homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, ableist, ageist and anti-Semitic forms of hate, violence and exclusion because we believe freedom, dignity, justice, and human rights must truly be universal. Our commitment to Palestine, and our involvement in student activism at the University of California for a free Palestine, has actually deepened our commitment to the universality of these freedoms for all peoples, and made us anchors of student life across our many campuses in the UC.

Our involvement in the movement for a free Palestine has compelled us to contribute to the betterment of campus life on all levels including fights for affordable student and family housing, access to food, quality healthcare, and campaigns against soaring costs of student tuition. It has empowered us to be engaged in campaigns to protect departments and fields within the Humanities, Social Sciences and Creative Arts which bore the brunt of major public funding cuts and the diverting of resources elsewhere on campus because of structural shifts to a privately funded university system. It has also inspired us to be involved in the defense and protection of student organizers, staff  and faculty that have been the victim of vicious right wing culture war smear campaigns, suspensions and firings, many of which are based on meritless accusations of anti-Semitism deployed to censor criticism of Israel.

In recent years, the student movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions has expanded within the US with over 40 successful student divestment resolutions that have passed nationwide. Now, seven out of the nine University of California Associated Student governing boards have voted to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation. In 2014, UAW 2865–the labor union which represents over 14,000 teaching assistants, tutors and readers for the UC–also made their voice heard in a referendum vote in 2014 to divest and pledged individual academic boycotts of Israeli institutions. At least ten academic associations, which include UC faculty members, have also passed resolutions for academic boycott including but not limited to the American Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, the African Literature Association, the Association for Humanist Sociology, the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Asian American Studies Association, and more.  

The UC administration should listen to the wide array of students, workers, and faculty that comprise its community and take concrete steps toward divestment and creating social investment responsibility policies. Instead, UC leadership on local campuses and system-wide has taken extraordinary measures to disrupt democratic processes, stifle voices of dissent, and punish advocates for justice in Palestine in various ways.  Various reports have chronicled the way in which Palestine is made an “exception to free speech,” and the ways in which University administrations partake in making our campuses unsafe, volatile, and xenophobic study, work and learning environments for our communities. From making student activists for justice in Palestine go through extraordinary measures to host educational events and conferences through bureaucratic forms of harassment, to staying silent as hundreds of your own student population became subjects of online defamation and smear campaigns despite student and faculty calls to condemn it, UC administrations have done little to ensure that the campus is an equitable space for all its members.

One method various UCs have utilized to intimidate our student community is by using surveillance and extraordinary police presence at our events and activities as an intimidation tactic. Police presence not only does not make us feel additionally safe in the midst of growing racist, Islamophobic, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian white supremacy of the Trump Era, it directly triggers many in our community who are themselves survivors of police violence. It is no secret that policing in the US has come under scrupulous interrogation in the last two decades, as the militarization of police has drastically expanded after the September 11, 2001 War on Terror. For those affected by police terror, there is an acute understanding that US imperialist wars abroad–including its constant and unwavering support for Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine and invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan–is deeply linked to the expansion of anti-Black, racialized policing and prison systems here in the US.

Further, we reject all government programs across the country that spy on our communities and youth of color in their own local neighborhoods including, but not limited to, the program Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). This program hides behind a facade of “community building” to unjustly entrap and criminalize members of our communities for their political activity. Academics, organizers, and civil rights groups in the U.S. have pointed CVE out for exactly what it is, a policing tool born out of Islamophobia and malicious pseudoscience, to target Black and Brown communities. We as students recognize the potential for CVE to be implemented on our campuses, and promptly denounce any effort towards its institutionalization (if not already) and any other form of secret spying and surveillance.

Across the country, young people have mobilized for an end to police extrajudicial killing, an end to continued militarization and expansion of police, and for both police and prison abolition for decades prior to the post 9/11 expansion of police. These movements have calcified in the recent years with the uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore and many other places and with the formation of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the many groups and initiatives that emerge out of this context. In the UC system, students have mobilized over the last decade to pressure the UC to divest from the prison industrial complex as well as companies profiting from Israeli occupation and colonization. Students, workers and faculty have also demanded to end UC contracts with arms manufacturers, policing and surveillance agencies and to end the expansion of police presence on campus. Students have demanded that the UC protect its most vulnerable communities including undocumented peoples by making the UC’s sanctuary campuses and to develop more equitable policies and practices in making campuses safe spaces for communities who have endured so much trauma. Yet only a very small few of these demands have been responded to and realized.

