by Elizabeth Turnbull
As protesters across the city have pushed to defund the Seattle Police Department this summer, student activists and faculty at the University of Washington (UW) have been fighting an uphill battle to disarm and divest from the UW Police Department (UWPD).
Thus far, Ana Mari Cauce, the president of the university has pledged to make UWPD 20%smaller than it was last year, create a task force to decide what to do about the campus’ association with the former slave owner and United States president, George Washington, and to work on developing a team of non-police responders.
For the Coalition to Decriminalize UW, a group which encompasses 150 campus-based organizations including the campus Black Student Union, the African Students Association, and the UW Black Lives Matter chapter, as well as faculty, staff, and students of the UW, these efforts have fallen far short of their demands that the university reimagine campus safety.
“The notion that we should be impressed that you’re going to allow a physical embodiment of the profound violence of racial capitalism to operate at 80% capacity instead of 100% capacity is as laughable as it is insulting,” said Paige Sechrest, a UW PhD student and member of the coalition. “The notion that you need to put together a task force to determine whether or not it’s acceptable to have a monument deifying a man who owned people who look like me is an offensive joke.”
Sechrest spoke alongside three other members of the Coalition to Decriminalize UW during a brief public comment period at an online Board of Regents meeting on Sept. 9.
Representatives of the coalition and of the Regents Action Committee, which is made up of UW faculty and students, attempted to fully participate in the meeting with Board of Regents members and the university president on Wednesday, but the Board denied this request and relegated coalition members to a 10-minute public comment period before disabling the chat function for the rest of the meeting.
“This structure where you allow only 10 minutes for a meeting, pushed for by community, to discuss topics that have so much racialized death and grief attached to them, is why as a student, an alum, and a community member, I continue to see the ways in which [UW President] Ana Mari Cauce and the associated regents work only to prop up white systems of violence,” said UW alum and student activist, Palca Shibale during Wednesday’s meeting.
According to university representatives, the meeting was designated to cover the president’s report on campus safety and policing as well as matters of the university’s coronavirus response and details on the UW budget. Cauce has plans to hold a forum with the UW’s Black Student Union on issues of policing later in fall quarter, and in Wednesday’s meeting she drew attention to the efforts UW has already made.
“Quite frankly, 20% reduction is higher than the reduction we’ve been hearing will happen with the Seattle Police Department, so we think that is a good start,” Cauce said. “I am not saying that that is the end of it, but I think that’s something we can do comfortably by this fall.”
In mid-August the UWPD’s employee union contract was finalized and on Sept. 8, Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), requested that the university and Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, undertake an immediate public review into the contract as Pollet believes it violates the Public Records Act and statutorily mandated records retention rules.
The contract, which is set to take effect in July of 2021, allows the UW police department to “remove evidence of written reprimands” after three years, redact names of employees involved in misconduct or alleged misconduct for public records requests, and it provides officers who have killed or injured someone — on or off duty — a 72-hour, rather than a 48-hour, period before they must make a formal statement.
In addition, in the event that the UW convenes an oversight committee, the union will be alerted to this fact and will be able to negotiate its terms. If an officer is suspended for misconduct, this record can also be removed after five years, instead of the former seven years, under specific circumstances.
Efforts to disarm and divest from UWPD have been ongoing this summer as student activists and faculty have challenged the department’s status and the institution it patrols. The Coalition to Decriminalize UW arose after 10,000 individuals, including faculty and staff and 150 campus-based organizations, endorsed a petition to disarm UWPD officers and to cut ties with the Seattle Police Department (SPD), among other proposed actions.
In protest of the George Washington statue located near Red Square on campus, whose proposed removal has garnered roughly 4,000 signatures, the University of Washington Black Lives Matter coalition dedicated the month of August to protesting the statue by chalking, writing on, and placing signs on the statue.
In Wednesday’s meeting, Cauce mentioned the idea of putting a plaque on campus that contextualizes how Washington was a slave owner and she noted she’s putting a task force together to look into the university’s association with the former president.
For the Coalition to Decriminalize UW, these efforts and others are not enough.
“For now, it seems that the University administration has decided to be on the side of the police, property, and profit, and not on the side of Black lives,” members of the coalition said in a statement reflecting on Wednesday’s meeting.
Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured image: UW George Washington statue. This image, by Wikimedia Commons user “Pine,” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Image cropped to fit this space.