November 2019

A Black Class: Re-Learning Abolition in Higher Education Organizing

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to help set it in motion and watch it crash into the structures that for far too long have limited our vision of community to brutality and fear.

by Blu Buchanan

Like the State of California, higher education institutions in the United States appear, based on branding, to be locations of progressive racial politics. But just like California, this veneer of racial progress is so thin that a nick—a Black Lives Matter protest, a student sit-in, a picket line, or just sitting in the library—is enough to reveal the grisly and violent inner workings of racial domination. Rather than think of the university as a “bubble,” or as exceptional, it’s more appropriate to think of it as a site of amplification.

Higher education is a testing ground for new neoliberal forms of social control—for harvesting student tuition and exploiting the labor of workers. These two major functions of the university as a business have caused students and workers to make common cause, facilitated by the often-shared spaces of labor organizing. This has created new conditions for organizing against both the university and wider structures of stratification. On university grounds, I have picketed, shut down neo-Nazis, and been attacked by police. Trying to make sense of these experiences, I explore here the Black student labor struggles within higher education institutions across the nation, with a particular focus on the historical events surrounding one labor union, the UAW 2865, and its call to the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from police unions and associations.

Letter from the Student Council in 1934,
provided by ArtStor and the City College of New York.

To put the struggles of labor organizing and other justice movements on campus into perspective it is necessary to interrogate how our current organizing situation is limited by structural forces that first need to be abolished in order to widen the scope of our dreaming. Much of my time and energy as an organizer was spent learning the legal boundaries of direct action in order to avoid arrest or brutality. This concern wasn’t, and isn’t, an inconsequential or imaginary one. We’ve seen widespread police violence against students and workers on university campuses since 1934—when City College students took direct action to shut down a school-sponsored event featuring a group of Italian fascists.[1] The popularization of university police in the 1960s coincided with efforts to integrate more students from marginalized class, race, and gender categories, and resulted in massive police violence against students and workers.[2] In the face of this material and historical reality though, recent questions regarding tactics have often been focused on reducing the likelihood of police violence, rather than on the elimination of the structured institution of policing. This frame makes considering abolition impossible. But why have police become a normalized part of higher education and what role has labor played in responding to the state violence happening on our campuses?

A UC Davis Slingshot, taken by Flickr user rwcar4.

The unfortunate answer is that although our justice movements once articulated police abolition as part of their organizing platforms, it has increasingly become taboo to critique the police and their presence in our daily lives. [3] The union organizers of Harlan County certainly had no love for police or the power company bosses who directed them to allow scabs into the mines—where has that spirit gone? [4] This form of self-regulation has emerged alongside new administrative techniques on our campuses that put a “friendly face” on oppressive structures. The local UC Davis police had a Slingshot three wheeled motorcycle as part of their “Don’t Text and Drive” campaign. This was part and parcel of an administration that increasingly sought to regulate and determine the shape and conditions of student protest.

Instead of an adversarial position, university administrations are increasingly using “feedback” mechanisms to limit the energy of student organizers and bleed organizing of its revolutionary potential. Neoliberal administrative methods have encouraged us to discipline ourselves, to participate without thought of refusal, under threat of being disciplined by “friendly” police officers. When student/workers fail to be drawn in by the carrot, they are given the stick. The use of the police to reinforce white supremacy demonstrates the administrative methods of the university, as in the cases of the UCD Pepper Spray Incident and the UCD shutdown of Milo Yiannopoulos.

Since the Orangeburg and Kent State Massacres, university administrators have made the “de-militarization of student protests” and the “protection of the student body” their primary argument for increased policing. For these administrators, campus police were supposed to be nicer, softer versions of the state troopers who were once called in to quell student and worker protests. The unequal status of students and workers along the lines of class, race, and other forms of difference hasn’t been eliminated and neither has the disproportionate risk posed to marginalized people by police officers. “What does the student body look like?” is still based on the image of a student body that is all white, all male, and all well-to-do. It’s this perception that drives administrators to think of policing as an unproblematic safety measure rather than the perpetrators of harm. Administrators have even given up the idea that campus police are meant to demilitarize student protests as they are growing ever more militarized themselves, armed to the teeth by programs like the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program. The “friendly” police officer is now riding around in an armored vehicle with his face behind a riot shield. [5] 

