In June of 2020, the nationwide uprising against systemic white supremacy in response to the police murder of George Floyd was one of the most unforgettable, optimistic and gut-wrenching historical moments of this new decade. This national reckoning with the role of white supremacy in American society precipitated a variety of conversations that had been buried by whitewashed academic, journalistic and political conventions proposing that the United States was a successful, but somewhat flawed, land of equal opportunity for all communities.
These conversations included the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in healthcare, the exploitation of Black and Indigenous tragedy in news and social media, and the lasting ways in which chattel slavery and the attempted extermination of Indigenous nations shaped U.S. legal and economic orthodoxy.
The most impactful and polarizing proposal coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement was for city and local governments to defund their police departments. The funds would be redistributed to social programs that reduce the structure impetus for crime. Examples include those fighting poverty, discussed in this report by the Prison Policy Initiative discussing the close correlation between incarceration and income; those supporting underserved, exploited communities isolated from critical social services that reduce predisposition to crime such as mental healthcare, addiction recovery or harm reduction programs, and quality, properly funded education; and prisons with a focus on discipline, punishment and profit rather than rehabilitation and reentry into society. A prison with this focus would not be a “prison,” but instead another, more just institution entirely. This is a core vision of police and prison abolitionists.
Many organizations and communities called to defund the police, and the University of Connecticut community was no exception. On July 25, 2020, students and faculty rallied at the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford to demand the defunding of the UConn Police Department’s $17 million budget. The redistribution of those funds would go toward Student Health and Wellness mental health programs, preventing austerity cuts due to COVID-19 and compensating student workers who lost their jobs as the pandemic emptied out campus.
As an incoming freshman during this period, I was enamored with the culture of activism and the dedication of the community to positive social change at UConn. Like many student activists coming to UConn, I looked forward to many semesters of education, agitation and organization to redistribute the multi-million dollar hole in our budget, which would be better suited for improving mental health services, supporting cultural centers and organizations of marginalized students, reducing the cost of attending and living at UConn and bolstering environmental sustainability and accessibility across campuses. However, as the conditions of student life set in for current and incoming students alike, the prospect of defunding UCPD seemed to have fallen by the wayside.
Members of the UConn community, especially students, cannot let the task of defunding the UCPD be neglected by the passage of time. Especially in the advent of the news that UCPD houses “82 AR-15s, 130 pistols and nearly 105,000 rounds of ammunition,” according to Freedom of Information Act documents acquired by graduate student Steve Núñez, we need to get serious about ensuring that resources paid for by students are not being weaponized against us.
The financial strain of the pandemic has largely been lifted from the university, given UConn’s net total assets in 2021 have skyrocketed to more than $730 million in value — a $184 million increase from 2020 — according to the 2020-2021 financial statement by the UConn Foundation. So, now is a more opportune time than ever to revitalize the conversation.
The UConn community does not deserve a so-called “public safety” institution that polices and surveils us, creates unneeded stress for students experiencing mental health crises, wastes our resources on enough weapons to form a militia and proves ineffectual at supporting survivors of sexual violence.
If you want to see a more just campus, join an organization. There is a growing coalition of student organizations sympathetic to defunding police and prison abolition including UNCHAIN and Collaborative Organizing (both of which I am a member), and PowerUp UConn. Individually, our power rests in how loudly we can preach and proselytize. Collectively, the power of community eclipses that of the established forces sapping resources from student wellness, college affordability and organizations supporting survivors. We cannot vest power in an institution of policing responsible for exacerbating these issues.