Policing, Protest, and the Role of the University

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tags: Police, Kent State, Protest, colleges and universities, Jackson State

David S. Busch is a SAGES Teaching Fellow in the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University. 

NU Community Not Cops




On November 1, 2020, Northwestern students gathered at the John Evans Alumni Center to protest policing in the city of Evanston and at Northwestern University. The student group, NU Community Not Cops, organized the protest to express their frustration with the university’s tepid response to their demands to discuss ways to redefine campus safety. They were met by Evanston police and Illinois crowd control officers, all of whom were deployed in riot gear with K-9 support. The officers surrounded the crowd of about 150 students, then unleashed pepper spray and fired pepperballs.


Unfortunately, such images of heavily armed police forces confronting students are not unique in American history. Indeed, two of the most famous incidents of campus violence – the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State – were recently back in the headlines as commentators reflected upon their significance on their fiftieth anniversary. And, at the time, the interpretations returned to familiar tropes: generational chasms and differences along racial lines. On the one hand, the Kent State shootings, some argued, represented the generational and political chasms that had emerged in the United States by 1970 and continue to shape the contours of American political culture. As Richard M. Perloff recently noted in an op-ed for The New York Times, Kent State “helped unearth a growing political polarization rooted in different views about the cultural changes wrought by the 1960s.” The forgetting around the shootings at Jackson State University, on the other hand, demonstrates the ways America ignores the violence against communities of color. Jackson State, writes historian Nancy K. Bristow, “was neither the first nor the last time white Americans have neglected the memory of state violence against people of color, unwilling, it seems, to reckon with the devastating realities of white supremacy in our past or to contend with their ongoing meaning in our present.” Without question, the divergent interpretations of the Kent State shootings – its causes and who was to blame – and the persistent forgetting of the shootings at Jackson State University illuminates the stark political and racial divisions in American political culture.


But the emphasis on Kent State and Jackson State as political events fails to situate the episodes in the right setting – that of campus violence. Indeed, reading recent campus movements like those at Northwestern in the context of the Kent State and Jackson State shootings reveals that the question about university-funded and supported policing is fundamentally about the institution’s perceived public purpose. The criticisms raised by contemporary student activists concern not only institutional policy-making and town-gown relations, but also reveal deeper, unresolved tensions in the modern American university that relate to ideas of institutional autonomy and neutrality.


The anti-war movement at Kent State, like on other college campuses, centered around the convergence of alternative visions of the university’s public purpose and organization. Two issues informed the anti-war movement on college campuses like Kent State University. The first concerned the presence of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and military recruitment efforts on campus. The second concerned military-university research contracts. Students called for the end of both, while also calling on the university to actively support the anti-war movement. In the lead up to the march in May, student activists asked the university to support the movement by cancelling classes and providing institutional resources in the form of classrooms, mimeograph machines, and buses.


For university officials, such appeals – especially the use of the university for political purposes – ran counter to academic freedom and the university’s perceived public role. As Kent State University President Robert I. White explained,  “Once the university takes a stand on (political issues) it forecloses an essential ingredient of academic freedom.” Moreover, White continued, “requests which would have the university as an institution deviate from this position by word or deed, regardless of how honorable the intention, must be rejected.” In this light, White hedged closely to an orthodox conception of institutional autonomy that held sway in the 1960s. This idea assumed that that university failed in its mission if it took political sides in any intellectual or social dispute. Defenders of this idea of institutional autonomy, like White, argued that the university’s role was to maintain a distance from wider political pursuits in order to enable scholars to pursue particular forms of research, whether normative or technical. The fruits of faculty research represented the university’s unique service to society.


In response, Kent State activists, like others in the anti-war movement, extended the institutional logic of the modern university. By providing ROTC facilities and actively aiding military research and recruitment, they argued, the university was already taking a political position. Students believed that supporting the anti-war movement was in fact central to realizing academic freedom. Coopting White’s definition of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, student activists further argued that it was the mission of the university to promote an atmosphere “where all may research and debate the social and political issues dividing modern society.” In this way, students recast intuitional autonomy. They hoped that the university’s distinct distance from society would be used to change the surrounding society.


Student views and White’s counterargument represented different political claims made on the American university in the 1960s. The central disagreement between student activists and university officials concerned whether the university should function as a mirror of society or whether it should have a moral obligation to foster change. The different conceptions of the university’ roles had wide-ranging implications in terms of research, education, and the institution’s mission.


The different perspectives also accommodated unreconciled tensions. While students called on the university to take an active political position, they also believed the university must be a source of open debate and deliberation. The former had the potential to foreclose the latter. At the same time, university officials like White also adopted two positions that were fundamentally at odds. Like the students, White believed the purpose of the university was to function as a marketplace of debate. But setting limits on campus protest—indeed, calling in the National Guard to quell student activism—while also accepting military funding meant that the university was far from a neutral arbiter.


If student activism at Kent State highlighted the complex interplay between state policy vis-à-vis the Vietnam War, academic research, and the university’s mission, student activism at Jackson State University focused on the relationship between campus governance and institutional autonomy. Black student activists in the 1960s had long questioned the decisions of Black university presidents in the context of the civil rights movement. In the early 1960s, for instance, Joyce and Dorie Ladner, two students at Jackson State, got involved in the civil rights movement, later becoming leading fieldworkers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). But, instead of finding support from Jackson State University president Jacob L. Reddix, they were expelled for their civil rights activism. For many students, the decisions of Reddix demonstrated the ways the Black university failed to support the struggle for political freedom. 


