Woke Northwestern Students Protest to Make Campuses Safe for Criminals

What abolishing the police really means.

While the high-visibility deadly interactions with police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and others sent the clear message that it is imprudent to resist being taken into custody when police are arresting you, university students—along with Black Lives Matter, leftist politicians, and social justice warriors— apparently learned an alternate lesson: that given the perceived brutality and racism of police officers everywhere, criminals’ sociopathic anti-social behavior were not the cause of their injury or death, but the problem of crime resided with the police themselves. In other words, if the police were defunded, their authority and enforcement power neutralized, if they were even eliminated altogether, crime would disappear and so, ipso facto, would police brutality and racism, and the other alleged predations of law enforcement.  

Faced with the reality of ever-present crime, virtue signaling politicians in the post-George Floyd era have walked back some of their early demands to completely defund law enforcement—now describing a process of “reimagining” how police forces will protect citizenry—but there is no such finesse on campuses. Here, as at Northwestern University, minority students and their woke fellow travelers, have presented administrations with specific demands to end alliances with local police departments and to shutter campus police forces completely.

In June, the Black Graduate Student Association, Coalition NU, Evanston Fight for Black Lives, and Northwestern University Graduate Workers, among other campus groups and academic departments, created a petition that called on Northwestern to “divest from law enforcement” by disarming, defunding, and disbanding altogether the University’s police department, as well as severing ties with the Evanston and Chicago police departments. Failure to do this, the petition read, “is actively ignoring the white supremacy inherent in systems and institutions endorsed by Northwestern,” and “we thus call on the university to dissolve [Northwestern’s Center for Public Safety and police department] and reallocate those funds to communities on campus that have been historically targeted by racist police violence [emphasis added].”  Why? Because, the petition reads, in addition to eliminating imagined “police violence,” “investing in Black communities and experiences are both necessary steps to ensure the physical and emotional security of Black students.”

And, as activists and politicians have ludicrously proposed as a way of reimagining law enforcement, the petition suggests that a police force itself is unnecessary in the first place, that the brutality of law enforcement can be mitigated by having non-police professionals respond to some calls—sociologists, as one of the common suggestions. The petition fantasizes about just such a reimagining, urging a slashing of funding of the NUPD and using that funding to “instead entrust the safety of the university to unarmed mediation and intervention teams with third-party oversight,”

Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, was less eager to embrace the vision of a police-free campus, and since June had been largely ignoring the drumbeats from activist students and faculty pushing these demands. Last week, however, student activists, frustrated by the administration’s inaction, took to the streets for six consecutive days of rowdy protest. On the last night of demonstrations, October 17th, some 300 students protestors, led by the group Northwestern University Community Not Cops (NUCNC),  covered buildings and sidewalks with such charming “abolitionist” graffiti as “kill the pigs” and “Divest from NUPD, disband NUPD, invest in Black lives and get the fuck out of our University,” smashed windows, threatened neighbors, and left a trail of refuse in their wake.  

The Saturday protest culminated at President Schapiro’s home at midnight where, surrounded by EPD officers in riot gear, protestors taunted Schapiro and urged him to address their concerns and chanted demands and slurs. On Monday, Schapiro sent an open letter to the entire Northwestern community in which he criticized the behavior of the protestors, both at his home and earlier in the evening when they were marauding through Evanston’s streets.

The letter began with the unequivocal message that, contrary to the request, the NUPD would not be eliminated. “We, as a University, recognize the many injustices faced by Black and other marginalized groups,” Schapiro wrote “and also acknowledge that the policing and criminal justice system in our country is too often stacked against those same communities.” He even commended the students’ concern for the issues about race that had motivated their protests. But “[t]hat said,” he continued, “while the University has every intention to continue improving NUPD, we have absolutely no intention to abolish it.”

There was another troubling matter that Schapiro wanted to discuss and that concerned several of the chants the students had made outside his home. “I want to offer a personal illustration of the pain these protesters have caused. Many gathered outside my home this weekend into the early hours of the morning, chanting “fuck you, Morty” and “piggy Morty.” The latter comes dangerously close to a longstanding trope against observant Jews like myself. Whether it was done out of ignorance or out of anti-Semitism, it is completely unacceptable . . .  To those protesters and their supporters who justify such actions, I ask you to take a long hard look in the mirror and realize that this isn’t actually ‘speaking truth to power’ or furthering your cause. It is an abomination and you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Needless to say, Schapiro’s strident, reasoned message did not enjoy an enthusiastic reception on campus. Northwestern Community Not Cops, the “anti-oppressive organization” leading the protests, for example, issued a long press release in which they castigated Schapiro for continuing to ignore their demand to abolish the police force, even while they apologized for any anti-Semitism they may have expressed (though they denied having done so). Unlike President Schapiro, they announced, “Black people are not safe anywhere in a world with police, including in their homes, a reality that Black students at Northwestern also contend with. As a wealthy white man, Morton Schapiro knows that he holds an immense amount of privilege that those facing impending threats of ‘personal attacks’ do not, as he mobilized the police to do what they are meant to do—protect white property and white lives. Morton Schapiro should consider the terror Black families face amidst the real threat of being killed in their homes.”

