Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Beyond the First Amendment: the impact of police presence on campus

By Jeffrey Edleson

The campus has embarked on a series of Free Speech seminars to discuss both the benefits and limits of speech in our society. The most recent to be announced is a panel discussion next week titled “Beyond the First: Healing and Harmful Speech,” which will focus on the impact of hate speech on our community.

Missing thus far in our discussion of recent events on campus is the impact that a highly militarized police presence had on many of our students. My interactions with students in the School of Social Welfare indicates that more concerning than the presence of hateful speakers and their supporters on campus was the presence of over 400 police in riot gear on multiple occasions.

My scholarship in the area of domestic violence has often focused on unintended consequences of well-meaning actions. The events of this past year on campus also require our attention to the unintended consequences of large numbers of police on our campus.

Social welfare students, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, are majority under-represented minority students, what we call here on campus URM students who are of African-American, LatinX or Native American descent. Others identify as GLBTQ or gender non-conforming. For many, they are the first in their family to attend college and have made many sacrifices to come to our campus. So amidst their excitement to start studies this fall they were confronted with lines of police in full riot gear on multiple days during their first weeks at Berkeley.

It is no secret that different communities in our country have historically experienced police in very different ways. The Black Lives Matter movement has raised our national awareness of the impact of police on black communities as well as others. While white communities may see police as sources of safety, many in communities of color and others often see police as a direct threat.

For example, one of our graduate student instructors had to meet three undocumented social welfare students at an off-campus site and escort them to campus so they could complete their final presentation this past spring on the day Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak. These students were terribly afraid that among the planned police presence there would be U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and that they could possibly be taken into custody as they walked to their final presentation. During a dialogue last month with dozens of my own graduate students they consistently expressed the deep fear and intimidation that the huge police presence created for them. And students were not alone in this fear, faculty and staff of color voiced similar concerns about their own safety.

I have spoken to other deans about the traumatic impact of these events on students. One dean suggested I not use the term trauma as that portrays our students as weak “snowflakes.” My students are anything but snowflakes! Rather, they are incredible survivors of daily discrimination in their lives and communities. They deserve a Berkeley that does not replicate the danger they sense in their lives elsewhere.

This year our campus police have focused on providing physical safety during threatened actions as individuals and groups from around the country do battle at Berkeley. My hope and that of my students is that our administration and police will work closely with affected students, staff and faculty to design more sensitive approaches that balance the many different views of what creates safety for them on our campus.