As the student leaders of the Portland State Student Union, or PSUSU, began leading chants to “disarm” the university, hundreds of students and community leaders had already begun circling the steps of the library. The rally was the meeting point for a planned student and faculty “walkout” on May 10, where more than 400 students promised to leave class to protest the Board of Trustees’ decision to arm campus police officers — which organizers see as just a piece of the larger trend towards the militarization of police officers around the country.
“Our incarceration system is a continuation of slavery,” said Portland Jobs With Justice coalition organizer Andrea Lemoins. “It targets people of color. It targets people in the LGBTQ community. It targets people who are traditionally oppressed, and we are here fighting oppression.”
Portland Jobs With Justice, which is an action coalition of over a hundred community groups and unions, was only one of the dozens of community sponsors that endorsed PSUSU’s campaign to confront the use of lethal armaments on the urban campus for the state university.
The Disarm PSU campaign is just the most recent organizing drive in a sequence of campus movements around the country to confront the increased use of lethal arms on college campuses. According to a U.S. Department of Justice survey of the over 4,000 campus police departments in 2011–2012, around 92 percent of public universities have armed police, as opposed to 38 percent of private schools.
One of the first high-profile incidents of campus police violence was the fatal shooting of 43-year-old African American Samuel DuBose on the University of Cincinnati campus in July 2015. While stopped for a missing license plate, DuBose started his engine and put the car in drive. Ray Tensing — a sworn police officer — opened fire, erroneously reporting that the vehicle was dragging him. Tensing was later indicted for murder and manslaughter charges by an investigating grand jury, and a $4.5 million dollar settlement was issued to the DuBose family from the university. This included free college tuition for each of DuBose’s 12 children.
The shooting also prompted the formation of Irate 8 — a University of Cincinnati campus group whose name refers to the percentage of African American students on the campus. The group has instituted a 10-point set of demands on the university, including calling for extra scrutiny on campus police officers and for the university to address the racial disparity in curriculum and staffing.
The arguments against the arming of campus security are based largely on the disproportionate use of force that organizers say has become increasingly common among police departments across the country.
“It poses a disproportionate threat to students of color, people who are houseless, people who suffer from mental illness,” said Olivia Pace, a PSUSU organizer with the Disarm PSU campaign. “They have been criminalized and talked about as people who we need to be protected against, when — in fact — they are a part of our campus community. So, really, [the arming of campus security] poses a threat of violence and fear to those students.”
Critics also argue that the types of crimes committed on campus are not ones where armed police need to intervene. According to the U.S. Department of Education Campus Safety and Security, burglary was the leading crime by a wide margin at PSU between 2011–13. Student groups like PSUSU call for campus security to find alternative solutions that do not rely on lethal force and criminalization to solve issues of safety on public university campuses.
Organizers at the University of California’s Davis campus were among the first to challenge their school’s use of fully-sworn police officers — with access to weapons and the ability to make arrests — following an infamous November 2011 incident, where police pepper sprayed Occupy UC Davis protesters. An August 2015 incident pushed the issue even further, as UC Davis campus police used force to detain a black alumni who was using campus facilities. A campus march called “Divest, Disarm: Davis for Black Lives” was held in November, linking the campaigns to disarm campus police and divest from private prisons with the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement.
Similarly, the Campaign for Equitable Policing in Chicago has united students from the University of Chicago and nearby residents, who were troubled by the apparent overreach of campus police into their neighborhoods. In October, they held a community forum to bring together people from the surrounding community to discuss what many call a systemic level of racial profiling.
A student uprising
With its growing and diverse membership of nearly 50 active student organizers — not to mention community and labor support — Disarm PSU is becoming a leader in the movement against campus militarization.
