Abolition vs. the Myth of “Public Safety”: Past and Present Struggles for a Liberated CUNY

By Sofya Aptekar, Corinna Mullin, and Karanja Keita Carroll

André Brown and ‘Public Safety’ at CUNY 

The police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the uprisings that followed this summer reminded us of the need to prioritize demilitarization and the removal of all institutions of ‘organized violence’ from our college campuses. Despite platitudes from the CUNY administration, the university has yet to take seriously the kinds of structural transformations advocated by a diverse group of CUNY student and worker organizers as vital to creating a truly anti-racist and decolonized university. The recent hiring of a new chief of public safety at CUNY is an example of how the administration sidesteps the demands for a structural and materialist rather than cosmetic and individualized approach to fighting racism. 

In December of 2020, Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez announced the hiring of a new University Executive Director of Public Safety, André Brown. Matos-Rodriguez lauded Brown’s decades of experience in the Air Force, the Pentagon, and State Department, which apparently prepared him to oversee security at a public university. Moreover, Brown’s most immediate experience came from serving as the head of Administration for Children’s Services’ (ACS) own large security force. Using this new hire as a departure point allows us to critically reflect on some of the central contradictions and tensions underpinning the public university. CUNY is a site where the logics, mechanisms and power of the carceral state and racial capitalism more broadly are reproduced; but it is also, indisputably, a place of fierce resistance. 

Brown’s hire comes at a time of intense scrutiny of campus policing across the US and at CUNY, resonating with the broader movement to abolish the police. This appointment of a military leader and head of security for a deeply racist and abusive system of child protective services is no coincidence. Rather, Brown’s background with the US Air Force and ACS flouts CUNY organizing and demands for abolition and  buttresses the growing militarization of the neoliberal university, clear in the past decades but in hyperdrive during the pandemic. Put simply, the CUNY administration requires a militarized campus in order to surveil and dismantle the multiple forms of organizing and resistance on campus that are increasingly converging around a concesus of a decolonized, anti-racist, free and fully funded CUNY that can participate in broader liberatory projects across New York, the country and globe. 

Brown’s experience in the US Air Force is clearly troubling, since it is an integral part of US empire whose acts of brute violence and dispossession impact a large part of the world, including many CUNY students. It may be less clear how experience in managing New York’s child protective services contributes to the militarization of CUNY. In fact, child protective services are part and parcel of the racist and settler colonial carceral system in the US. ACS routinely and systemically criminalizes poor parents of color, stripping them of access to their children and disrupts extended family units that best serve these children. By far the most ACS cases concern poverty-related neglect, such as lack of sufficient food in the refrigerator or stable housing. Black and Brown New York families are disproportionately funnelled into the ACS system, irrevocably destroying relationships and communities. André Brown led ACS’s own force of security personnel and private contractors, who carry out the surveillance and enforcement of what critics have called the ‘family regulation system’.

Brown’s appointment highlights the need to go beyond the representational politics of the neoliberal university, in which superficial changes are deployed to mask the lack of substantive transformation, often reinforcing rather than challenging the structural inequalities of racial capitalism. As with the hiring and appointment of other BIPOC to executive positions across CUNY, the appointment of a Black man as the Executive of Public Safety gives the impression that the administration is taking up an anti-racist agenda, concerned with issues of diversity. Yet, similar to the recent appointment of Lloyd Austin, an African American army general, as Biden’s Secretary of Defense, this appointment does nothing to structurally challenge white supremacy and US empire. 

As with past attempts to reinforce CUNY’s relationship with the institutions of organized violence, including the police, military, ICE and Homeland Security, this latest development has and will be resisted by campus organizers. Opposition to CUNY’s relationship with the racist carceral state has long roots, going back to an earlier era of Black and Latinx led struggle to radically transform and decolonize the university. 

CUNY Militarization: A History of Power and Resistance 

Although CUNY’s relationship with the military is one obvious example of militarization, it is by no means the only one, as will be demonstrated below. Nevertheless, Brown’s hiring reminds us it is necessary to confront this form of militarization head on if we hope to tackle the more subtle ways militarization impacts our CUNY community.

