The rally was planned by multiple student organizations including the Undergraduate Student Government, UConn Praxis, Fridays for Future and Powerup CT.
At the rally, students demanded an expansion on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S.; for racism to be declared a public health crisis; and the abolition of the 1033 program, which is the transfer of military grade weapons to police departments. The speakers included representatives from student organizations, as well as UConn Interim President Andrew Agwunobi and Provost Carl Lejuez.
During the rally, USG enacted a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis, and the administration expressed its full support of the resolution.
However noble these demands may be, some glaring contradictions exist between these actions and what student organizers and administrators chose to blatantly ignore.
First, according to the @defund.uconnpd Instagram page, citing the Marshall Project as a source, the UConn Police Department has 30 assault rifles and two sniper rifles in its possession, which were obtained through the 1033 program. After a lengthy period of obfuscation from UConn and the state of Connecticut, recent revelations show UCPD has 82 AR-15s, 130 pistols and nearly 105,000 rounds of ammunition in its possession, while the reported crimes over the last five years were non-violent.
Second, UConn plays a key role in the U.S. war industry. The university has formed long-term partnerships with companies such as Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Raytheon Technologies. The military equipment produced by these defense contractors have been utilized to surveil and kill people living in exploited regions throughout the world.
UConn has received millions of dollars in donations from these companies. In fact, the U.S. Air Force, Raytheon, EB, Pratt & Whitney and their subsidiaries gave a combined total of $53 million to create research centers at UConn’s Innovation Partnership Building.
In return, these companies develop new research in association with UConn and receive a steady flow of new employees. According to UConn’s Center for Career development, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Pratt & Whitney and EB are among UConn’s top 20 employers.
One might assume these partnerships exist to strengthen the U.S.’s balance of power and upholding of principles of liberal democracy. But, it does not take a sage to know the U.S. wages war to shore up its imperial interests and make profits. This can easily be demonstrated by the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. The defense contractors listed above and multinational corporations like Haliburton received billions of dollars from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These violent actions inevitably lead to refugee crises, which part of the demands. And the underlying force driving it all forward is white supremacy.
When taking all these contradictions into consideration, the declaration of racism as a public health crisis is nothing more than a hollow gesture.
Student organizations could have easily made their demands while simultaneously holding UConn’s feet to the fire for the role it plays in the prison and military industrial complex.
UConn’s public positioning at the rally is no different than U.S. corporations co-opting organizing language and using social justice slogans to market the products and services they sell. At the end of the day, UConn is a business too. It sells education. Branding itself as a bastion of human rights and peace, as the school for student activists to attend, entices potential customers/students.
Karl Marx in Das Kapital refers to this as commodity fetishism. Marx explains commodities, “change into a thing which transcends sensuousness.” In other words, commodities take on a mystical nature which exceeds their basic utility, like Air Jordan sneakers or Apple products. The result is the object of the consumer’s desire, the commodity, is separated from the source of its construction, from the power that gives it its ultimate value: labor.
In the case of UConn, the fetishized commodity is social justice as a part of the greater education package, as declared from the steps of the UConn Student Union.
What is lost in UConn’s dark magic are the actual organizers laboring in liberation struggles and giving those movements their meaning, direction and value. The people on the ground who have given their life to organizing the masses, the political prisoners like Marilyn Buck, Sundiata Acoli, Mumia Abu-Jamal and George Jackson, and the countless others who died or are dying behind bars. Their legacies and work should not be trivialized with performative acts and marketing schemes.