Support GEO's Abolitionist Strike and Safety for All

Greater University of Michigan Community

As members of the communities surrounding UMich, we are greatly impacted by UMich policies. For this reason, we are writing in support of the Graduate Student Union’s demands for a safer campus. GEO’s demands for a safe campus will make us all safer.

On Sept. 7, 2020, a majority of the members of the Graduate Employees Union (GEO) of the University of Michigan voted to strike for safer working conditions at the University of Michigan. They have been on strike since Tuesday, September 8th and voted to reauthorize the strike platform on Sunday, September 13th (resulting in retaliatory legal action by the University).

The GEO strike demands are twofold. The first set are related to COVID-19 and are a straightforward response to graduate students’ dangerous working conditions, given the University of Michigan and Federal government's ongoing and deliberate failure to prevent sickness, death, unemployment, and houselessness during the pandemic. While GEO is a union of graduate student workers, the University’s failure to meet these demands impacts community members far beyond campus as students, staff, and faculty interact with bus drivers, restaurant workers, and community members at large. We support GEO’s COVID-19 demands unequivocally, as we support all the workers and students and community members struggling during the pandemic.

GEO’s second set of demands, cutting ties with ICE and addressing the Department of Public Safety’s (DPSS) role on the Ann Arbor campus, extends from the organizing work of Black students and community members to end racist policing and harassment on campus and in the broader community. Historically, the University of Michigan (like the City of Ann Arbor) has been unresponsive to calls to diminish the size and scope of DPSS, instead seeking to expand their role whenever possible. UMich students’ accounts of racist treatment by DPSS are numerous, recent examples can be found here, here, and here. For a longer history of organizing efforts after the murder of Aura Rain Rosser and the origins of community demands to reduce racist policing, this article is a good place to start.

Here is a brief summary of how each of the three DPSS demands can be understood in terms of their potential impact on the broader Ann Arbor community.

Demand #1: Disarm and demilitarize. DPSS’s role is to “protect '' university property and the predominantly affluent and white student body, by policing community members who do not assimilate to university expectations of appearance or behavior. Similarly, AAPD sees their mission as that of protecting and serving downtown property owners. In this way, DPSS actively contributes to the violent and racist policing of community members (working alongside AAPD and the Washtenaw County Sheriff). For example, DPSS is also tasked with responding to conflicts within Michigan Medicine, where they are disproportionately called to remove BIPOC family members in grief and distress; alternative forms of conflict de-escalation are sorely needed in situations of vulnerability.

A disarmed and demilitarized DPSS is a safer Washtenaw County.

Demand #2: Defund DPSS. The great expansion (and arming) of DPSS over the last 30 years has disproportionately impacted everyday community members and Black students and staff, not the majority white student body. The expansion of DPSS is not a response to an increase in student “crime”! DPSS’s own crime alerts indicate less than one “crime” a month over the past few years, where the vast majority of the incidents have occurred off campus. Nationally, terrorist threats and active shooters are common arguments used to explain the expansion of armed campus safety officers across the country, yet in both cases, armed officers have been found to be of no value in rare moments of crisis. In fact, the expansion of DPSS and the growth of UMich have coincided with a declining Black student population and the ongoing gentrification of Ann Arbor (causing the displacement of the local Black population and intensifying the gentrification of Ypsilanti City and Township). The growth of DPSS itself is anti-Black, and a direct result of an ever-expanding UMich that seeks to increase ways they can police the community!

A significantly defunded DPSS, with funding redirected to community-led programs and to repair historic harms to Black community members, is a safer Washtenaw County.

Demand #3: End inter-agency police cooperation: Just as Black students and community members have long recounted how they are targeted by DPSS and AAPD, UMich researchers have also examined inter-agency forms of discrimination and racist policing within the UMich health system (i.e., in one recent study, health care providers were more likely to call security on Black patients and their family members, detailed here). This particular case is illustrative of how intersecting systems of surveillance and punishment, coupled with anti-Blackness (at a personal and institutional level), are currently harming those in our community. Additionally, DPSS is partially run by AAPD’s former police chief John Seto. In the wake of Aura Rosser’s murder by then-officer David Ried in 2014, then-AAPD chief Seto remarked that the process had been hard on Ried too (AAPD has since promoted David Ried to Sergeant). Seto then proceeded to increase spending on training and equipment, a growth in the AAPD budget that continues to this day. Moreover, it is not hyperbole to state that ICE is currently operating as an extra-judicial police force, terrorizing immigrant communities across the country. Just this week (after a break due to COVID-19) ICE once again began arresting and deporting long-time residents. None of these agencies should be working together, their cooperation has always been harmful to our community members, and their role in civic life should shrink, not grow. This is not a radical proposition, this is public safety.

The end of all forms of inter-agency police cooperation, is a safer Washtenaw County.

GEO’s demands are rooted in an abolitionist understanding that by seeking to eliminate policing in favor of community-based approaches to social welfare, we will make our communities safer and stronger. It is in this spirit that this letter of community support for the abolitionist strike GEO is waging has been written. This letter is also an invitation to GEO, its allies, and the University of Michigan, to join together with the communities across Washtenaw County to build a world in which we can all be safe, on and off campus.

To sign in support of GEO’s strike demands, sign: here.

Here are other organizations in the area, inside and outside UMich, who have already offered their support for the strike demands and/or made demands of their own related to COVID-19 safety and policing:

Additional resources to learn more and/or to get involved:

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To: Greater University of Michigan Community
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Please share this community letter widely and join us in learning about some history behind GEO's Abolitionist Strike and to show ongoing support for our community's efforts to keep us all safe. Also, consider offering a letter of support from your organization as well for these important community concerns.