Central to this has been CUNY’s collaboration with the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), which dates back to the institution’s origins, when the National Defense Act of 1916 established campus-based ROTC offices in order to prepare reserve army and National Guard officers as the US was preparing to enter World War I. Resistance against ROTC also existed from the beginning, reflecting the vibrancy of early anti-war movements on US campuses. A growing student peace movement led to the discontinuation of the ROTC on over sixty campuses nationwide. City College, in particular, became one of the “most highly publicized centers of anti-ROTC sentiment.” 

Protests picked up again in the context of the Black and Puerto Rican liberation struggles and growing anti-war movements of the 1960s. Connections between campaigns on campus- for example the struggle for open admissions and to establish Black and Puerto Rican Studies programs- with those “off campus”, for social and economic justice and against US imperialism- led to campaigns to shut down the Air Force ROTC unit at Brooklyn college. Protests were successful and the program was closed in 1966.  Students also led protests against military recruiters. A confrontation at Brooklyn College in 1967 between students and two Navy recruiters bloomed into a school uprising, causing the CUNY administration to “indefinitely postpone” Air Force recruitment visits to avoid “confrontation with antiwar student groups.”

Despite years of resistance, ROTC returned to CUNY in 2012 “without consulting most faculty and student governance bodies.” Today, ROTC is housed at York and City Colleges, although students from any of CUNY’s 25 campuses can participate in its programs. ROTC subsidizes college tuition for students who join the military after graduation, and offers military science courses taught on campus. CUNY’s program is one of almost two thousand ROTC programs in the US and even more JROTC programs, which target working class, largely BIPOC high school students to recruit them into the military. As well as formal ROTC programs, the US military is present on CUNY campuses in the form of military recruiters. Colleges risk losing federal funding if they ban the military from recruiting at events like job fairs, unless they also ban all other job recruiters. Recruiters are also given access to student directory information unless an individual student actively opts out. 

An important recent node of complicity with and resistance against the militarization of CUNY took place in 2013, when CUNY hired war criminal General David Petraeus to teach at Macaulay Honors College. A grassroots resistance mounted vivid and well-publicized protests against Petraeus’s hire and underscored the reality that the CUNY Board of Trustees works on behalf of the ruling class rather than the Black, Brown and other working class communities of color that overwhelmingly comprise the CUNY student body and communities in which CUNY is rooted. “It is these unaccountable bureaucrats,” as Gluck, Maharawal, Nastasia and Reed argued in their piece on Struggles over the Militarization of CUNY, that “helped facilitate the project to reintroduce ROTC, hire David Petraeus, and invite neoconservative donors to open research centers at CUNY.” The hiring of Petraeus, they pointed out, was a strategy to generate revenue by making the university more attractive to neoconservative donors at a time of cuts to the budget from the state.  With chants of “CUNY Must Not Be a War College” and “Petraeus Out of CUNY”, peaceful protests against the CUNY administration’s decision were met with violence from the police and several activists were arrested. 

And so it was that at the apex of the endless “War on Terror”, as US organized violence was being used to terrorize and dispossess BIPOC communities both at home and abroad, the CUNY administration deepened its relationship with the US military. 2013 also saw City College’s political science department renamed after another war criminal, becoming the Colin L. Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership, as well as the sudden top-down closing of the Morales/Shakur Center, a student-controlled campus community space that centered BIPOC, decolonial, and working class struggles. The Center had been part of the City College building that students took over in a successful 1989 protest against tuition hikes. 

As one of the principal institutions of organized violence, the US military oppresses and extracts value from people of color in multiple ways. In addition to exploiting and dispossessing the people, lands and resources of the global South, it exploits the labor and lives of disproportionately Black and Brown recruits. In neoliberal post-racial discourse, this form of exploitation is represented as “diversity” in the service of “force multiplier”. The Northeast has some of the lowest recruitment numbers in the US, and the military has long focused on remedying that. A 2011 report by the neocon American Enterprise Institute (AEI), entitled “Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City” provided an insight into its predatory agenda, explaining how tapping into CUNY’s diverse student body would benefit US imperialism. The paper argued “that CUNY’s diverse population might offer the military strategic advantages as it recruits educated immigrant students from countries where the United States is currently undertaking operations.”

