The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked a new wave of national protests against police brutality and, in some cases, the entire system of policing in the United States. Advocates for reform have noted that American policing originated from 18th-century slave patrols, fueling arguments that racist policing practices in the U.S. are not a case of “a few bad apples,” but rather a system functioning as it was designed. As such, the concept of police abolition gained significant support over the summer, with polls showing widespread desire for defunding the police, among both constituents and politicians.
Amid these calls to action, three Barnard community members saw a chance to start pushing for changes closer to home. Lena Harris ’22 and Denise Mantey ’21, both executive board members of BOSS, the Barnard Organization of Soul & Solidarity (formerly the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters) — which has a legacy of fighting for racial justice on campus — teamed up with Eve Kausch ’18, the Post-Baccalaureate Fellow at the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), to educate the campus community on how abolitionist theories can apply to life at Barnard. In July, they presented their research at the College’s weekly Assembly for Racial Justice series hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
In a roundtable “Break This Down” discussion, Harris, Kausch, and Mantey talk through the key points of their research to promote a broader discussion on how to think about campus safety.
How did the three of you come to collaborate?
Lena Harris ’22: As I, along with the rest of the country, was watching the global pandemic and [renewed attention to the] national epidemic of racism simultaneously unfold, I felt moved by the call to action that was sweeping across social media platforms. Being on the executive board of BOSS, it seemed like the eyes of our Barnard community turned towards us, asking, What are you going to do in response? A group of Black alumnae sent a letter with a list of demands to our president, Sian Leah Beilock, stating the need for a reexamination of policing on Barnard’s campus.
Eve Kausch ’18: A group of Library staff reached out to me and the rest of BCRW staff in late June, asking if we wanted to get involved in planning one of the assemblies for racial justice that the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion held each Monday in July. I was excited by the idea because it felt important to me to bring this national and global conversation about policing to Barnard. Lena and Denise were a part of the group I joined to help brainstorm for the assembly on July 6, and the three of us decided to step up to lead the assembly in order to highlight student voices and experiences.
Denise Mantey ’21: Following the demands presented by Black Barnard alums and the community’s call that BOSS helped organize, I was invited to contribute to the planning of the July 6 assembly on police abolition. As an executive board member of BOSS and a Black student myself, it felt really important that I work to ensure a much safer Barnard experience [for] Black students.
What are the key differences between reform and abolition?
LH: For me, reform is about giving more chances, and abolition is saying that there have been enough chances, and the system doesn’t work. The word ‘abolition’ has become a point of conflict because I think it scares a lot of people, and it’s historically been highly politicized. But once you learn what abolition of the police state is really asking, it’s an entirely reasonable and necessary request.
To give you an analogy, imagine an old, disheveled house. This house is riddled with mold and asbestos, the foundation is crumbling, it’s crawling with critters, and every bit of wood is rotten and unusable. If the house is beyond repair, and no one can live in it anymore, then what is its purpose? Is it providing shelter, security, and safety to its residents? No. So in that case, the logical thing to do is to tear it down, and build a new one in its place, starting from the very beginning with a new foundation.
I like to think of reform as keeping the crumbling foundation and attempting to rebuild the house using the same rotting wood. Abolition is building a new and functional building in place of the old one, from the bottom up, with an entirely new blueprint, that will serve the purpose that a house does.
EK: Reform does not work. The prison industrial complex has been reformed countless times over the span of its existence, and each time reform results in the ultimate strengthening of the carceral state and policing. Critical Resistance has an informative PDF as well as an Instagram post that outline the ways that many mainstream reforms — such as body cameras, community policing, and increased police training — actually give more money, tools, and power to the police. This is the opposite of abolition.
It’s hard sometimes for people to wrap their minds around abolition. After all, we live in a world where carceral solutions are the [assumed] way to fix every problem. Many people, when introduced to the idea of abolition, ask, “But what will we do without prisons?” It’s understandable that it’s hard to imagine an answer to this question, given how much we have come to rely on the police and prisons. But as abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition is a presence, not an absence. The question isn’t, what will we do without prisons? It is, what can we build together instead? Abolition is recognizing that we have the ability to create a better system, that a different world is possible. It is a positive, creative project.
DM: This question reminds me of a discussion I had in an anthropology course about “decolonizing anthropology” and whether or not that can occur. I remember then coming to the understanding that when concepts, structures, or in this case, a state-empowered system, are created on a foundation of racism and violence, they cannot be reformed. We must start over.
Policing began as a way to control and threaten Black livelihood, and to this day does exactly that. If we continue to trust in reform, then we will continue to get racism, but in different fonts.
Prison abolition involves knowledge of and taking responsibility for the harm that has been caused by prisons and policing and working to undo that harm. It involves both imagining and taking the steps to create this great world where community safety is prioritized in a way that is intentional and does not contribute to a cycle of targeted harm and inequity.