In a similar critical vein, faculty and affiliates of the Department of African American Studies published an open letter to Schapiro, telling him that they were “extraordinarily troubled” by both the tone and content of his statement. “To read your damning letter to students in this context forces us to hear the shallowness of your concerns and priorities with excruciating clarity. It is beyond tone deaf for you to ask this group of protesters to imagine what it would be like for their families to be disturbed in the middle of the night ‘by such vile and personal attacks’  . . . but “this is precisely what Black and brown people have been imagining and experiencing. These images are regularly, consistently accompanied and occasioned by the specter of the police’s terrifying power, and their failure to serve or protect communities of color.”

As for the anti-Semitic comments to which Schapiro alluded, according to these black faculty members, that was a self-serving diversion from the central issue of racism. “Given these realities, it is difficult to conceive of the level of ignorance, narcissism, or disingenuousness that would have to be present for you to personalize students referencing ‘pigs’ as an antisemitic slur,” they scolded him, “rather than to understand these students’ anger as a product of nightmarish experiences that you—as an adult who in fact wields a great deal of power—bear substantial responsibility to address.”

That Schapiro raised the issue of anti-Semitism surprisingly irked another group of  campus stakeholders, namely, some 90 Jewish students, faculty, and alumni from the Northwestern community who wrote an October 21st letter to the editor in the Daily Northwestern student newspaper in which they said that they “unequivocally reject President Schapiro's accusations of antisemitism and stand in solidarity with the abolitionists leading NU Community Not Cops.”

“[W]e are particularly disturbed by Schapiro’s false accusation of antisemitism, which he makes to personally condemn student activists’ slogans and chants.,” they wrote. “We are outraged at this mischaracterization. The Black Panthers and other Black-led groups popularized the use of ‘pig’ to refer to police and police sympathizers in the mid 1960s; in this context, the term has never singled out Jews. As such, it is both confusing and troubling to read Schapiro’s focus on antisemitism at the end of a community-wide email about demands to abolish a racist police force.”

And in a philosophical conclusion seemingly inspired by Orwell and based on a wild conspiracy theory and not fact, the letter absurdly claims that “A world free of police and incarceration is a world that keeps us as Jews safer from the forces of antisemitism.” Why is that? Because “we know that the very White nationalists who have infiltrated police departments across the country despise all Jews, just as they disproportionately target Black and brown communities, harming Jews of color and non-Jewish people of color alike. We will not allow spurious, willfully ignorant accusations of antisemitism to divide us from the ultimate goals of abolishing a police force rooted in racism and White supremacy.”

Since George Floyd died under the knee of an aggressive Minneapolis police officer a narrative has been conjured up by race activists who point to Floyd’s death as emblematic of a history of rampant, endemic police racism and police violence targeting black bodies, racism that is institutionalized, systematic, and prevalent in every aspect of American society—including on university campuses.

Though it is promoted promiscuously by the Black Lives Matter movement, race activists, liberal politicians, and well-meaning but naïve students and faculty at Northwestern and on campuses around the country, the narrative is false. It is false, statistically, because the actual annual number of police shootings of unarmed black men is minuscule compared to the number of annual arrests and even compared to the number of police shootings where the suspect was also armed and shooting at police. The narrative is also false because the racism that supposedly fueled Floyd’s death has been assumed—the suspect was black and the police officer was white—but never confirmed as having anything to do with how Floyd was treated, especially given that the three other officers during the arrest were not themselves white.

And even if each of the recent police shootings of black suspects was actually committed by overtly racist police officers who specifically targeted black suspects to shoot or harm, the idea that police departments, and especially campus departments, should be dismantled, defunded, eliminated, or replaced because of the errant behavior of a tiny percentage of police officers is irrational on its face.

University campuses are walled off from many of the ills of the outside world, but they are not immune from the same crime and the criminals who prey on victims off-campus. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, noted that in 2017, a total of 28,900 criminal incidents took place on campuses, including 11,100 burglaries, 10,400 forcible sex offenses, 3500 motor vehicle thefts, 2,200 aggravated assaults, and 1,000 robberies.

President Schapiro, like any responsible university official, is aware of this reality and, regardless of how emphatic activists are about showing how tolerant they are by seeking the abolition of law enforcement, universities know they have to protect the members of their closed communities.  Northwestern may reasonably seek racial justice and enhanced law enforcement that respects the civil rights of all citizens, but that lofty ambition should not be realized by creating new victims of crime while naively trying to protect perceived vulnerable members of the community.

“To live outside the law,” Dylan wrote, “you must be honest.”

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.


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