Campus Cops: A Node for Militarization, Policing and Surveillance

Beyond deepening imbrications of the university with the military, militarization at CUNY is evident in the securitization and surveillance of students, workers, and campus spaces in a way that further entrenches race, class and gender hierarchies on campus. This includes not only CUNY’s collaboration with and presence of the NYPD, ICE, and Homeland Security in order to spy on and repress students and workers in the name of providing “security” or “fighting terrorism”. It shows up, as Gluck, Maharawal, Nastasia and Reed have powerfully demonstrated, in the “integration of campus security with police departments,” and the ramping up and weaponizing of campus security personnel. As displayed throughout this series of ‘zines produced by the Brooklyn College Against Trump student group, CUNY students are harassed for not having identification and subjected to violence and arrest when protesting the CUNY administration on issues like tuition hikes and fees. The NYPD has systematically spied on Muslim students

It is not only the state that targets CUNY students and workers with surveillance but also organizations like CAMERA and Canary Mission that do the bidding of US Empire by harassing and defaming especially Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students and faculty.  They attempt to limit academic freedom on campus by targeting anyone who challenges dominant narratives legitimizing Israeli Apartheid and settler colonial rule in Palestine in our classrooms and other university spaces. Most recently, a Zionist smear campaign fueled vicious cyberbullying against Nerdeen Kiswani, a Palestinian organizer, community leader, and CUNY law student. The initial response of CUNY Law was to post and then delete multiple messages lending credibility to the racist attack on Nerdeen. The university administration eventually changed tack after students and organizations worked together to expose the role of Act.IL app, which assigns users “missions” to target non-compliant educators and students, including prewritten notes to send to university administration. The app was developed by former Israeli intelligence officers and partly financed by the recently deceased casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. As decolonial and abolitionist student and worker organizers we need to be aware of these tactics and figure out ways to be on the offensive rather than just defensive.

Campus police–the School Resource Officers–gained power in the 1960s and actively repressed the Black and Puerto Rican liberation, anti-war and anti-capitalist student organizing that was gaining prominence on campuses across the country. Following a wave of student anti-austerity protests in the early 1990s, the campus police were augmented by NY state “peace officers”, who are “authorized to make warrantless arrests and use physical and deadly force.” Headed by a former counterterrorism expert in Port Authority, CUNY campus police built up a massive cache of ammunition

Established in 1964, John Jay College of Criminal Justice–originally named The College of Police Science–leads the way when it comes to  cultivating close relations to the various institutions of organized violence. Its NYPD Leadership program is a tuition-free program that helps active NYPD officers and supervisors earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree.  The new Academic Preparation Program for Law Enforcement (APPLE) program provides “generous stipends” and prepares students for employment with the police, while the Cadet Education, Empowerment & Development for Success (CEEDS) program channels CUNY students into jobs with the Department of Corrections.

The university is also one of the few nationwide to offer a Homeland Security minor. At a time when students are anxious about unemployment and the economic crisis, the program seeks to appeal by highlighting the “exponentia[l] expan[sion]” of the homeland security job market since September 11th, 2001. John Jay participates in  more material forms of collaboration, including a recently launched project on cyber-terrorism, which was one of 13 selected by the Department of Homeland Security as part of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education (NCITE) Center. 

Similar to the ROTC program, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Corrections and the NYPD see in the largely working class Black and Brown student body at John Jay an opportunity to “diversify” and expand their forces. A long time strategy of the US Empire, these programs seek to reproduce the status quo by attempting to co-opt BIPOC and other oppressed and colonized populations into the very norms and systems of exploitation, oppression and extraction that underpin white supremacy, US empire and heteropatriarchy. 