The fight went into high-gear in 2013 when a report from the university’s Presidential Task Force on Campus Safety was published, outlining public safety issues on campus, along with recommendations on how to address them. Even though the report listed violent person-to-person crimes as only a small fraction of campus crimes, the recommendations included bringing sworn police officers to campus that contract with the Oregon State Police and the Portland Police Bureau. This would mean that beyond the non-sworn security officers, PSU would bring on fully-registered police officers who carry guns and have the right to arrest. This was recommended despite the fact that PSU is in downtown Portland, where it already has direct access to both of the contracted police departments. Not surprisingly, for many of the concerned students, the task force was comprised of many PSU staff, but only two student delegates.
The Board of Trustees, which student activists say is not directly accountable to staff or students, passed the recommendations and put them into effect last July. The plan went ahead despite overwhelming opposition by two-thirds of the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers members on campus, as well as opposition from numerous college departments, such as the Chicano Latino Studies and Black Studies departments.
“The task force recommended having officers who are trained in using firearms because certain situations require them: serving search warrants and performing off-campus welfare checks, to name a few,” said the administration through an FAQ created during the implementation of the police force. It went on to say that in the previous situation, with the campus being tied to the larger cityscape without a barrier, it was unable to meet threats if they were to happen.
In opposition, PSUSU and other campus activists disrupted Board of Trustee meetings by overwhelming the discussion session, forcing trustees to leave the building rather than confront the opposition. Tying together issues like inflated administrative salaries and tuition increases to board decisions, students are calling for the long-term project of dissolving the board in favor of a decision making body that is more accountable to stakeholders.
The May 10 student eruption on campus came after the decision to use armed police was implemented. Over 500 people began a roaming march and speak-out that brought together a diverse set of voices from the campus and surrounding community.
“I support your movement,” mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone told the crowd. “I don’t want militarized police on our campus, and I’m running for mayor right now because I don’t want them in our city.” Iannarone had been running against local Democratic politicians Ted Wheeler and Jules Bailey on a progressive platform addressing issues like the minimum wage and housing insecurity in the city, but ended up finishing third with under 10 percent of the vote.
“We need to de-criminalize poverty in this city,” Iannarone added. “We need to de-criminalize being black or brown in this city.”
PSUSU created the Disarm PSU campaign to maintain a broader look at equity and justice on campus with four key demands: disarming campus police, severing the contracts with the anti-union food service company Aramark, bringing all campus workers up to $15 per hour and lowering tuition costs by cutting the salaries of the highest paid administrative staff.
After speaking in front of the library, the campus security building, and in the Urban Plaza, the protesters moved to the Fourth Avenue Building where they staged a “die in” to confront the increased threat they say armed police present on campus, as well as the economic burden of low-wages and high tuition.
“The students, at their core, want democracy in the university, and that’s not what we have right now with the Board of Trustees model,” said PSUSU organizer Alyssa Pagan. “When we say that we want the campus to not have armed security, the Board of Trustees heard that and didn’t take any action to move in accordance with that. So there’s no system of accountability.”
With support mounting both around Portland’s progressive community to endorse the Disarm PSU campaign, as well as the growing campus movement towards alternative solutions to armed police officers, pressure is forming around the Board of Trustees to reverse its decision. While the board has said that it allowed sufficient time for student and community feedback before reaching its decision, PSUSU activists say the board represents an unelected and unaccountable decision-making body that is not representative of the constituencies comprising the bulk of Portland State University.
“The climate of activism has kind of exploded across the country,” Pace said, refering to the movement to target police violence both on and off campus. “The fight for the de-militarization of the police is something that has really come to the forefront.”
The board finally agreed to sit down with the students on May 25 to hear concerns about tuition, scholarships, diversity and campus police. While many students spoke out, the board has made no promises about changing decisions other than stating publicly that it would “discuss them.”
For the student union, this will be just a piece of a larger set of demands to reshape the college’s priorities in order to align with a more multi-racial, working-class base. This means continuing to confront the Board of Trustees, which many organizers say is the central component that is driving many of the unpopular campus decisions.
“It’s so much more than just disarming campus security,” Pagan said, regarding the growing student movement on the PSU campus. “It’s about a small handful of people who are very wealthy and [who] are serving their business interests on the backs of students.”