Although debates on policing and community safety did not start with the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, which were the result of George Floyd’s murder and a history of police killings of Black men, they sparked a renewed and sharp focus on these two topics. Here at Tufts, this interest resulted in, among other things, the campus safety and policing working group and a focus on Tufts as an anti-racist institution.
Over the course of the 2020–21 academic year, the working group and university have given the appearance of completely rethinking the fundamentals of community safety and racist institutions on campus. These working groups heard expert testimonies, read reports and hosted several focus groups and town halls. Passionate student activists, professors and community members contributed ideas and thoughts whenever they were given the opportunity.
However, despite the broad discussions, at the end of town halls I attended things never quite felt right. For me, this feeling came from the sense that it would be inappropriate to have the conversations I wanted to: conversations about abolishing the police on campus. Instead the discussion was steered toward safer topics like “What does campus safety mean to you?” which directed the conversations away from criticisms of police as an institution. Despite these suggested questions, many individuals still took their moments to speak to call for a radical change away from the current policing structure.
All of this input and discussion eventually led to the Campus Safety and Policing Final Report, which is composed of nine pages of material produced by the working group and 24 pages produced by external groups (students, faculty, alumni, Tufts Community Union, etc.). The first recommendation, after a year of research and long conversations, is to simply rewrite the mission statement of the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Tufts University Police Department. Unfortunately, the recommendations do not get much more concrete. I strongly urge all readers to read the document; it really only takes about 10 minutes to read all the recommendations. All of this ‘work’ now leads us to the 2021–22 academic year, with the recommendation of forming a new year-long working group on arming status.
From my perspective, this indicates that any concepts of abolition or a radical restructuring of public safety at Tufts are simply out of the picture. By shifting the focus of conversation to arming and disarming, conversation about these more radical topics can be dismissed as unrelated to the topic at hand. The working group simply covered their ears when listening to the 25 pages of survey feedback and 24 additional pages of petitions and letters calling for meaningful change. This may lead students to wonder if asking the statue of Jumbo (the site of a racist interaction by police last year) would be more effective in creating change than attending town halls and responding to surveys.
To the wide coalition of students, faculty, alumni and others who were advocating for serious commitments from the university, this new working group and study should absolutely be seen as an insult. To pretend to listen is worse than to not listen at all. To spend hours calling for and listening to input only to decide that more police engagement is the best solution to the current problems is ridiculous. Leading activists and the broader Tufts community on with promises of change and action only to end up shifting the conversation away from defunding and abolition and towards disarming is simply cruel. The university cannot expect students to keep working within the system they have designed when those systems obstruct, delay and weaken activists’ efforts. All of this just to have another year of surveys emailed around.
The recent arming survey is thus doubly insulting because it not only highlights the intentional ignorance of the administration, but it is also extremely poorly designed. Firstly, the framing of the survey is clearly deliberately manufactured. Since the Tufts police are currently armed, wouldn’t a survey inquiring about changing that policy be titled a ‘disarming survey’? If the suggestion of disarming is too leading, then the concept of arming also leads those interested in arming to participate in the survey. The title is the least of the survey’s problems however.
The bulk of the survey comes in question five, in which participants are asked to pick which group they would feel can best address a variety of crises. The potential responses are “Armed Tufts University Police Officers,” “Unarmed Tufts University Police Officers,” “Campus Security Officers,” “Local, County, or State Law Enforcement” and “Mental health professionals.” The crises range from noise complaints to physical assault. Acting as if these five groups (three of which are sworn police officers) are the only options for response to these situations simply ignores how things currently work at Tufts. Things like noise complaints and daily building checks (in residential dorms) are done by Residential Assistants and not any of these other groups.
Additionally, over the last year, many RAs have shown a strong interest in helping the university change the responses to more of these crises, although it seems this support was ignored when this survey was drafted. It is also worth noting that “campus security officers” are never defined, and since they only currently exist on the Boston Health Sciences and SMFA campuses, it is not clear what this group would do. To what extent would they have authority? Who would this group be composed of? What requirements would there be to join? Without answers to these questions, how can students accurately provide their ideas for how things should be done? What if a student thinks multiple groups should respond to a crisis? For example, it is not unreasonable to think a panic alarm may be best responded to by mental health professionals, peer support groups and campus security officers. However only one of these groups can be selected in the survey, and one is not even an option.
Student and community activists must understand the forces on this campus, which are not being discussed, which have changed the focus from campus safety to arming. If it is not the will of a significant amount of the engaged community, who is influencing these decisions? President Monaco and the Board of Trustees had the power to establish these working groups; they did not have to attend town halls to have their voices heard. Tufts is an institution with nearly a $2 billion endowment. It is an institution which owns a significant amount of property in Medford and Somerville and has a material interest in continuing to increase the value regardless of the cost to the external community. It is run top-down by the Board of Trustees who all have their own private/corporate/personal interests in operating the school in a certain way and producing graduates who think and act a certain way. The words Tufts writes in its mission statements and emails may be sincerely held by the people writing those words, but if they do not have the power to implement those ideas, then they are simply performing.
It is time that the performances end and real action begins. If change is to be made, a critical mass of students, faculty, staff and community members must be organized into a collective action group which uses its own bargaining power (tuition, network opportunities, pressure from local governments, teacher’s strike) to bring the controlling interests of Tufts to the table. Until then, we can keep filling out surveys, but don’t expect any change.
Noah Mills is a senior double majoring in chemistry and civic studies. Noah can be reached at [email protected]