With help from the Pentagon, colleges across the United States are buying military-grade weapons, and putting campuses into perpetual lockdown.
Campus police at Ohio University. Photo via Wikimedia
In 1968, students at Columbia University staged a mass uprising, joining other college campuses in protesting not just the war in Vietnam, but their school’s collaboration with the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Defense Department affiliate that researches weapons technologies. Today, weapons produced by that institute are used by the US military throughout the world—and by campus police forces across the country. The war has come home.
The Pentagon’s 1033 program, which allows the Defense Department to unload its excess military equipment onto local police forces, has quietly overflowed onto college campuses. According to documents obtained by the website Muckrock, more than 100 campus police forces have received military materials from the Pentagon. Schools that participate in the program range from liberal arts to community colleges to the entire University of Texas system. Emory, Rice, Purdue, and the University of California, Berkeley, are all on the list.
In 1990, Congress enacted the National Defense Authorization Act, including the magnanimous section 1208, which since 1996 has been known as program 1033. Over the last 17 years, this trickle-down gift economy has distributed more than $4.3 billion worth of equipment, according to program administrators. As Ferguson police rolled up to peaceful protesters in military-grade tanks, firing tear gas and rubber bullets, President Obama ordered a review of the program, which reached new highs in regifting under his tenure.
It’s clear why a review of the program is in order, because it isn’t clear at all what sort of equipment these colleges are receiving. David Perry, the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, told Politico that 1033 mostly funnels “small items” to college police forces for daily use. These could be anything from office supplies or uniforms or car parts, but it’s probably not all that tame. Campus Safety magazine recommends that universities take part in the 1033 program to cover a range of needs from storage units to grenade launchers. That is, after all, what the program was designed to achieve.
But program 1033 doesn’t even come close to explaining all the ways in which campus police have been militarized over the past two decades. Colleges can also apply for Homeland Security grants, the same ones made available to every municipal police department in the country after 9/11. In 2012, UC Berkeley tried to use the program to purchase an eight-ton armored truck. After a backlash, university officials ultimately decided the truck was “not the best choice for a university setting.” The following year, Ohio State University acquired a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle. So far, it has yet to be targeted.
Other college policies are even more difficult to quantify, though they pose immense obstacles to the cultures of free action and thought that academic institutions are supposed to cultivate. One such policy is the Memorandum of Understanding, in which local law enforcement enters into an official partnership with campus “peace officers.” Sometimes memoranda of understanding can have positive impacts on students, as when they are established between universities and rape crisis centers to ensure that anyone seeking help receives proper care. In this sort of arrangement, universities work with centers and both institutions train one another, so that resources and knowledge are shared. This is what happens with local and campus police arrangements: The departments draft vague language to work in concert on operations both on and off campus, but the actual extent of this partnership is not well documented, with the line between campus police forces and those controlled by local government fuzzy at best.
Several campus police forces have also been vigorously trained in paramilitary tactics since 2007. In a country where SWAT teams raid private residencies more than 100 times a day, mostly in neighborhoods where people of color live, the decision to train campus officers in this overindulged art is a vote in favor of racist policing tactics on the part of institutions of higher education, even before the training is ever put to use.
In the 1960s, campuses went into lockdown because students were occupying buildings; now, they often go into lockdown because campus police are itching to stretch their military muscles. Horrible crimes have been committed with guns at colleges, but using the Virginia Tech massacre and other shootings to justify turning universities into police states is disingenuous considering that campuses are still among the safest places in the country—and these tactics clearly aren’t making them any safer. But amped up fears have made it easy for the Pentagon and local law enforcement to align with campus police while being met with little pushback.
Just last month, campus police at Cal State San Marcos put the university on lockdown based on intelligence that a man was walking around campus with a gun. The suspect, they later learned, was armed only with an umbrella. In December 2013, American University in Washington, DC shut down its academic operations to search for a reported gunman who turned out to be an off-duty police officer. On Wednesday, Denison University and all other schools in the district of Granville, Ohio, were locked down after police received a phony threat of an impending shooting.
Concurrent with increasing lockdown drills and stockpiling of weapons is the stifling of student dissent. In 2009, during the G-20 Summit, student protestors at the University of Pittsburgh were demonstrating peacefully on their campus when cops demanded they disperse, then quickly proceeded to arrest several of them. Police sprayed pepper gas at passersby and onto the balconies of residences where students were watching the scene below.
There was also the infamous mass pepper spraying of Occupy demonstrators at UC Davis in 2011. Police used CS gas, pepper pellets, and beanbag rounds on UC student protesters throughout 2012. When students and workers at UC Riverside publicly demanded the scaling back of university privatization in a number of sectors, they were met with batons and paintball pellets.
The list of infringements upon student dissent, student space, and student bodies, is too long to enumerate here. Yet, importantly, it is also impossible to quantify, because incidents are never added up and detailed funding records never corralled into a comprehensible database. In the absence of serious oversight and accounting, narratives are stitched together, stories swapped, and a picture of violent state surveillance and control emerges. The picture squares with what we see in cities, towns, and communities across America.
And it squares with much of what’s taken place in response to the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in important ways, including the swiftness and brutality with which police met protestors in Ferguson and the importance of young people and youth culture in conveying images of that brutality to the world. Most of the protesters in Ferguson and those marching in solidarity across the country are young, and young people are more likely to support curtailing police power than their aged peers.
Perhaps this has something to do with the channels through which the story unfolding in Ferguson was most urgently told: grainy feeds on guerrilla news sites, social media, and, yes, websites geared toward millennials like VICE. It probably also has to do with the fact that so many young people mistrust the government, no matter who’s in charge. But perhaps most important, it’s young people, mostly young people of color, who are the targets of policies that feed the warrior cop ethos: increased surveillance, stop-and-frisk, and arrest quotas fueled by government grants. Joel Anderson wrote for Buzzfeed that most of the protestors in Ferguson “are young black men and some women from Ferguson and the surrounding inner suburbs of St. Louis who see themselves in Brown—not just because he was 18 and black, but also because they have their own tales of being harassed by police.”
A few weeks ago, activist and journalist Mariame Kaba asked on Twitter: “How can we build a movement to divest from police? Is there a way for us to do this? Can we go after local police budgets?”
One place to start is with those college campuses whose police forces receive 1033 and Homeland Security funding. The time is ripe for student journalists and activists to use the information furnished by Muckrock and to do their own digging to take on police divestment campaigns with the tenacity, political savvy, and exuberance that’s pushed universities nationwide to divest from fossil fuels, private prisons, and Israeli occupation. Young people in solidarity with the people of Ferguson and the families who have lost sons and daughters at the hands of militant police are poised to illuminate these connections between education, state surveillance, and state violence in a uniquely powerful way.