"Cops Off Campus" Activists Keep Pressure on UT

Student org continues call to remove UTPD following West Campus shooting

Cops Off Campus activists protest outside the UT-Austin Tower (Photo by Skye Seipp)

For years, and especially since the Black Lives Matter protests during summer 2020, justice advocates in Austin have been pushing the city to divest funds and reallocate resources from the Austin Police Department into other public safety approaches. But APD is not the only police force that's facing activist pressure.

At UT-Austin, the student organization Cops Off Campus has made a name for itself with highly publicized demonstrations to remove the UT Police Department from campus. Notably, the group crashed this year's "Gone to Texas" freshman orientation in front of the UT Tower, carrying a banner that said "Students & Workers Demand Cops Off Campus." The group hung the same banner from the Moody Bridge that crosses Dean Keeton Street this summer. Following the shooting in West Campus on Halloween, the organization has continued its protests against UT President Jay Hartzell's call for UTPD to increase its presence in the area.

The organization is an offshoot of the communist campus group Liberation Coalition, with some members belonging to both groups. Its first demand, as the name entails, is dismantling the UTPD presence on campus; from there, Cops Off Campus also wants divestment from police systems in general, whether local, state, or federal. The UT group is a chapter of the national Cops Off Campus Coalition, a self­-described "abolition network" that includes 60 other colleges and universities (and some K-12 schools) across the country, including Harvard, Yale, Penn, Johns Hopkins, CUNY, and UCLA.

Meghan Nguyen, internal relations director of Cops Off Campus, said the organization believes in reallocating resources from policing into housing, health care, income support, and other initiatives that address the root causes of crime. "We believe that the police don't exist to provide safety," Nguyen said. "We believe that the police exist to maintain systemic inequality with violence and with incarceration."

About 40 students are members of UT's chapter, which has a hierarchy and weekly meetings. The group doesn't cooperate with UT administration, as they "don't really believe in" changing the system from within, Nguyen said. Instead, it relies on outside pressure, such as protests, to advocate for change. "We feel like the university really tries to neutralize any threat to its own institution," Nguyen said. "So, we believe that in working with the university, our demands will get a lot more watered down." There are examples of community policing already at UT, Nguyen said, with programs such as Sure Walk, where volunteers walk or drive with fellow students at night to ensure they get home safely.

But do they think UT will actually get rid of the police? Citing the success of activists in Oakland, where the school board in June 2020 abolished the K-12 district's 67-member police force, Nguyen said there are real-world inspirations for the organization. "We believe it is possible," Nguyen said. "It's just definitely a process, and there's a lot of obstacles that are in our way, including the fact that [Gov.] Greg Abbott signed a bill [House Bill 1900] that allows the state to punish cities that defund the police."

Other groups with similar views have emerged at UT, such as the Student Col­lect­ive for Abolitionist Learning, whose founder, Sarah Campbell, said members spend their time learning about approaches to organizing society without police. Campbell said it's disappointing that, in the wake of HB 1900, City Council has now given APD its biggest budget ever, but she hasn't lost all hope. "You've got to have a really good imagination because abolition relies on collective imagination," she said. "I would say I'm feeling really good about the momentum, and people still wanting to defund the police. I don't feel like that's died down."

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University of Texas at Austin, UT-Austin, UT Police Department, Cops Off Campus, UT Liberation Coalition, Cops Off Campus Coalition, Meghan Nguyen, UT Student Collective for Abolitionist Learning, Sarah Campbell

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