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Op-ed: “Cops Off Campus” — what does it actually mean?

A Black UTGSU executive imagines a safer university for all
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

On December 16, I was stalked, stopped, and questioned by five campus police officers outside the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) building in connection to the union’s Police Off Campus campaign. 

As a marked Campus Police patrol car stood in the distance with headlights on full beam directly our way, I remember thinking to myself, “How bad could this go?” Unfortunately, my thoughts instantly changed the moment the beacon lights lit up and the cruiser drove our way. The Campus Police cruiser intensely parked at once to our side at a 45-degree angle — as though to block our pathway from a supposed escape. 

What followed was a downward spiralling interaction — as far as conversation goes — as I began to attempt to answer the barrage of questions thrown at us by the officers. My coworkers and I cooperatively responded to questions; however, it was not long before we noticed that the particular manner in which I was being responded to and interrogated by the officers was simply different to the others I was with. 

I adjusted my behaviour given my knowledge and experience with campus police and police in general — as a Black man, I am often forced to surrender to respectability politics and passivity for my safety. Surprisingly or not, my replies to the questions were not being received with the same regard as my two colleagues, who happen to be white allies. 

Before I knew it, I was accused of being “aggressive” simply for hanging a “Cops Off Campus” banner outside our office. Had I been alone or with other Black students, or had there not been a union supporting me, I know this altercation could have gone differently even with that mentioned, the situation was escalating fast, as is often the case when police interact with racialized communities.

The University of Toronto campus police are special constables given authority through the Ontario Police Services Act by the Toronto Police Services Board. Principally, campus police officers are given the same authority as regular police officers while they’re on campus. The mere presence of police in schools, in the more general view, is worryingly powered and operated by a historical dehumanization of racialized and marginalized students, which suggests and translates to the need to be constantly snooping on these bodies.

In a 2011 book titled Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, sociologist Victor M. Rios describes hypercriminalization as a sequence through which a person’s routine behaviour, practices, and panache become pervasively regarded to as non-conforming, rascal, criminally dangerous and threatening within a dominant social ‘acceptance.’ For racialized students, the existence of campus police means nothing short of a perpetuation of this pervasive hypercriminalization culture.  

Since the tragic deaths of Chantel Moore, George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and woefully many more, the discussion about redirecting power and resources from policing as we know it and, in turn, investing it in community care has come to the forefront. But for many of us, this conversation is long overdue. There are multiple sources of research that affirm and demonstrate that an increased presence of police on campus or schools does not exactly make these institutions safer. 

Since the University of Toronto’s Campus Police organization was created in 1904, there has been a long list of troublesome and problematic interactions between police and students — reported and unreported. Just over a year ago, a student was handcuffed by campus police after seeking mental health support. In another instance, transgender and racialized students were assaulted at a Jordan Peterson rally while campus police were present. 

It is imperative that we, as a community, begin to demystify the misconceptions that have kept us dependent on archaic and obsolete models of campus safety in order to establish a clear and progressive campus and community environment we wish to see prosper that is celebratory and reflective of our true diversity.

However, by drawing from my own personal outreach samples as well as from discussions I have had with fellow students, friends, and colleagues, there seems to be a general concern around the question of safety and security while discussing what “Cops Off Campus” truly means.

In an open letter addressed to U of T President Meric Gertler, students and faculty members made the case that “an institution premised on fear, domination, force does not make U of T safe.” Conversely, if we establish that the concern is safety for all, then why do we not push for safer and more meaningful security for us all? 

“Cops Off Campus” seeks to visualize a new way forward from outdated policing as we know it. From the adoption of meaningful and safer student mental health services, to addressing cases on gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and other cases that involve the need for investigation, there are more student effective means and ways in which we can establish a safer campus environment for all, and just not for the few. 

Campus police are called to open locked classrooms after hours, operate the lost and found, and chase away people who are experiencing homelessness from trying to find a place to warm up; these campus police duties could be performed by other organizations.

Contemporarily, in response to waves of transformation, resistance, and collective social responsibility, we are being led to believe that change is ‘radical’ and that ‘radical’ is a bad word –– but only when disrupting hegemonic dominant discourses. Let us take a moment to imagine what it would look like if the university invested the funds that go to Campus Police on meaningful and sustainable support for mental health and wellness, anti-carceral community safety initiatives, alternate emergency response services, and more.

Contextually, allyship and solidarity statements are not trending key words or a simple hashtag, but a stance we must choose if we are truly anti-racist and anti-colonial in our practices. I use the term ‘anti’ because there is no space in between. Choosing intentionally and vehemently to be anti-racist is an act of true solidarity.

Equally so, ‘racist’ should not be viewed as a fixed label or identity, nor should it be taken as an insult heavier than the action at hand. Rather, it is the prevailing attitudes, implicit biases, and deep-seated systemic prejudices that we must unlearn and constantly challenge. “Cops Off Campus” means re-imagining a safer campus for us all, community collaboration, radical change, and moving forward together.

May we all have had a critically reflective Black History Month. Let us continue to create more spaces to learn through the unlearning of misconceptions that perpetuate anti-Blackness and other forms of systemic oppression on campus, in our communities, and ideally, Canada at large.

Lwanga Gasuza Musisi is a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He is currently serving his second term in office as the UTGSU’s university governance commissioner.