As the nation reels from recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless Black individuals — prompting days of protests and law enforcement clashes — thousands of students and faculty are now demanding the University end its deep-rooted ties with militarized police forces.
More than 9,600 people have signed a petition calling on the University to cease its institutional support of a "racist, fascist police state" that has led to continued violence against Black people. Penn, Temple University, and Comcast are among a group of partners raising money for the Philadelphia Police Foundation, which often helps finance the purchase of militarized equipment, according to database LittleSis.
Over the last three years, PPF has helped the Philadelphia Police Department purchase guns and SWAT team equipment, drones, and state-of-the-art ballistic helmets, according to LittleSis.
"We stand against the manner in which this police state is institutionalized at the University of Pennsylvania, which includes racially-biased surveillance, reporting, arrest practices, the advocacy of militarized models of campus policing, and the implementation of policing measures that cut Penn off from the communities surrounding it," the petition reads.
School of Social Policy & Practice professor Toorjo Ghose started the petition on May 31, addressing it to Penn President Amy Gutmann, school Deans, and University Board of Trustees. The petition has nine demands which include cutting University ties with militarized police organizations, ensuring the right to freedom from police surveillance for those who seek University services, and banning the use of guns by on-campus police.
“Is Penn racist? That's what it comes down to. Because racism is not just about going out and shooting people on the streets. Racism is about how you put those guns in the hands of the police to be able to do that. And Penn does that,” Ghose said.
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy confirmed that the petition has been received, but did not respond to further request for comment.
The petition also calls on the University to create an investigative team comprised of students and faculty of color to examine every instance a person of color is stopped by Penn police.
Ghose said the Philadelphia Police Department is the primary organization that implements militarized policing in Philadelphia, currently visible in the protests over Floyd's murder on the streets of Philadelphia.
Thousands of protesters marched on the I-676 highway on Tuesday and blocked traffic from both directions. Within minutes, Philadelphia Police Department forces swiftly ended the demonstration by using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw defended the police actions, saying the protests had turned violent before officers used tear gas on demonstrators. WHYY-FM reported Kenney's office could not produce evidence to prove that this was the case.
The Philadelphia Police Department has been known to engage in methods of police brutality, particularly during the late 20th century tenure of Frank Rizzo as city Mayor and Police Commissioner.
"The Frank Rizzo statue represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long. It is finally gone," Kenney's caption read on Instagram posted on Wednesday along with a photo of the empty spot where the statue once stood.
The 1978 Pulitzer-Prize winning series “The Homicide Files" reported on the Philadelphia Police Department's pattern of violence, intimidation, coercion, and “disregard for constitutional rights."
Penn Vice President for Public Safety and Superintendent of the Penn Police Department Maureen Rush, who is also president of the Philadelphia Police Foundation, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Policing must ‘get it right’ in recognizing police personnel who are not fit to serve our communities,” the Philadelphia Police Foundation wrote on their website.
Under a $27 million budget, Penn currently houses the largest private police department in Pennsylvania with 121 full-time members, and has the second largest number of full-time police officers among all private universities across the country. Drexel University, in comparison, has 38 full-time officers. The Penn Police Department serves within the Penn patrol jurisdiction of 30th Street to 43rd Street, and Market Street to Baltimore Avenue.
Since Floyd’s murder, students across the nation have rattled educational institutions with pleas to cut ties with local police forces. The University of Minnesota announced on May 27 it would no longer use local police for major events after demands from its student government, according to Fox 11. Students at the University of California, Los Angeles and Ohio State University are also petitioning to end collaboration with their respective local police forces.
Rising College sophomore Adeline Brown, a Philadelphia native and petition signee, said she feels a responsibility to use her student privilege and education to "break down the barriers" between the Penn and Philadelphia communities.
“As a biracial person, I can’t watch the institutions of this city continue to give power to the police system that allows for the senseless murder of Black people," Brown said.
Rising Wharton and College junior Shriya Beesam, who also signed the petition, said she feels outraged at the lack of consideration for Black lives in the country’s current police forces and justice systems. Like Brown, Beesam said that, as a Penn student, she feels responsible to hold local communities accountable for change.
Although rising College sophomore Sereina Ferguson said she understands why her Black peers signed the petition to reduce the power of authoritative unions, she believes the petition is a narrow-minded approach to ensuring change in Philadelphia’s Black Lives Matter movement.
“It is not guns that we should be afraid of, but the person behind them," Ferguson said. "Therefore, I urge the development of more exams, training practices, and overall, the extermination of the present systemic and institutionalized racism that continuous police and military units still uphold."
Ghose said he created the petition after the University and SP2 released dissatisfactory statements about Floyd’s death in late May and early June. Ghose said the statements did not acknowledge or contain "action points" to rectify Penn's part in incarcerating Philadelphia's most vulnerable citizens.
“I think that we could contribute to the community, the broader Philadelphia community, and the West Philadelphia community more positively, instead of doing things that are not only undermining them but are actively policing them, and end up creating and perpetuating more violence,” 2020 College graduate and SP2 Master’s student Mackenzie Cahira Fierceton said.
Fierceton was one of the students who helped write and spearhead the petition with Ghose.
She added that the petition seeks recognition from University administration that a violent police state, which has led to murders of Black and brown people in Philadelphia, exists. The petition does not seek to abolish the police forces, but advocates for a significant reduction on the systems in place today, Fierceton said.
Beyond police-related demands, the petition asks Penn to open its buildings to the West Philadelphia community, pay its Payments in Lieu of Taxes, divest from corporations such as Aramark that profit from the prison industrial complex, and cease the "racialized" practice of broadcasting local crimes to the Penn community through emails and texts.
Fierceton added that Penn’s refusal to pay PILOT property taxes, which fund Philadelphia public schools, has led to an increasing real estate divide between the University and its surrounding neighborhoods.
After Penn moved from Center City to West Philadelphia in 1872, its University City development was built upon a disadvantaged neighborhood known as the Black Bottom in the 1960s. Penn then rebuilt the city landscape according to its 1977 Landscape Redevelopment Plan, in which it encouraged faculty to move into the area with mortgage assistance programs, and has since continued construction in West Philadelphia.
It is estimated that nearly 12,000 Black people have moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods in West Philadelphia from 2000-2013. This gentrifying process is often referred to as “urban renewal.”
Penn's continued development in West Philadelphia, including ongoing construction of New College House West and the 2018 opening of Franklin's Table, both of which Fierceton cited, has been met with protest. For years, students and community members have retaliated against Penn's expansion and refusal to pay PILOTs that support the local Philadelphia community and school districts.
“This is the beginning, and now we're going to keep following with ensuring that Penn takes tangible actions to follow up and meet with demands,” Fierceton said. “I think once we're back on campus, that could include our own demonstration, more actions. This is not the end.”
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