According to your research, what is the importance of pursuing abolition at Barnard?
LH: Barnard prides itself on being a hub of progressive thought and ideology, and I believe that in many ways it has lived up to it. However, there is always room to grow, and in the last few years, Barnard has proven that policing is a necessary area of growth.
How amazing would it be if Barnard became the first college to abandon traditional policing as we know it in the U.S. today, in exchange for a functional alternative that truly keeps everyone safe? I think we absolutely have the means to do so, with all of these young minds, and incredible professors and staff, we can reimagine a campus without policing and become the pioneers of abolition.
Public Safety, the way we know it, now creates a false sense of security.
EK: In 1969, BOSS sent a list of demands to then-President Martha Peterson. Their 10th and final demand was, “We want an immediate end to harassment by campus security.” In her response to these demands, President Peterson said, “If guards are to be of any use they must challenge those they do not know.” This, to me, was a chilling response. Who are the people that the guards “do not know”? What assumptions are they making about who belongs on campus? Who “looks” like a Barnard student, staff, or faculty member?
It reminded me of when, in 2019, Black Columbia student Alex McNab was accosted and assaulted by Barnard Public Safety. [Read President Beilock’s statement to the community and about the subsequently created Community Safety Group]. Over 50 years ago, Black Barnard students knew and understood the ways that policing targeted them on our campus. This year, a group of recent Black alums from the Classes of 2015, 2016, and 2017 wrote a letter of demands to the Barnard administration. Their first demand was addressing the structure of Public Safety and calling for a reimagining of that office and its role. Black students have been calling attention to this for decades, and the reforms that have been enacted — such as committees or working groups, which were created both in 1969 after BOSS’s demands and in 2019 after Public Safety assaulted Alex McNab — have not changed anything. We are in a cycle of purposeful institutional forgetting: Every four years, after the student body has turned over again, Barnard moves on until the next “incident.” It’s time to break this cycle. We can either step up and see this as an opportunity to do something to make our campus safer, and be leaders in this movement, or we can wait for the next “incident” to happen, which we know will happen, and continue our process of taking small steps that do little. I hope that we can all agree that change is necessary, and while this change may be difficult, deep, and painful, we are capable of making Barnard a better and safer community.
DM: One thing about abolition at Barnard is that it feels so, so possible and is so, so needed. Many groups of Black students have even come together on several occasions to present comprehensive plans to the College to abolish, or at the very least, phase out Public Safety. Students want this.
I think Barnard is special in that many of those who involve themselves with the College — such as administrators, students, staff, and faculty — have some level of commitment to growth in a way that benefits those around them. It definitely is a process, but pursuing abolition at Barnard means testing our open-mindedness as we come together to understand the different needs and lived experiences of the most marginalized and build a safe, tight-knit community.
What are some of the reasons the Barnard community calls Public Safety, and how might some of these concerns be addressed through different channels?
EK: We are encouraged to call Public Safety for a whole host of reasons, from seeing a mouse in your dorm room after hours to reporting hate speech on campus. In many ways, Public Safety has become a “one-stop shop” that acts as a hub to connect you to whatever you need. In my time as a member of this community, I have been through [several trainings, where] it was stressed to me that if there was a problem or crisis on campus, you call Public Safety and they will help you, no matter what it is.
What would it look like if we questioned some of this? What if, instead of calling Public Safety when we have a problem in our dorm room, we find there is a better way to communicate with facilities after hours? If I see someone on campus who I think doesn’t belong, I should take the time to stop and interrogate why that is. Instead of [automatically] calling Public Safety, I could introduce myself and ask if they need help finding something on campus. We as a community have the tools and ability to solve many of these situations ourselves.
DM: Whether we want to or not, all students engage with Public Safety members on campus every day. It’s important to understand the many, many ways that Barnard affiliates are forced to engage with Public Safety for reasons that do not involve public safety and instead redirect these concerns to better-suited departments. For example, instead of requiring a student to be escorted by a Public Safety member to open a door, leave a sign-in sheet at the front desk of the building with the desk attendant, which has happened and is a lot more efficient but has only been possible for the Zora Neale Hurston Lounge, as of 2019.
How can Barnard students think about and get involved in police reform in their own communities while off campus this fall?
EK: Read abolitionist writings! Learn from the work of Black feminists, who have been engaging with these ideas since well before current Barnard students were born. Think about the ways that policing shows up in your life and your community. Consider: What are the ways you can bring these conversations into your families and communities off campus? Attend online webinars about policing and abolition. Some of my favorites have been held by Haymarket Books, but Barnard’s own BCRW has many resources related to abolition on our website and YouTube page, including the project Interrupting Criminalization, spearheaded by Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie.