Wellesley Against Mass Incarceration (WAMI) is an on-campus student organization. This article represents the viewpoints of the Disarming Campus Police task force under WAMI.
WAMI seeks to denounce and dismantle incarceration in the US and around the world and to explore community healing and accountability measures. We also seek to make the Wellesley student body better informed about the injustices related to our cause. For more information, see WAMI’s linktree.
Last summer, Wellesley4BlackStudents created a list of demands for the College. Weeks after these demands were published, the administration announced that they “pledge to work to address and remedy issues that they have named in [these] demands.” Yet, as time passes, the administration has kept the issue of institutional and structural racism at a distance: making sure that the proximity of the issue to Wellesley’s community remains swept under a rug while promoting its prominence through panels, vaguely worded emails and speeches. It is April, 10 months have passed, and the demands, which include the immediate disarmament of the Wellesley College Police Department, have still not been met.
On Feb. 12, President Johnson sent an email about the “future of public safety at Wellesley” — one that is “designed to meet the community’s needs” and “flexible enough to change as those needs change.” Although the administration promises to meet the “community’s needs,” the email fails to address the community’s overwhelming plea: we want the immediate disarmament of Campus Police. Until Wellesley College Campus Police is abolished, officers must not carry guns.
This is not by any means a solution that solves the problems inherent in police presence, whose very existence on campus creates an unsafe environment for many community members. Disarmament is an actionable step that the College can take to fulfill the promises of safety and community that Wellesley has made to its students time and time again.
Police presence is a threat to students and faculty, especially Black and non-white community members. Outfitting them with guns while they patrol campus, enter residence halls or ask for identification serves as a constant reminder of the power that police have to do irreversible harm. Although the discussions surrounding changes to the WCPD have been framed as “working to develop a vision for the future of public safety at Wellesley,” as stated by President Johnson in her email from Feb. 12, the harm implicit in policing and the wielding of weapons remains. A majority of surveyed Wellesley students do not feel safe in the presence of police. In an informal poll conducted last October through WAMI, more than 92% of students reported that knowing WCPD is armed at all times makes them feel less safe. Moreover, more than 85% of respondents said they were either unsure or uncomfortable calling WCPD in times of crisis. Despite this widespread belief coming from our respondents and the demands for disarmament from Wellesley4Black students, there has been no action to get guns off of Wellesley’s campus. Instead, officers bear arms at all times. They may be entering the residence halls less frequently, but they still sit idly in cars by the gates with one hand on their gun and their eyes on students passing by. They continue to patrol the community vigorously.
Racial profiling is not absent on a campus with professed values of community and inclusivity. This issue is pervasive and does not stop at the profiling of students. A Black Wellesley professor recounted her experiences in an article with Diverse Issues in Education. She shared an instance where she was stopped and questioned by Wellesley’s Campus Police while moving her car. She noted that “Campus police have to understand that for faculty, students, staff of color, for many of us, it doesn’t matter that they’re campus police. They’re police. They’re not who we call. They’re not who we trust.”
Better than minute, reformist policies or anti-bias training, the best way to protect students is to have a campus free of weapons. In 2019, the former police chief reported to WAMI that WCPD has never deployed their weapons. And based on the town of Wellesley’s position as one of the safest towns in the state, it is not likely they will need to do so. It is a common belief at Wellesley that guns should rest not in the hands of those who yield power over students, enter common spaces unannounced and have a repeated history of racial profiling.
Raíz, a student organization advocating for the rights and well-being of immigrant and refugee communities on and off campus, “supports WAMI’s efforts to immediately disarm campus police.” According to Raíz’s e-board, “the presence of guns and/or arms creates an environment of hostility, in which students, particularly BIPOC, feel unsafe. Students’ voices deserve to be heard, and it is Wellesley’s obligation to ensure that students are in a safe and nurturing learning environment.”
Wellesley’s reimagination of campus safety necessitates a newfound understanding of what safety means to students on campus. The view of safety actualized in the heavy and threatening presence of campus police who use guns and intimidation as implements of enforcement is not the conception of safety that serves our community.
We asked students: “What makes you feel safe at Wellesley?” Instead of answers about external “protection,” that campus police claims to provide, the responses we received centered students and relationships: friends, ability to freely express themselves, Harambee House, living near people they love, the respectful community, lack of cis men on campus. In a Senate meeting on Oct.27, 2020, senators were posed with a similar question to “inform senior leadership as they make decisions about next steps concerning campus police and campus safety”. Again, responses centered around strengthening community and decreasing police presence. Instead of reinforcing the systems (such as police) that create hostile environments for students, we should ask: what can we do to uplift and support the parts of Wellesley that actually make students feel safe? Disarming the police is a tangible way to make Wellesley feel safer.
We have looked to peer institutions — similar in size, liberal arts and suburban location — to compare the presence of lethal weapons on campus and track efforts of disarmament. Smith College is undergoing major changes in its public safety and campus police presence, but their on-campus officers are already unarmed. Vassar has a security and safety office, but no institutional police force. Mount Holyoke College only permits senior officers to have guns, and they must be kept in their cruisers unless an emergency arises. If removed, officers are mandated to file a report explaining why the gun was drawn from the cruiser. Oberlin College has no armed officers, and neither does Middlebury College. Some colleges implemented these changes years ago. As the movement to disarm and abolish police on college campuses is heightened nationally, with even larger schools such as Portland State University and the University of Oregon working toward immediate disarmament — where is Wellesley situated in this narrative of disarmament?
As Wellesley works to reimagine public safety, the institution must recognize the harm that armed police officers do to the sanctity of our community. We must center student and faculty narratives of safety and support the organizations that uplift rather than harm community members. We must disarm campus police immediately, who have never needed to deploy their weapons and whose arms make Wellesley unsafe for community members. Let the “evolution” of public safety be non-performative and not perpetrate violence against our siblings of color.
To read and sign our petition, please fill out this form.