Northwestern graduate and undergraduate students drafted and sent out a petition on June 3 calling for the University to divest from law enforcement and commit to investing in the lives of Black students at Northwestern.
The petition writers demand Northwestern disband the Northwestern Police Department (NUPD), cut ties with the Evanston Police Department (EPD) and the Chicago Police Department (CPD); and divest from all other policing or military organizations, including Northwestern’s Center for Public Safety. More than 7,300 individuals and 300 organizations have signed the petition so far.
The reinvestment avenues include committing to recommendations from a 2016 Black Student Experience Report, protecting students who protest on campus and directing resources to organizations seeking justice for the Black community.
“You can’t abolish without investing,” said SESP junior Mari Gashaw, the coordinator of For Members Only, the Black student union who first circulated the petition. “That was key for us – if we were going to remove the NUPD, if we were going to get rid of ties with EPD and Chicago PD, we needed to make sure we were also defending Black lives and investing in the Black community at Northwestern.”
For Members Only helped write the petition, alongside members of Coalition NU, Northwestern Graduate Workers (NUGW) and other organizations, as well as a collection of other undergraduate and graduate students.
The roughly 2500-word petition explains the history of Evanston and Chicago’s racist policing. Last month, Evanston police officers forcefully arrested Trent Hunt, a 20-year-old Black man who was recording an interaction between police and Kevin Washington, a Black man pulled over by the police.
In place of current police agencies, the petition says Northwestern should “entrust the safety of the University to unarmed mediation and intervention teams with third-party oversight.”
For the writers of the petition, police reform is not an option. For example, Gashaw does not believe police reform advocacy group Campaign Zero’s “#8CANTWAIT” policies work.
“Chicago police has implemented almost all of the eight ‘#8CANTWAIT’ policies. Chicago police is still one of the most violent police departments in the country,” Gashaw said, citing personal experience with violent Chicago police officers.
According to independent watchdog Better Government Association, Chicago police shot and killed more people from 2010 to 2014 than any police department in America’s 10 largest cities.
Cinnamon Williams, a member and department organizer of the anti-racist feminist labor union NUGW, helped draft the petition. Williams also believes reform cannot fix the current policing system.
“What reform does is tinker at the police," said Williams, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the Department of African American Studies. "Abolitionists say at the end of the day, they’re still the police. I think it's just a question of asking yourself why people think reform is possible for something that has such a deep, brutal, racist, anti-Black history.”
Williams referenced MPD150, an effort working towards a police-free Minneapolis. According to MPD150’s website, “crime isn’t random, but rather the result of people being unable to meet their basic needs.” For Williams, a world without police means a world where people have the resources to live.
“I think of people having free health care, I think of people having good sound public education systems," Williams said. "I think of people having food whenever they need it, I think of people being able to walk outside without fearing for their life. Coronavirus is such a paradox to me because I already feel unsafe every time I walk out.”
NUGW recently held a Sick Out, in which graduate students called in sick for three days to withhold labor from the University. While NUGW originally planned the Sick Out in protest of Northwestern’s treatment of graduate workers and the current five-year timeline for PhD students, NUGW members voted to include the petition’s demands.
“I’m very taken with and touched by the solidarity I’m seeing right now,” said Williams, acknowledging the racist history of labor unions. “People are really reckoning with the fact that if Black people are not safe, then nobody is safe.”
Williams said the best way for Northwestern students to support NUGW and the Black community at Northwestern is to read the petition before they sign it. Williams also emphasized that people can educate themselves through reading Black revolutionary texts, amplifying Black voices and donating to Black-led organizations. Gashaw added that people should be on the lookout for action calls that FMO plans to push out soon.
The petition’s writers sent the petition to Northwestern officials on June 3 and asked for a response by June 5. However, Gashaw pointed out that University officials had likely already seen the petition before June 3 and knew it was coming.
Gashaw said only Vice President Julie Payne-Kirchmeier responded. Student leaders who helped write the petition will meet with Payne-Kirchmeier on June 16.
“[Northwestern has sent emails saying] ‘we support you in times of racial injustice, we really care for you. We want to know what we can do,’” Williams said. “Here's what you can do. You can make it so that Black students can actually live comfortably in Chicago and are not hanging at the poverty line. You can make it so that Black students aren’t harassed when they go on campus by the police.”
Thumbnail graphic by Kylie Lin / North by Northwestern