Instead of superficial diversity, we need an anti-racist CUNY which will only be achieved once we are able  to abolish the police on CUNY campuses and all forms of policing that impact the life chances of all our students, workers and community members. This also depends upon the redistribution of resources to life supporting and affirming institutions and programs including free healthcare, food, housing and transportation for our CUNY community as well as a major recruitment and hiring program to ensure the CUNY has a faculty that is representative of the diversity of New York and the CUNY student body. Finally, it requires that CUNY seriously engages in an ongoing decolonization process, which includes a decolonized curriculum and pedagogy across campuses and departments, as well as serious work to dismantle and redress the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism and to ensure that CUNY does not contribute to further colonial displacement of racialized and oppressed communities through real estate speculation, gentrification, and barriers to access. 

Anti-Militarization and Abolition Struggles

The institutions of organized violence are designed to protect private property and maintain the relations of unequal power underpinning racial capitalism and US empire. It is not by accident that they are so imbricated in university spaces. But, as we have discussed above, CUNY also has a long history of struggle and resistance is only gaining in strength. 

One way CUNY faculty and staff have organized against militarization is through their labor organizations. In the 2010s, an anti-militarization committee within the union representing CUNY workers, Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY), participated in anti-militarization efforts by building networks across CUNY, helping coordinate town halls, and investigating CUNY administration’s relationships with the US military and the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. In 2014, the union’s executive council and delegate assembly passed a resolution to oppose ROTC on CUNY campuses. 

More recently and in light of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprising, Rank and File Action, a group of CUNY workers and union activists, followed the lead of the MLK Labor Council in Seattle by drafting a resolution that was eventually adopted by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) to not only kick the cops off campus but also eject cop unions out of the AFL-CIO, the national labor federation with which our parent union is affiliated (unfortunately, the PSC has yet to act on the requirements of this resolution). 

Campus organizers have also been actively involved in political education and protest action around the police/carceral state. RAFA organized a teach-in on Police Terror last spring as well as participated in several protests over the summer and fall, including a coalitional Mass March to Defund the NYPD. The PSC’s International Committee organized a webinar in December bringing together anti-racist, decolonial and abolitionist scholars and organizers from across CUNY and the globe to reflect on the lessons learned from the 1951 Civil Rights Congress’ We Charge Genocide campaign, connecting the dots between the violence of racial capitalim and US imperialism.  Free CUNY and CUNY for Abolition and Safety and worker-student orgs like the Anti-Racist Coalition (CAS) at Brooklyn College have participated in protests and webinars on the themes of racist police violence and abolition. One of CAS’ campaigns includes a petition demanding CUNY divest from the prison industry and eliminate its contract with Corcraft, which utlizes prison slavery to produce its products. It also has called for the abolition of the University Public Safety office as part of a radical transformation of how we understand safety on CUNY campuses.

As our resistance to neoliberal restructuring of the university under the pretext of “austerity” grows and our demands to decolonize the university become louder and clearer, we should expect the administration’s efforts to police us to increase as well. Pagan, Vazques, Bazile, Lam and Kennedy warn that  just as in the 1970s, today “CUNY students kn[ow] that under the guise of fiscal responsibility, our campuses w[ill] become more and more hostile not only to Black and Brown working class students, but to our persistent demands for radical education.” It is clear to all those students and workers engaged in the struggle to achieve a decolonized CUNY that abolition and anti-militarization must be central to our efforts. 

This is some of the history that brings us to the end of 2020 and the praises sung to the new CUNY security chief’s military career. The insidious pervasiveness of militarism underpinning our settler colonial, racial capitalist state as well as the current collective trauma brought about by the capitalist induced health crisis  make it easy to skip over this relatively minor institutional news. But the framing of Brown’s military career as the appropriate background for someone responsible for supervising public safety at CUNY is reflective of how normalized CUNY’s longstanding and deepening imbrications in the institutions of organized violence  has become. Our response must not only highlight the undoubtedly inflated salary and benefits Brown is receiving at a time of claimed “austerity”, but it should also bring attention to the deeper significance of his professional background, and what this tells us about the intentions of CUNY administrators when it comes to future campus struggles for a radically transformed CUNY. We must fight back.

Sofya Aptekar is associate professor at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

Corinna Mullin is an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Political Science at John Jay College

Karanja Keita Carroll is a lecturer in the Department of Black & Latino Studies at Baruch College (CUNY)

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