We write to you today to express both a sense of political despair that your policies have created within our communities and a profound expression of anger for your unwillingness to place student interests above private contracts and external pressures. We have felt attacked, neglected, and exposed to increasing forms of xenophobic violence specifically because of how UC administrations have dealt with our needs and demands and the way racialized policing plays a role in these dealings. However, because we are profoundly committed to principles of free intellectual exchange and to our shared responsibility in making our University a safer, more equitable and just place, we offer the following recommendations to the Task Force for University wide policing:

  • DEMILITARIZING OUR CAMPUSES: Many from within our constituent base are in fact war, police and prison abolitionists. We are aware of the glaring contradiction of this letter in that we are offering recommendations whereby the charge of this task force is to improve police, not to dismantle it. We do not renounce our belief in police abolition and particularly that police should have no place on our campuses. We ask that the task force consider seriously, calls for developing accountability systems, infrastructure and programs that do not rely on police as the unilateral “solution.” This includes increasing resources for mental health services on campus, strengthening student organizing and engagement, and developing crisis call centers of culturally sensitive-trauma-informed community members who can support in matters of crisis without having to resort to police. Nowhere in the executive summary does it question the very need for police presence on campus and the possibilities that might emerge if we do not take it as a given. We also are not so naive to believe that you will strongly consider such a proposal without significant student and societal movement work and pressure. We will continue to engage in such organizing and mobilization until our campuses our demilitarized on all levels. Until that time we offer the recommendations below.
  • USE OF FORCE: The “use of force” guidelines is vague and ignores or inadequately addresses the question of police weapons, physical assaults by the police, police tactics and the circumstances in which police will be permitted to be involved. Of glaring omission is an accountability structure of the police by the student, staff, faculty and guest communities. Recommendation 11 states that “UCPD shall ensure officers are provided training prior to the deployment or use of any force or relevant equipment” but the clause does not address what “relevant equipment” in fact entails, it does not state the goals and methods of the training exercises, nor does it state under what conditions and circumstances police will be deployed, by whom they will be deployed, and under what authority. We call on the UC to provide strict provisions on the use of all force, strict prohibitions and guidelines on when police force will be deployed, and ban the use of militarized weapons by police officers on campus. Further, we call on the UC  to implement de-escalation as the primary method of training.
  • CULTURAL SENSITIVITY TRAININGS: Response to the Executive Summary section B, “UCPD use of Force,” (particularly recommendation 11 and 13 on training) and E – Training (both recommendations 19 and 20). Recommendation 19 says trainings should be on “procedural justice, implicit bias, cultural sensitivity, sexual orientation and trauma-informed interviewing.” We are aware the UC has historically had relations with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) who has offered cultural competency trainings to various components of UC institutional life, including police. However, the ADL purports to offer police training that is ostensibly on cultural sensitivity, but in fact their programs reinforce racist and xenophobic War on Terror anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim biases, structurally & individually. We believe in cultural competency that is accountable to the student populations most affected by police brutality, and racialized surveillance. We will direct UCOP to justice-centered organizations, resources and programs that examine the way policing and surveillance programs cause harm to our communities. We call on UCOP  to end all collaboration with the ADL immediately and indefinitely.
  • DIVESTMENT/SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY INVESTMENT: Divest from all companies profiting from the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine and the Prison Industrial Complex and develop and implement an ethical social responsibility investment policy which does not accumulate profit based on war, policing, imprisonment, land-annexation and other systems of violence and oppression anywhere.
  • BOYCOTT ISRAELI ARMS/SURVEILLANCE INDUSTRIES: End any and all participation in policing, surveillance, and crowd control trainings in partnership with Israeli agencies and institutions.
  • ENDING REPRESSION TACTICS: We are asking the Taskforce to take seriously charges by its students of color, indigenous students and their allies that campuses are becoming increasingly hostile study and learning environments. Rather than symbolic gestures, we need UC administrations to take bold positions against all forms of xenophobia and this includes anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and Islamophobic defamation campaigns, hate and violence. We need administrations to stop policing and criminalizing student activism and to rather work with the students to ensure their protection and safety. In most instances, these student communities will NOT want the presence of police in their spaces and rather want and need the administration to take bold positions against slanderous defamation campaigns levied against students.
  • INDEPENDENT ADVISORY BOARDS: We ask that the UC consider appointing to the independent advisory board (outlined in recommendation 15) members of various civil society organizations which have long worked in the arenas of police abolition, police accountability, and ending police violence and killing. Experts in the arena of social justice advocacy and civil and human rights are desired.
  • TRANSPARENCY: In addition to the outlined recommendations 21-26, we ask that UCOP disclose yearly various local, national and global agencies it has engaged with in partnerships and trainings. We ask also for a yearly public disclosure report which explains the use of new tactics, technologies and weapons used and that independent oversight committees with student, staff, union and faculty representatives track these developments.
  • PUBLIC SPACE SHOULD BE SAFE SPACE: Often members of the far-right wing general public come to University campuses to propagate their own views and ideologies and prosthelytize. It has been reported across UC campuses that these members harass and intimidate students, promote hate-speech and violence and when reported to campus police, nothing is done under the pretense that the University is a public space. However, when other members of the public engage in activities on campus–especially homeless and working class community members and communities of color–they are stalked, harrassed and bullied by campus police for not being a student or employee. We believe this paradox is both informed by racist and classist ideals of who is/isn’t allowed to access the public University. We want to reiterate that the UC is a public institution and must be accessible and safe for the general public and that no member of the general public should be suspect, interrogated or harassed on the basis of their non-belonging.

We thank you for your time and attention and look forward to engaging in deeper conversations about how the UC can create safer, more equitable and just campus climates for all our communities.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP-West)  and Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM)