Demilitarizing at University of Maryland

January 7, 2015

University police forces are joining the rush to get weapons from the Pentagon, but students at UMD are fighting to keep their campus safe, writes Laura Lising.

OVER THE last two months, University of Maryland (UMD) students have been organizing to resist the militarization of their campus.

A number of students in various groups were outraged to learn this fall that the campus police department had obtained 50 M-16 semiautomatic weapons, 16 "riot-type" 12-gauge shotguns, and a $65,000 armored truck from the Pentagon, through the controversial Department of Defense 1033 program.

Similar weaponry was on terrifying display in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer, brought out against peaceful demonstrators protesting Mike Brown's murder. Like others all over the country, students at UMD are participating in ongoing actions against the murder of Brown, Eric Garner and others, while connecting the broader struggle against police abuse to issues on their own campus.

Students and allies began speaking out against the military weapons acquisition by gathering signatures on a petition demanding that the university police immediately give back to the Pentagon all of the weapons recently obtained. They then organized a march and rally on November 24 that began at the student union building, moved through the center of campus, and on to the administration building, where they were met by Chief Mitchell of the campus police.

UMD students march to disarm the militarized campus police
UMD students march to disarm the militarized campus police (PLUMAS)

The rally and march were organized on short notice by a group of students, many of whom represented existing student groups that are forming an umbrella group called the UMD Social Justice Coalition. The march drew about 60 students who voiced their concerns about the militarization of their campus and the problem of racist police violence in general.

According Jessy Jimenez, an organizer with the Social Justice Coalition:

We planned this march in only two days and are pleased that we got the attention of Chief Mitchell, the media and [UMD] President [Wallace] Loh, We hoped to inspire more activism, and that's what has happened. One of our greatest accomplishments is in uniting a lot of organizations--we have some of the Black organizations, Latino groups, Students for Justice in Palestine, labor activists, Asian American groups and many more. There are still more organizations we'd like to reach out to as well.

As they marched, the students carried a banner that read "Demilitarize UMD" and chanted "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!" When they reached the administration building, they demanded to see President Loh, but were instead met by Chief Mitchell, to whom they presented their demands.

The demands include a call for a civilian police review board, demilitarization of the campus police, body cameras on police, a statement from the UMD administration condemning the murder of Mike Brown, and transparency by the university police department. The students also reiterated the demands of Ferguson organizers, especially the demand for the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson.

Chief Mitchell responded that body cameras for campus police were already on order, but attempted to deflect the demilitarization demand by claiming that these weapons were required by federal law because there is nuclear material on campus (used for a small research reactor).

Students were skeptical of this latter claim, given that most other campuses that have also recently received weapons through the 1033 program--including other campuses in Maryland--do not have reactors. The students repeated their demands and then continued to march through campus.

SINCE THE November 24 rally, students have continued to organize and speak out at events. On December 3, the African American Studies Department hosted a town hall meeting featuring a panel with many faculty, Chief Mitchell, and three members of the UMD Social Justice Coalition. Many students in the audience spoke out about their experiences with racial profiling on campus, and the students from the coalition used their time to speak against police brutality and press their demands on Mitchell.

There was debate about body cameras--one faculty speaker pointed out that these cameras are sold by surveillance companies, which have an interest in promoting the surveillance state. Regarding the demilitarization demand, Mitchell again tried to claim that the weapons were needed to protect the nuclear reactor, and continually raised the specter of a gunman on campus.

But students, faculty and audience members were able to get him to admit that the university was already in compliance with the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions guidelines before receiving these weapons from the 1033 program.

A list published by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that well over 100 campuses have received military equipment under the 1033 program since 1998. Some campuses have received grenade launchers and vehicles with gun turrets. Of the schools receiving weapons, only two have nuclear reactors, although there are over 20 campus reactors in the U.S.

Since the town hall meeting, the Social Justice Coalition has put together a statement and fact sheet debunking all of Mitchell's claims about the weapons' use for protection of the reactor and for responding to an active shooter situation. The fact sheet states that "it is entirely more likely for a student to face racist police violence than an active shooter situation."

Other student groups have also been part of the response, with other public forums, an action "occupying" the student union, and a die-in outside of a basketball game.

IN THE face of this pressure, Chief Mitchell met with various student groups and leaders, and has written a public letter responding to the students' demands. In the letter, he claims to have publicly criticized the Ferguson police response to protests, and says he will establish a Police Chief's Advisory Council that will include students, faculty and staff.

Mitchell claims that similar councils in Prince George's (PG) County (where he was previously an officer) and elsewhere have proved helpful, but the limited changes that have occurred in the level of police violence in PG County in the last decade are more directly attributable to a Washington Post exposé of the police department, Justice Department-mandated reforms, and the conviction and jailing of PG County police officer Stephanie Mohr in 2001 following community protests.

A response letter from the Social Justice Coalition makes it clear that students are not mollified by this gesture. "We agree that [this council] should be made up of students, faculty and staff, but we want more than just an advisory council. We want a board that will review police complaints and have legislative power to discipline or fire officers if necessary."

"We want more than just discussion," Jimenez says. "We want our demands to be met. We feel like Chief Mitchell has been dodging our questions. We don't want a powerless advisory board."

Their intent is clearly to keep organizing and to keep up the pressure on an increasingly militarized, repressive, and racist campus police force as part of a growing nationwide movement.

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