John A. Peoples, who became president of Jackson State University in 1967, was more supportive of student activism. As Gene Young, a prominent activist noted, “after years of having a president who didn’t allow students to speak out, Peoples embraced us and allowed us to speak out.” Yet Peoples also had very little power, especially when Governor John Bell Williams called in close to 600 National Guardsmen and the Mississippi State police to quell student activism. In this light, even though students may have been disappointed in Reddix and Peoples for their lack of political bravery, they also recognized that both were ultimately constrained by the structure of Mississippi’s higher education system.


In the aftermath of the shootings on May 14, students formed the Committee of Concerned Students. The committee called for the “halt of the unilateral decision-making of M.M. Roberts, President of the State Board of Institutions of Higher Learning” while demanding “50% black representation of that board.” The students linked the power and membership of the State Board to the lack of institutional autonomy for Black universities like Jackson State University. Lynch Street, which ran through the campus, was regularly patrolled by Jackson city police and highway patrol. This had dire consequences for students. It was Jackson city police who fired thousands of rounds into the dormitory and murdered two students, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green on May 14, 1970.


The tragedy was part of a longer history of police violence directed at Jackson State university students and the Black community in Jackson. For years, wrote members of the Committee of Concerned Students, students have watched “police brutality, cold blood murder, and general harassment and intimidation of black people in Jackson.” Prior to and leading up to the shootings on May 14, Jackson city police and highway patrol regularly harassed and arrested Jackson State students for their activism and organizing on campus, even though many students acted within their rights as citizens.


The seeds of the protest at Jackson State University thus concerned institutional power, or lack thereof. In the aftermath of the tragedy in 1970, Farish Adam and Warren Buxton, two Jackson State students, filed a complaint against governor John Bell Williams. The complaint focused on the fact that Jackson city police and highway patrolman had begun to clean up the crime scene before federal, local, and private completed their investigations. While the complaint concerned what the students saw as the destruction of evidence, it also demonstrated the ways students ultimately realized that their educational and intellectual pursuits were at the whim of the white political structure of Mississippi.


They also drew a direct parallel to the Black community within Jackson, seeing the lack of institutional power as reflective of the lack of political power of Black citizens. In addition to a range of appeals for equal hiring, students at Jackson State called for “‘Community Control’ over the activities of the police” and “state-wide grievance procedure to handle complaints against the highway patrol,” two demands that are likely familiar to the contemporary reader. 


In the aftermath of the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Nixon administration authorized a commission on campus unrest. Chaired by William M. Scranton, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, the commission also included James E. Cheek, the new president of Howard University, and representatives from police departments, the legal community, faculty, and student governments. In the report, the authors identified the “question of politicization” as a central issue that emerged on college campuses. The university community and the general public, the authors noted, were concerned that campus unrest had resulted in the politicization of the university. While recognizing that the university was inherently a political institution, the authors maintained that the university should largely avoid institutional positions, except when policies affected higher education. In this regard, the commission at once recognized the fundamental dilemma facing the university and brushed the issue under the rug.


While the report largely sidestepped the more fundamental questions about the university’s public purpose, in particular whether Kent State should be involved in military research and training or if Jackson State has the political power to challenge state education policy, what did change was who was called in during campus protest and unrest. In response to both events and a national outcry, college presidents and university administrators in the 1970s and 1980s lobbied for state legislation that allowed the creation of campus police departments. The 1990 Clery Act, which mandated colleges and universities to track, compile and disclose crimes on and near their campus, served as further justification for some in higher education to expand and arm police forces. Over forty-four states allow colleges to form campus police forces, and most public colleges and nearly all private universities have a standing police department on campus. Instead of calling in city police or the national guard, universities have called in their own police forces.


Although the affiliation of the police force may have changed since the 1960s, a number of recent incidents in the past decade suggest that policing in higher education has not evolved much from the violent tactics that were used to suppress Vietnam War and civil-rights activists. In 2011, a University of California Davis police officer was caught on film pepper-spraying a row of nonviolent students participating in an Occupy Wall Street protest. The image, as many commentators noted, rivaled in symbolic power the campus violence four decades prior. And, as both commentators and researchers have demonstrated, students of color have regularly confronted unlawful searches, harassment, racial profiling, assault, arrest, coercion, incarceration, and police violence by the very campus departments designed to make the university community “safer.”


In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, such incidents are again raising questions about the role of campus police and the university that parallel larger debates about the militarization of American society and the continued mistreatment of students of color and those who use their right to protest. Put another way, despite the institutional changes, many of the issues that arose in the late 1960s on campus still persist. Indeed, campus protest of campus policing and institutional partnerships with city police concern the university’s public purpose. This view is best articulated by student organizers at Northwestern University, who called on the university to “invest in life-giving institutions and divest from law enforcement.”


Student activists at Northwestern, in other words, are asking a similar question that emerged out of the 1960s: What should be the university’s public purpose? Should it reflect society as is – that is, employ an armed police force and associate with city police forces, or should it function as a bulwark against prevailing social and political forces, and model a different society for students and the wider public? These, of course, are difficult questions. But, they are vital ones if we are to fully engage with the legacy of the now half-century old shootings. 

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