How do we heal our campus? We need safety, not security
On Friday, Nov. 10, Brandeis and Waltham Police arrested seven people, including three Brandeis students who were participating in a protest. Some doubts persist about the details of what occurred that day, and we support calls from our faculty colleagues for an independent investigation that lays out the sequence of events and institutional decision-making.
There are issues, however, which we believe need to be addressed immediately. From a number of eyewitness accounts, video footage, and the police report, we can conclude that the protest proceeded peacefully and without incident until police intervention, which escalated rapidly into violent arrests. These sources clearly prove that the administration called in a sizable police presence, directed to carry out arrests based on speech alone before the demonstration had even begun. Video footage captured disturbing images of police shoving protestors and legal observers, throwing students to the ground and kneeling on their backs while protestors standing by screamed in fear and anger. We know that other students ran, fearing for their own safety, upon seeing police grab students from the crowd as they were dispersing.
How could this happen on our campus? And how can we ensure that such incidents of brutality never happen again?
In his Nov. 11 message, President Ron Liebowitz stated that the “administration’s top priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of our community.” But as our students have shared with us, police actions have not ensured their safety. For example, some Jewish students report concerns over wearing religious items that mark them as Jewish on campus and fear being victims of anti-semitic violence. Some students of color have shared that they feel, especially after the police violence at the protests, that the University is out to get them and they are unsafe on their own campus. More still feel betrayed and alienated at an institution whose current actions contradict its stated values.
If policing and silencing certain speech is supposed to make us more safe, why do students report the opposite? As scholars of state violence and policing, we argue that administrative decisions have reinforced a security framework not one of safety. This distinction is key.
As abolitionist Mariame Kaba defines it, security uses weapons and fear in order to keep threats at bay. But not only do weapons and fear fail to stop violence from occurring — in her words, “horrible things continue to happen all the time” — they in fact reproduce the “violence and horror they are supposed to contain.” This reproduction of violence is what we saw in those videos. Rather than keep us safe, Brandeis and Waltham police officers put our students in danger. And not just those who were arrested, but those who witnessed and feared becoming targets of police violence themselves.
The events of Nov. 10 demonstrated clearly how police intervention escalates rather than defuses conflicts — or, in the case of peaceful protest, creates conflict where none existed before. Rumors continue to circulate that arrested protestors initiated the violence and indeed one individual was charged with assault on an officer. We strongly caution against taking at face value such accusations, which are sometimes issued by police to shield themselves from criticisms of their own brutality. Legal advocates have noted how police elevate charges against protestors in order to discourage further political expression and resistance.
Another vision of campus safety is possible. In fact, Brandeis already has alternatives at hand. After the global uprising that followed the police murder of George Floyd, the University hired consultants to undertake a comprehensive review of campus policing and safety. A series of public conversations and surveys brought to light several issues. Students and other respondents referred to the campus security system as “broken,” unable to fulfill students’ needs for services and resources in times of distress and in dire need of reform. The final report, issued in April 2021, identified an “overreliance” on campus police, which constituted a drain of resources, particularly troubling at a moment in which Brandeis faces budgetary strain. Its three major recommendations to Brandeis were: a) to make the mission of Brandeis University Police Department “more transparent and intentional,” b) to “fundamentally change” the BUPD’s “policing approach,” and c) to “invest in alternatives to BUPD response in many situations.” Put otherwise, the report urged Brandeis to rethink its dependency on policing and to redirect resources away from the police and toward a more robust suite of services tailored to specific forms of distress, conflicts, or emergencies that members of campus might experience.
The University’s 2021 report was a response to an upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement. Six years prior, the first wave of that movement — prompted by the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson — led Black students to occupy an administrative building for 13 days. Since the 2015 occupation, the University has made significant efforts to respond to the Ford Hall students’ demands to feel safe, represented, and welcomed on campus. But by deploying armed officers, including Waltham PD and private security forces, to the most recent protests on our campus, the University has swiftly rolled back any progress made toward honoring its promises.
In this moment of heightened suffering within our communities near and far, ensuring the safety of our campus is more important than ever. But what does safety look like? We believe in a Brandeis that “seeks to safeguard the safety, dignity and well-being of all its members,” as promised in our diversity statement. More policing does not fulfill that promise. Brandeis must strive for all members of our campus community to be free of fear, harm, and repression. We reject security frameworks that frame campus safety as a zero-sum game, pitting community members against each other. As we have sadly seen on our campus, everyone feels less safe under the security logics and practices that reinforce fear, othering, and disconnection. The pursuit of security has impeded our ability to create shared spaces for mourning together and learning from one another. It is indeed connection — authentic, messy, empathic connection — that forms the base on which actual safety is built.
To imagine a way forward, we once again turn to Mariame Kaba:
The idea that cops equal security is difficult to dislodge. To transform this mindset, where cops equal security, means we have to actually transform our relationships to each other enough so that we can see that we can keep each other safe. You cannot have safety without strong, empathic relationships with others.
The administration has failed to model these strong, empathic relationships over the past week, but repair is possible and necessary. Repair demands that we turn away from security and toward one another. Community conversations and empathy are essential to building actual safety, as is divesting from security practices and punitive approaches to campus issues. We call on the Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan to drop all the charges against those arrested, and for the administration to join us and directly request from the district attorney that these charges be dropped. We further urge that the administration decline to cooperate with the prosecution of our students. These repairs are essential to begin the process of healing that President Liebowitz called for in his Nov. 11 message to campus. The future of the University depends on it.