December 10, 2020

Letter to the Editor: On Police Reform, White Supremacy and Accountability

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To the Editor:

Yesterday, 13 members of the student assembly threw a public tantrum in the pages of The Sun. These individuals attempted to portray themselves as a besieged holdout on the moral high ground, victims of “an unprecedented recall and smear campaign” at the hands of their constituents for what they described as “a routine and respectful disagreement.” This disagreement was in fact over whether it was appropriate to hold closed door meetings to strategize with the Cornell University Police Department, to inflict racist violence against other student assembly members and to expect to retain their titles with impunity. As a former student assembly member, student of law enforcement history, Black American, veteran, EMT, undergraduate representative to Cornell’s Public Safety Advisory Committee and family member to incarcerated folks I felt both particularly tickled and especially equipped to pen a response.

Bottom line up front: If the thirteen student assembly members in question want compromise rather than self-indulgent grandstanding they should present a proposal for a bifurcated armed/unarmed Cornell police force. A split system of unarmed patrol and pre-staged, specially trained armed officers ready to respond to an active shooter allows for the demilitarization of first responders while maintaining the capability to bring an unlikely mass casualty incident to a swift conclusion. I told the SA as much in my November 5th testimony before that body on the state of the professional literature on police armament.

Instead, these 13 members have so far decided to forgo doing anything more than doubling down on portraying themselves as victims of a QAnon-esque deep state leftist conspiracy and their critics as senseless radicals. 

It is admittedly true that this conflict between the progressive and conservative factions of the student assembly is anything but respectful, although not in the way that these 13 signatories might desire. For weeks, opponents of the Movement for Black Lives and allies of these 13 undergraduates have waged a campaign of concerted white supremacist, homophobic and xenophobic harassment against Uche Chukwukere ’21. His crime? Being Black, queer and an outspoken advocate for police reform.

Opposition to such change-makers is certainly routine. Even ardent white supremacist President Woodrow Wilson once observed that “if you want to make enemies, try to change something.” The weeks-long direction of such hatred and vitriol at Chukwukere gives proof to this. He and other activists, white and BIPOC alike, are trying to change something — to curtail in part the psychological and pursuantly physical harm experienced by BIPOC Cornellians who live in a white supremacist police state. I serve with Uche on the Public Safety Advisory Committee, and while we have differences of opinion on police reform I am absolutely in his corner when it comes to the campaign of harassment launched by the friends and supporters of this conservative faction within the student assembly.

Let’s get one thing straight. It is beyond dispute that modern law enforcement in this country serves a criminal legal system which defends and perpetuates racial and class hierarchy. We can trace this back to the Cold War, to Reconstruction, to the founding of the nation based on the economic engine of chattel slavery. For the purposes of the current debate one must only recognize that campus police, if nothing else, are a reminder to BIPOC Cornellians that their participation in the American experiment is subordinate, precarious and enforced through perpetual threat of death for misbehavior. To defend policing in its current racialized form is then either to be ignorant of its demonstrable harms or to see more personal benefit in defending the status quo than contesting it.

Ardent and organized opposition to progressive reform from both of these perspectives is unfortunately common. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from behind the bars of a Birmingham, Alabama jail that the “Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” is not avowedly racist groups like the Klu Klux Klan “but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” 

As yesterday’s letter makes clear, the moral failings which King identified with white moderation unfortunately live on today within some Cornellians, white and nonwhite. Even beyond those moderates King criticized, these 13 student assembly members have yet to take the first step of simple agreement with the goal of reforming the institution of law enforcement. White supremacy relies on such moderating allies to substantiate its arguments that demands for real change are always too far, too fast — in King’s words that those who demand justice should “wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

As similarly hollow ideals of compositional diversity replace demands for substantive change in national politics, so too do they crowd-out popular demands for public safety reform on Cornell’s campus. Just as Congressional Democrats, BIPOC or otherwise, took a knee for George Floyd and then refused to pass law enforcement reform, these 13 student assembly members, BIPOC or otherwise, voted against police disarmament before immediately turning around to vote for a resolution rhetorically supporting Black Lives. I would say that the hypocrisy is astounding, but the truth is that this behavior is exactly what we should expect from both current and aspiring members of the professional managerial class: Indulgence to white supremacist political power in hopes that loyalty will eventually be rewarded.

Accordingly, the rationales provided for the 13 students’ votes against the disarmament resolution are as facile as they are contradictory. One cannot believe both that students have no standing to weigh in on public safety in their community and that such weighing is important and should support armament. One cannot believe both that symbolic speech acts are meaningless and that such speech acts might have dangerous repercussions. The purpose of such drivel is not to represent cogent argumentation but rather to register disapproval with attempts at social progress. Such a tenuous grasp on reality and fluid conception of truth is unfortunately shared by many within and beyond Cornell’s campus — most obviously among those who continue to support outgoing President Trump.

Just as Trump and his defenders continue to level baseless accusations of procedural impropriety against President-elect Biden, so does the aforementioned student assembly bloc accuse their opponents of vague yet sinister conspiracy. But removal from the Presidency after an electoral loss, or from a resume-bullet assembly committee for launching racist attacks against other Cornellians, is neither a “coup” nor a “purge.” It’s simply accountability for one’s own actions in service to white supremacy. It’s accountability for self-evident hopes of currying enough favor from the white supremacist power structure to further future careers. 

It’s time for the signatories of yesterday’s letter to stop claiming victimhood and instead to heed the valid criticisms of their obstinate opposition to racial progress. It’s time for them to cease their inaction, to come together in humble solidarity with BIPOC Cornellians and to take a stand against the white supremacist status quo.

Conor Hodges