In the weeks since George Floyd’s extrajudicial killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Black people and allies across the world have voiced their frustration with the status quo. Black students at UC Berkeley are part of this global coalition demanding change and, like their allies abroad, have made explicit requests of those in power.
On June 8, UC Berkeley’s Law Students of African Descent, or LSAD, sent Chancellor Carol Christ an open letter relaying the campus communities’ experience with policing and demanding change. This letter was signed by 179 campus organizations and 2,468 individuals affiliated with the school, and raised in detail Black students’ concerns with the Berkeley Police Department and UCPD. The letter included references to BPD’s killing of Kayla Moore and UCPD’s unjustified use of force against Black minors.
To end the constant barrage of police violence in the local community, LSAD demanded three things of Christ:
- That UC Berkeley immediately cut all ties with BPD and defund UCPD.
- That UCPD be disarmed and that its use-of-force policies be reviewed by the Independent Advisory Board on Police Accountability and Community Safety along with the Graduate Assembly’s Policing and Community Safety Workgroup.
- That funds that would otherwise be used on BPD and UCPD instead be diverted to the development of appropriate alternatives to policing focused on public health and true community safety. This could include the funding of campus entities focused on public health and safety, such as the Basic Needs Fund and the Health Opportunity Fund, or supporting organizations working every day to meet the needs of our community, such as the East Bay Community Law Center, People’s Breakfast Oakland, the Anti Police-Terror Project and the BlackOUT Collective.
A week later, Christ responded to our demands in the most limited way possible. None of our requests were entertained, to an extent that casts doubt on whether she read the letter at all. Instead, Christ voiced her support for incremental “reforms” embodying the exact opposite of what Black students and our allies on campus demanded.
Christ wrote that she would “recommend improved recruitment and retention of a diverse officer workforce.” We purposefully did not ask for this in our letter, in no small part because our lived experiences as Black students do not support it. But, as that does not seem to be enough for the chancellor, I can again go to the research.
Studies are mixed as to whether a diverse police force actually reduces tension in the communities it serves. A startling example of this can be seen in Baltimore, where the police force is 42% Black and still the subject of Department of Justice reports denouncing its policing strategies and disparate treatment of the city’s Black community. As such, Christ’s calls for greater diversity among officers implies that the chancellor of UC Berkeley is seemingly fine with another knee being placed on someone’s neck, so long as that knee belongs to a Black officer instead of a white one.
In her following campuswide email sent June 18, she outlined the changes being made to UCPD in response to LSAD’s and others’ concerns: banning chokeholds, “reviewing” any military equipment, “identifying opportunities” for other campus entities to take over responsibilities now housed in UCPD, creating a first responders team of mental health professionals and moving UCPD’s physical location.
While some of these changes are welcome, one wonders why sustained global protest was necessary to convince the chancellor to disallow a technique already banned by most police departments since the 1990s because of its deadliness. Entirely absent from this email was a clear commitment to making changes as part of a process to steadily defund and redistribute resources away from UCPD toward total divestment — LSAD’s central demand.
Unfortunately, Christ’s apparent loyalty to bureaucracy over justice is nothing new. Like her predecessors and counterparts across the country, she has chosen to forestall action, instead seemingly putting Black lives at risk of police violence on campus. However, she and other like-minded individuals should know the current Black Lives Matter movement will keep pushing the UC system and will most certainly surpass her term. The lived experiences of Black folks across the globe have echoed the same sentiment — that more police means less safety for Black people.
In her letter, Christ said she knows “the time has passed for incrementalism.” Yet the chancellor pushes for the same white-washed incrementalism many others pedal as a way to quell the outrage from our community. The time has also passed for hollow platitudes. Instead, it’s time the chancellor assembles a plan of action that truly reflects the needed revolutionary action called for.
First on the list would be quite easy: Actually read and respond to the words of Black students. We have done the labor of putting our pain onto paper, researched and cited the history of police violence against people who look like us, our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and children. The Black students at UC Berkeley have clearly developed and articulated thoughtful, full-bodied plans for community safety. Will Christ keep ignoring our demands and essentially put us at risk, or partner with us in making our transformative vision a reality?
Knychelle Passmore is a rising second-year at the UC Berkeley School of Law and co-president of the Law Students of African Descent.