Office of Inclusive Excellence

Abolition: The Only Way Forward

February 21, 2023

By Breanna Peterson

The current political and economic climate in this country is looking bleak. We face rising poverty, increasing houselessness, increasing need, and declining available public resources, which puts an undue financial burden on people struggling to make ends meet. We continue the neoliberal model of divesting from communities and investing in corporations (including fossil fuels), the military-industrial complex, and the prison industrial complex, which uses the police to maintain power. 

We see the reality of the final component at CSUMB through the funding of CSUMB University Police (UP) instead of supporting available aid for students. As a result, students continue to pay rising tuition costs, increased mental health fees, Otter Student Union fees, and increased textbook and materials fees while struggling to access services. On top of that, they have to pay for parking permits--or be ticketed mercilessly. A cursory exploration of student social media perceptions and personal interviews regarding the CSUMB UP is that they are only good for harassing, intimidating, and handing out tickets to already financially strapped students. 

Campus police do not increase student safety; often, it is quite the opposite. Unfortunately, we have seen what happens to students, especially Black and brown students, with mental illnesses whose needs are not met by campus health and wellness. While CSUMB has not experienced fatal interactions between UPD and CSUMB students, other CSU campuses are not so fortunate. For example, in 2012, Bartholomew (Bart) Williams, a graduate student at California State University, San Bernardino, experienced a mental health crisis. Bart lived with bipolar disorder, and instead of receiving the resources he needed in the face of his crisis, he was met with five bullets. An investigation following Bart’s murder concluded that the officers’ use of lethal force was warranted. As a result, no disciplinary actions were taken besides CSUSB settling with the parents. Instead, one of the murdering officers, Matthew Verhulst, was quietly moved to California State University, Fullerton.  Though he no longer works at Fullerton, that campus’s police chief issued a statement in support of his employment

This all hits home. I live with bipolar disorder. I live in fear of the day that I experience a mental health crisis on school grounds, and the only people called to my “assistance” are armed university police. People often think it can’t happen to us, it can’t happen on our campus, and it can’t happen in our neighborhood. But it happened at CSU San Bernardino. And it can happen again. Many people harmed and killed by police live with mental illnesses or other disabilities. Police, especially campus police, are not equipped to assist people with disabilities, people who are non-verbal, the Deaf or people with severe hearing problems, and others who may be unable to respond to their commands. As long as UPD patrols campuses with military-grade weaponry, what happened to Bart will happen again. We cannot trust the police to police themselves. 

 The question is: Why should we students--who pay astronomical and ever-increasing fees to be on campus--have to live in fear of the campus police? The best solution is to defund and disarm the police on our campuses. In place of the current model, universities must install trauma-informed crisis response teams that are entirely separate from the campus police. Universities need mental health resources and care that reflect their diverse and varied student populations. Students deserve long-term, sustainable mental health resources on their campuses. Abolishing the police eliminates a relic of chattel slavery, but it’s also much more than that. It’s about creating a world where individuals care for themselves and each other--a world where no one wants for anything and everyone has everything they need to survive and thrive. 

One of the greatest modern myths is that police keep us safe. In 2016, in response to Chicago surpassing 500 murders by September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to expand the police force by hiring almost 1,000 new police officers of varying ranks. During his first term, the number of police officers had fallen below 12,000. Interestingly, Chicago's crime rates fell as well. The index crime rate (including murder, robbery, and aggravated assault) decreased by 30% between 2011 and 2015. In comparison, murders by police use of lethal force increased by 45% between 1999 and 2013 nationally, according to a study from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The data provided in the study showed that Black people were disproportionately killed by the police (32%) and were also more likely to be unarmed (14.8%) than other groups. As has been proven repeatedly, police are not legally required to protect us; they exist to preserve White supremacy culture and capital while policing and criminalizing communities of color. Perhaps most importantly, police pose an extreme threat to our safety, life, and stability. 

The national protests in 2020, a result of the state-sanctioned murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many others, set in motion a series of events that continue to define the 2020s. A record number of people were introduced to the phrases ACAB (All Cops Are Bad or All Cops Are Bastards), Defund the Police, and Abolish the Police. Though the movement for the abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC) is not new, many young people have been exposed to it from all reaches of the world, both virtual and in real life. Critical Resistance (CR), a national organization born from the minds of abolitionist leaders, activists, and many others, works to dismantle the notion that carceral punishment is a valid solution to harm and is actively engaged in eliminating the PIC. Critical Resistance began as a series of conferences in 1997 and continues to build a community of organizers dedicated to eliminating the inhumane system of so-called justice that destroys families, ravages communities, and removes a society’s ability to address harm in a constructive, preventative, and restorative way. The system of policing in the US cannot be reformed and must be abolished. 

Some people question what will replace the carceral system when it is abolished, but this question stems from deep societal investment in a punitive notion of justice that meets harm with more cruelty. The most heavily policed offenses are crimes of poverty committed by people with unmet needs. And incarceration rates are higher for Black, brown, and Indigenous folks because BIPOC are more heavily policed, face stricter charges than White people for the same offenses, and receive higher sentences for the same or similar crimes. For example, the ill-fated War on Drugs, which began in the 1980s, was a concerted effort to criminalize poor communities of color, especially Black communities, and resulted in mass incarceration for non-violent drug offenses. In 1980, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses was 40,900.

By 2019, this number reached 430,926. The deep-seated anti-Blackness and white supremacy culture in the United States led to the heavy policing of poor Black and Brown communities. People in these communities, already experiencing poverty, were more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and less likely to be able to meet the economic costs associated with incarceration (tickets, fines, bail, transportation, lawyers, etc.). Wealthy White people can navigate interactions with the police and the prison industrial complex that poor people of color simply cannot. Normalizing the carceral system perpetuates the cycle of harm, ensuring that system-impacted folks have an increasingly difficult path through incarceration and ‘rehabilitation.’ 

The system of policing in the United States cannot be reformed. Reforms lead to an expansion of policing instead of addressing the root causes of harm: poverty, racial capitalism, and white supremacy. PIC abolition is not only about eliminating police; it is also about envisioning a new world. One where harm is met with reason and compassion, and everyone has everything they need to thrive. We deserve a better world – isn’t it time we started building one?

Breanna Peterson (she/her/hers) is a Liberal Studies major who will be graduating from CSUMB in December 2022. She aims to become an elementary school teacher whose priority is building a classroom community based on restorative justice education and abolitionist teaching principles. She is an intern for Students for Quality Education and works alongside fellow interns statewide to divest from and disarm University Police.