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The Racist Roots of Campus Policing


“Overseer, Overseer, Overseer, Overseer
Officer, Officer, Officer, Officer!
Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity?
Check the similarity!”

-KRS One, “Sound of Da Police”

On Sept. 16, the Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI) held a rally at the flagpole on The Yard in support of Troy Davis, inviting community members and the media to protest the injustice of the impending execution. Not only was the media barred from campus, but HUPD stated that because the protest was not authorized by the university, the rally could not take place.

When the point was raised that fraternal organizations did not need authorization to do stepping routines on the yard, SAMI was told “that’s a tradition.” Well, in the militant tradition of Howard student takeovers in 1925, 1968, and 1989 SAMI preceded with the rally, consequences be damned.

Why did the campus police attempt to stop the rally? In an article entitled “The Modern Campus Police” John Sloan shows that contemporary campus police are a response to the student rebellions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Think about it, Black students all over the country were taking over administration buildings and the anti-war movement was in full swing.

Since campus security could not put down these rebellions, the National Guard often had to be called in. At places like Jackson State, South Carolina State, and Kent State some students were even killed in campus rebellions. Therefore, the campus police did their historical and assigned role: putting down any and all potential radical student activity.

Thus, the campus police and the American police force appear to have similar origins and purposes, maintaining “order” and squashing any potential acts of rebellion. Several scholars and commentators have traced the origin of American policing to the slave patrols in the American south. Slave patrols were composed primarily of lower class whites who put down insurrections of enslaved Africans and caught those who attempted to escape enslavement.

Armed with this information, no Black person should be shocked by the over-policing in our communities or by that campus police officer who flies on his Segway to the scene of a student protest, but is mysteriously missing when you need an escort.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense stated that the role of the police in Black communities is similar to that of an occupying army. The primary purpose of police is to protect property: Howard University, its image, reputation (oh yeah, and you, the student [intellectual property],too). Whether on campus or in the community, understanding that the purpose of the police is primarily one of social control can only serve to enlighten and enhance our inevitable interactions with them as Black youth.

This does not mean that individual Black policeman are our inherent enemies, but the police are an institution. Although individual Black policeman are our potential working class allies, unfortunately, that is not usually the case at Howard, or in the world.

As students, acknowledging and challenging the racial roots and consequences of policing—in all its forms–is an important step towards stopping the trend of criminal injustice in our communities.

Benjamin Woods is working on his Ph D at Howard University. He can be reached through his website:

This article originally appeared in the Howard University student newspaper the Hilltop


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