My peers were not alone in their calls for change. Following mass protests against police brutality this past summer, college students nationwide demanded institutions to defund their campus police departments and reconsider their relationships with local law enforcement.
Norm-shattering as they were, last summer’s demands for police reform at Emory were among the most recent in the storied history of Black student-led anti-racist activism at Emory. We must closely examine this history to better understand their calls for police reform today. In doing so, we can draw inspiration from the legacy of past Black student organizing that sought to make Emory a more equitable place for all and that still seeks to do the same.
This history must inspire non-Black Emory students to fight alongside our peers against the decades-long racism on campus. Concurrently, Emory administrators and the University’s police should look to the years following Emory’s desegregation in 1963 and address Black students’ concerns.
Emory’s Black students have spent decades peacefully pressuring administrators to address racism. In 1969, mass protests led by Black students and their supporters forced a racial reckoning at the University. They asserted that Emory’s integration efforts had fallen short, ranging from the inadequate facilities for Black student groups to the absence of an African American Studies program. But those students’ calls for change did not address policing; instead, their demands centered on interrogating the University’s reasons for integration less than a decade earlier.
In 2015, Black students at Emory again led protests against racial inequality, delivering a list of demands that highlighted biases toward Black students and the “overpolicing and underfunding” of Black student groups. Written just one year after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, these demands were steeped in righteous indignation. The most recent spate of protests arose in direct response to the many high-profile police killings of Black Americans throughout 2020.
Finally, the Coalition of Black Organizations and Clubs’ (CBOC) 2020 demands are a culmination of the work of Black student activists over five decades, accompanying the demands they presented in 1969, 1990 and 2015. The persistence of unjustified police violence against Black Americans in recent years led current Black student leaders to most recently demand that administrators defund and disarm EPD. Police brutality has become the focal point of the anti-racist movement at Emory and across the country; it is one of the most obviously, existentially inequitable aspects of our justice system. EPD has taken steps to respond to student demands, like updating the demographic information of its contacts, streamlining its data collection and displaying that data more prominently. But they have rejected calls for disarmament, and the University similarly rebuffed defunding them.
Ultimately, administrators and EPD must be responsive to student concerns, and this means seriously exploring ways to shift police funding to crisis counseling, community-building efforts, and scholarships for students from marginalized communities. Certainly, disarming police departments is complicated. Gun laws in Georgia are among the weakest nationwide. Additionally, school shootings are an ever-present threat, even with police constantly patrolling campus. But no Emory police officer has discharged a weapon while on duty in at least the past five years. Clearly, keeping Emory safe has not required lethal force as of late, though when police have used non-lethal force recently, they disproportionately targeted Black men.
All students, especially non-Black students, must stand with their Black peers and demand significant changes from the University to make our community safer for everyone. Just after segregation at Emory ended, it was Student Government Association (SGA) leaders, noting their primary responsibility of “maintaining the confidence of all students,” that supported the Black student activists demanding change. Their allyship is an example all of us must continue to follow. SGA and College Council (CC), among numerous other student organizations, expressed support for Black members of the University community this past summer.
However, they must go beyond ordering anti-racist literature and fundraising programs at Emory that promote diversity and inclusion. SGA and CC, among other student leadership groups, must stand behind Black activists and encourage policy changes in EPD and at the University level that make our campus more equitable while keeping it safe.
That pressure to change and reform must remain. Anti-racism at Emory is not a project limited to one decade or one group of brave and outspoken activists. It must be a continuing effort on the part of students, faculty, administrators, police and other University staff members to recognize the unique part each of us have to play at this institution.
It will not be easy, and there will be those who are dissatisfied when their demands are not met right away. But we must keep listening to one another and working tirelessly to fight racism. We must look to Black students, hear their concerns and address them accordingly if we are to ensure the brighter future for Emory that we all strive to see. If history teaches us anything, it’s that doing so made this school a better place in the past, and it will continue to do so moving forward.
Jake Busch (22C) is from Brookhaven, Georgia.
This article is one part of “1963,” an investigative opinion project. Read the rest here.