Cops on campus are a threat to students of colour

After promising to tackle racism, UK universities are strengthening ties with the police and putting racially minoritised communities at risk. Remi Joseph-Salisbury reports

December 8, 2021 · 6 min read
The June 2020 BLM protests in London. Photo credit: Socialist Appeal

Catalysed by the brutal police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, 2020 was a year of unprecedented anti-racist mobilisation, including in the UK. Protests here sparked a range of responses, from footballers ‘taking a knee’, to the Government’s cynical Sewell report, which predictably denied the existence of institutional racism.

Higher education institutions were particularly quick to respond, as universities released public and institutional statements avowing support for Black Lives Matter and/or a more general opposition to racism.

These statements were met with criticism from both staff and students amid an abiding sense that they were reactive and hollow – unlikely to be followed by the radical institutional action they desperately demanded. The varied statements invariably revealed incredible ignorance regarding long histories of racism in British universities, and a lack of regard for campus-based movements that had long since been pushing for change.

The passage of time only provides further evidence of the disconnect between institutions’ words and actions, a stark illustration of which can be seen in the relationship between universities and the police. This year, on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, the University of Salford and the University of Central Lancashire announced a new multi-million-pound partnership with Greater Manchester Police to provide degree and diploma programmes to officers.

It is a jarring move. From the outset, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been fundamentally concerned with racist police violence and killings. Following the 2020 protests, calls to abolish and ‘defund the police’ gained significant traction in the UK –entering the political mainstream (if only to be condemned as ‘nonsense’ by Labour leader Keir Starmer) and becoming central to the lexicon and frameworks of resistance movements. At the heart of these calls is a well-founded conviction that police racism is institutional, deep-rooted, and endemic: reform is insufficient.

Undermining anti-racism

If we take seriously the essence of BLM critiques of policing, how can the University of Salford initiative – which involves bringing former, current, and future police officers onto campus – be understood alongside the Vice Chancellor’s pledge, just a year earlier, to ‘stand in solidarity with anti-racism supporters across the world?’

Failing to grasp the endemic nature of police racism, liberal analyses might conclude that university training could help tackle officers’ racism. However, taking seriously the more critical stance underpinning BLM shows that, rather than tackling racism in the police, such relationships will only provide further legitimacy and power to an institution that BLM activists had with good reason called to defund.

Significantly increased campus police presence prompts a wider set of concerns, too: what will it mean for staff and students from racially minoritised and overpoliced communities –communities that universities have promised ‘solidarity’? How will it impact woefully neglected student sex workers? And, with Sarah Everard’s killing bringing renewed attention to institutional sexism in policing, what will be the impact be on women students?

Such concerns have led Zara Manoehoetoe, an anti-racist campaigner and Salford student, to offer Know Your Rights training sessions to peers in anticipation of the influx of officers on campus.

These problems are not confined to Salford. At the University of Manchester, just months after the university published its own BLM statements, a Black student was racially profiled by campus security, ‘pinned up against the wall’ and accused of ‘looking like a drug dealer’. Such tropes and experiences are all too familiar for Black people in white spaces subject to policing and wider forms of securitisation.

This was not an isolated incident. A student-led ‘Cops off Campus’ campaign drew further attention to the role of security on the University of Manchester campus, and to relationships between the university and the police which enabled proactive and unlawful patrols of campus and student halls. This was not the first time students have been moved to demand ‘cops off campus’ and it will not be the last.

Deep-rooted institutional norms

Events at Salford, Central Lancaster and Manchester show just how far away universities are from taking seriously the lessons of the BLM movement. Beyond these recent and obvious examples, however, lies a much wider set of ideological and material entanglements.

For example, as well as training future police officers, universities often conduct research with and for the police. This is not only enabled by a cadre of criminologists who are unable or unwilling to question the legitimacy of the police and the state, but also by research schemes like the N8 Policing Research Partnership. Whilst claiming to champion ‘high quality independent research’, the scheme awards funding based on priorities determined by ‘police partners’ and requires researchers to partner with at least one police force.

Some universities also offer institutional homes to former police officers. A particularly high-profile example was the University of Manchester’s 2015 appointment of former Chief Constable Peter Fahy as honorary professor of Criminal Justice. What does such an appointment say to the racially minoritised communities subjected to abhorrent levels of overpolicing during his tenure as Chief Constable of GMP? And, relatedly, what do such appointments do to the culture of universities?

In a range of ways, policing increasingly compromises university space. As resistance movements call for us to imagine futures beyond policing, universities and academics would do well to question their ties with the police. Their unwillingness to do so reveals much about the role of these institutions in the pursuit of racial justice.

Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Presidential Fellow in Ethnicities and Inequalities at the University of Manchester.

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