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It’s Time To Defund The University of Mississippi Police Department

From crackdowns on Black students decades ago to more recent arrests during protests against neo-Confederates, the department has served as a tool for enforcing white supremacy.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

In the fall of 2019, the governing board over Mississippi’s eight public higher education institutions, the state’s Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), appointed a new chancellor at the University of Mississippi (UMiss) in Oxford. The new chancellor, Glenn Boyce, had previously worked at three predominantly white private schools known as “segregation academies” and was paid by the IHL’s Board of Trustees to be a consultant for the chancellor search process, in which he was ultimately selected. To announce the appointment, Boyce was set to speak at a news conference held by the Board.

In response, a coalition of faculty and students organized a protest to call for more democratic university leadership. Hundreds of people, including students, faculty, and alumni, showed up in support. As students held signs reading “Abolish IHL” and “Students and Workers Run This School,”  Ray Hawkins, the chief of the university’s police department (UPD) picked me up and wrestled me out of the room. This physically violent act was followed by members of the alt-right and neo-confederates harassing me for months. But it was not the first time that UPD forced a student into the frontlines of white supremacist violence and, as long as the department exists, it will not be the last.

Fifty years earlier, in 1969, Black students at UMiss officially chartered the Black Student Union (BSU). Unbeknownst to the students, months after charter, the FBI was surveilling them. Because of a recent Freedom of Information Act request by UMiss assistant professor of history Garrett Felber, we now know that the FBI worked closely with UPD to document the activities of Black students across campus. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover even recommended that the local FBI office “take immediate steps to develop member informants in the BSU.”

Over the course of the 1969-70 school year, Black students protested racism at UMiss and released a list of 27 demands, including a “condemnation of the racist attitude and statements of members of the Board of Trustees,” and a “minimum wage for campus employees.” In February 1970, the international singing group Up With People performed on campus. In an effort to have their demands met, Black students took the stage and raised their fists in a Black Power salute. 

During and after the concert, 89 people were arrested. Some students were taken to a local county jail, while others were held at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, home to the state’s death row.

A local prosecutor later dropped criminal charges against the protesters, but eight students were expelled. “We did not have any weapons, and our protest was completely nonviolent,” Linnie Willis, one of the expelled students, told the New Yorker this year. “I went to jail in my hometown, not at Parchman; that was worse, since I became a marked person and could never be employed in Oxford.” Willis had completed all the requirements for her degree when she was expelled, but UMiss did not give her a diploma for 50 years.

In the last five years, there’s been another wave of student organizing on campus. In 2015, Dominique Garrett-Scott, then an undergraduate, was one of the leaders of the fight to remove the Mississippi state flag, which included the Confederate emblem, from campus. Their fight was successful: That year, the flag was taken down. (In late June of this year, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill to retire the flag). The backlash, however, included hyper-surveillance and counter-protesting from neo-Confederates. In 2017, a student running for student government included the Mississippi state flag on his campaign sign. Taia McAfee, then a freshman, painted over the Confederate emblem with “BLM” and was later arrested by UPD. 

Connecting multiple generations of activists at UMiss is the fight against the entrenched white supremacy and those who protect it: the police. Over several decades, this has not only subjected students to police violence, but also takes resources away from campus workers. In the 2019-2020 school year, UPD had an annual budget of over $3 million, and its chief’s salary was $114,130. At the same time, as the coronavirus pandemic began, dozens of workers at UMiss struggled to buy groceries and pay rent, which compounded the fact that an estimated 20-25 percent of workers at UMiss do not make a living wage. 

Campus policing not only invites overt police violence, but by taking resources that could go to students and workers, inherently contributes to other acts of violence across campus. Between 2016 and 2018, there were 49 on-campus rapes reported, but excluding UPD’s “security report,” support for sexual assault survivors is virtually nonexistent. In 2019, UMiss’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Office, which provided support for survivors, merged with another office, and the campus counseling center started limiting student appointments to 10 per academic year. University administrators have been consistent in what they have communicated to students and workers for the last 50 years: They care more about policing us than taking care of our needs. 

This past month, as activists and city governments took down statues down across the country—including the removal of several Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia— the IHL’s Board of Trustees unveiled their plans to renovate a “Confederate cemetery” and relocate the Confederate statue that sits in the middle of campus. The price tag for the proposed project is $1.1 million and includes security cameras around the premises for constant surveillance by UPD. 

As UMiss continues to increase its investment in the police and promoting and protecting white supremacy, the coronavirus pandemic continues—and many workers at school struggle to make ends meet. This contradiction existed long before the global pandemic, but the level of suffering in our communities has been exacerbated by administrators continuing to prioritize capital and policing as the virus has spread. The funds for maintaining white supremacy at UMiss should be redirected to providing workers a living wage, to sexual assault prevention, and to the general well-being of people in our community. It is time to build on calls, begun in 1970, to defund UPD. 

Cam Calisch is a graduate student and community organizer at the University of Mississippi.