These same officers are often represented by police “unions” or “associations.” These organizations have been brought under the umbrella of the labor movement in recent years. Despite waning union strength in the United States these organizations remain strongly funded and supported.[6] This is directly related to their role in promoting social control; as wealth inequality, racial violence, and state repression increase, police are paid—and paid well—to protect the powerful. Their traditional role serving the powerful—as strike breakers, segregation enforcers, and slave catchers—has evolved over time but not fundamentally changed. Although the labor movement of the early and mid-20th century had a contentious relationship with the police, labor federations like the AFL-CIO have used police associations to bolster the ranks of “unionized workers” in the neoliberal economic moment. Struggling under the austerity imposed by neoliberal, globalized capital these labor federations now include police, corrections officers, and others who were once firmly understood as outside of the movement for labor justice in the United States. Rather than an abolitionist vision, labor federations like the AFL-CIO have invested themselves in the neoliberal logic of growth for growth’s sake. They want unions in areas that aren’t at risk, unions that are surefire bets for providing union dues and increasing membership. Thus, it doesn’t matter what kind of work a worker does, or if their role is oppressive, as long as they are dues-paying members. A similar model has driven universities to invest in private prisons, as they too are considered safe investments because they are always expected to grow and give investors a return on their money. Better that the labor movement grow and continue to rake in money than to support the most marginalized, and poor, in their ranks.

In contrast, the United Automotive Workers (UAW) Local 2865—made up of academic student employees from across the University of California system—took a radically different approach during and after our 2014 contract campaign to build union strength on our university campuses. After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, Black labor organizers in the union were asking hard questions about both the union and the university’s complicity in anti-blackness. We heard a lot about how difficult it was “on both sides.” We had watched the President of the AFL-CIO mourn, in very polite terms, the incident by saying “Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, who works in a grocery store is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member. And Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown is a union member too, and he is our brother. Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.” [7] “Terrible,” a non-committal term without any kind of accountability, erases the structures which made it possible for Wilson to kill Michael Brown. The tepid response of the labor movement emphasized exactly how disposable Black people were to America and the labor movement in particular. 

Black labor organizers in higher education, like myself, were constantly navigating the anti-blackness within our own organizing spaces, our departments and programs. After one particularly telling incident in which our union tried to issue a statement about the Ferguson Uprising, we formed the Black Interests Coordinating Committee, or BICC. The purpose of this committee was to organize Black workers and to shape the broader union using collective action. One of the primary interventions to emerge from BICCs organizing was a proposal to issue a union-endorsed statement calling for the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) and from police unions in general. The writing of this statement largely originated from the University of California Davis unit and the coalition of accomplices who saw that this issue affected students and workers alike, and that the union had a unique position to address the structural violence of our system through labor methods.

Poster Announcing UAW 2865 Disarm Contract Language.

After presenting the proposal on July 25th, 2015, it was accepted unanimously by the Joint Council of the union and sent out to the AFL-CIO. The response from the broader labor movement was mixed. A number of Black organizers messaged BICC and UAW 2865 in order to thank them for making room for race and labor conversations in their own organizations. A number of Southern California SEIU Local 721 caucuses followed suit and began a resolution process of their own calling for the disaffiliation of police from the labor movement. The AFL-CIO responded by suggesting that mediation between police and communities of color was the answer: a response that was expected by a labor federation which has played both sides of the fence on this issue. Beyond individual unions, this began a conversation among labor organizers about the anti-worker nature of police and how this ties into the anti-black function they serve in society. 

The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU) and UAW 2865 followed this initial call for justice with resolutions to disarm and demilitarize campus police. If labor organizing was skeptical of disaffiliation, then perhaps taking away the ease with which cops could kill would make enough space to expose the anti-black and anti-labor regime that police uphold. This led to groundbreaking new labor language in 2018, in which UAW 2865 passed a proposal across the bargaining table calling for the disarming and demilitarizing of campus police as part of the health and safety portion of our contract. 

This work, as a whole, was only made possible by the collective action of Black labor organizers. While this progress was aided by accomplices along the way, the organizing done by BICC served as the basis for these changes. By merging an analysis of anti-blackness and anti-capitalism, by advancing an intervention into racial capitalism, we sought to take the guns and the authority from the neoliberal plantation overseers. [8] Our group was motivated not so much to intervene in labor politics in a new way; it was a return to an understanding of the antagonistic forces against which we fight. For us, the call for police disaffiliation and disarmament was part of a long tradition that recognizes that the intertwined battle against racial capitalism demands police abolition. 

The anti-blackness of labor and the university have not been eradicated, and unfortunately, this account ends not on a high note but a major reversal. Following a major shift towards bureaucratic control and top-down organizing led by the admin-oriented “Organizing for Student-Worker Power (OSWP) caucus against those who did work on “social justice issues,” the union has all but destroyed its own Black labor history. BICC broke apart because of our own precarity; some left grad school, some burned out, some were exiled by union leadership. The OSWP caucus has taken on a friendly relationship with administration and given themselves over to the same neoliberal ideas which govern the university.[9] The austerity facing both the university and the union has created twin monsters—interested mostly in their self-perpetuation rather than in creating the conditions for their own obsolescence. They have fundamentally rejected an abolitionist vision of organizing. Black student workers are again facing a time when their union and their university view them as exploitable fodder, where the bodies that count (of students and membership) are the ones who have the funds and the physical presence to matter. While UAW 2865 began this fight, it will not be where it ends.

All, though, is not lost. Organizations like DisarmUC are continuing the struggle to bring disarmament and demilitarization to University of California campuses. There have been calls for police disarmament or abolition at universities and colleges across the United States. And while they may be most visible in higher education institutions, they are certainly not limited to them. People are bringing abolitionist visions home with them, and bringing new tactics and visions from those same homes. Organizers fighting racial capitalism to expose the bloody underpinnings of this system and practice contrary ways of living must remember that when we fight our oppressors we fight alongside others—with a long lineage. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to help set it in motion and watch it crash into the structures that for far too long have limited our vision of community to brutality and fear. 

A world without cops or their guns is a more just world for students and workers alike.

Blu Buchanan is a Black trans graduate student at the University of California, Davis—a university founded upon unceded Patwin land, land that should belong to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation today. They specialize in historical sociology, with a focus on the racial, sexual, and gender politics of the colonial United States. Their specific research interests lie in the areas of homonationalism, whiteness studies, and conservative social movements. Alongside their academic work, they also organize at the intersection of trans justice, Black liberation, and labor mobilizing. Currently, they are heading up a campaign to disarm campus police officers across the University of California system.

Further Reading

[1] CCNY Student Council (Oct, 1934), “Protest Italian Fascism! Nip American Fascism in the Bud!” https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/SS7730477_7730477_8759919;prevRouteTS=1574361710333

[2] Sloan, John J. 1992. “The Modern Campus Police: An Analysis of Their Evolution, Structure, and Function,” American Journal of Police 85; Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2015. “Campus Law Enforcement, 2011–12.” https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cle1112.pdf; Rodríguez, D. 2012. “Beyond ‘Police Brutality’: Racist State Violence and the University of California.” American Quarterly 64(2): 301-313; Brucato, Ben and Luis A. Fernandez. 2013. “Socio-Technical Developments in Campus Securitization: Building and Resisting the Policing Apparatus.” Counterpoints 410: 79-104. Earl, Jennifer, Sarah A. Soule and John D. McCarthy. 2003. “Protest Under Fire? Explaining the Policing of Protest.” American Sociological Review 68(4): 581-606.

[3] Blu Buchanan et al (January 21, 2019), “Why Blue Lives Matter Is A Racist Movement,” https://bit.ly/2s6g62W; Sebastian Murdock (September 5, 2017), “Philly Police Union President Calls Black Lives Matter Activists ‘A Pack Of Rabid Animals’” https://bit.ly/33bxXlM; Natasha Lennard (May 19, 2018), Call Congress’s “Blue Lives Matter” Bills What They Are: Another  Attack On Black Lives,” https://bit.ly/2qyYjRt 

[4] Kopple, Barbara. 2006. Harlan County, USA. Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment.

[5] Here I’m intentionally depicting the police officer as masculine. While police forces are “diversifying” – with greater numbers of POC, women, and queer and trans people – they still fundamentally serve a masculinist and white supremacist agenda. So while the bodies involved may be changing, the institutional goals remain the same.I think it’s important then to describe the positionality that benefits most from the entrenchment of police forces.

[6] Lydia DePillis (January 15,2016) “Public Sector Unions Are Under Threat. Police Unions May Be A Different Story,” https://wapo.st/349hEXP 

[7] Trymaine Lee (September 15, 2014), “AFL-CIO president: Michael Brown is family.” https://on.msnbc.com/34aVsfY; AFL-CIO Press Release (August 14, 2014), “Statement by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Ferguson, Missouri Shooting,” https://bit.ly/2QERIj3 

[8] Robinson, C. J. (2000). Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. Univ of North Carolina Press; Nancy Leong, “Racial Capitalism,” Harvard Law Review 126, no. 8 (June 2013): 2151-2226.[9] UAW 2865 Facebook Post (September 18, 2019), “Wishing Napolitano Well.” Blu Buchanan (August 3, 2018), “Hollowing Out Social Justice Unionism: Stigma, Performative Allyship, and Austerity.” https://bit.ly/2KG8BWK

[9] UAW 2865 Facebook Post (September 18, 2019), “Wishing Napolitano Well.” Blu Buchanan (August 3, 2018), “Hollowing Out Social Justice Unionism: Stigma, Performative Allyship, and Austerity.” https://bit.ly/2KG8BWK

Lead photo credit: Kelly Baird (Staff), The Daily Californian, February 8, 2018

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