Police Free Penn is an assembly of Penn community members calling to abolish policing and transform community safety at the University.
The group released its first statement on June 15, introducing itself as an abolitionist assembly with over 12,000 supporters. The statement listed seven categories of actionable demands, including decriminalizing Blackness, protest, and poverty, and both defunding and disbanding the Penn Police Department. Police Free Penn also seeks to reimagine police-free strategies to ensure community safety and well-being, and demands that the University reinvest in community-controlled funds, particularly in West Philadelphia.
As of June 26, the statement has received endorsements from forty-eight organizations both affiliated and non-affiliated with Penn, including campus groups such as UMOJA, the National Lawyers Guild Penn Law Chapter, and the Coalition Against Fraternity Sexual Assault.
Police Free Penn's origin
Police Free Penn originated from a petition created on May 31 that primarily demands the University cut ties with the Philadelphia Police Department and reform militarized policing measures on campus. The support the petition received indicated it was time for a larger movement, according to Police Free Penn's statement.
The petition — which currently has more than 14,900 signatures — was started by School of Social Policy & Practice professor Toorjo Ghose, now a member of Police Free Penn. For Ghose, the petition was not just a starting point for Police Free Penn, but the culmination of organizing by different groups on campus.
“The petition was a moment that brought everything together, and then allowed the coalition to really take root,” Ghose said. “But the issues have been emergent for a very, very long time, not just at that point.”
Third-year SP2 graduate student and Police Free Penn member Chris Rogers said carrying the momentum from the petition into direct action was of the utmost importance to the group.
Police Free Penn is primarily student-led, but the group refers to itself as an "assembly" because it is representative of the entire Penn community. According to Police Free Penn’s statement, the assembly is seeking affiliation with “undergraduate and graduate students, tenured and nontenured faculty, service and office staff, alumni, subcontracted workers, [and] local residents.”
“[Subcontracted workers] are people who sustain this university, and these are the many people who can transform the University,” Rogers said. “Abolition is about bringing all of us to the table.”
The demand to defund and disband the Penn Police Department
Among other demands, Police Free Penn is calling on the University publish data on the Penn Police Department's budget since 2000, and to progressively reduce the budget until it is fully dissolved by 2025. Police Free Penn is also demanding an immediate 50% reduction in the Penn Police Department budget.
The statement also calls on the University to disclose information about “financial and law enforcement partnerships” between the Penn Police Department and the Philadelphia Police Department.
With a budget of more than $27 million and 121 full-time members, the Penn Police Department is the largest private police department in Pennsylvania, and has the second largest number of full-time police officers among all private universities in the country.
Following criticism of Penn’s support for the Philadelphia Police Department and militarized policing measures on campus, the University announced in a community-wide email on June 24 that it will no longer support the Philadelphia Police Foundation in the form of purchasing tickets to attend fundraising events. The University also commissioned an independent review of the Division of Public Safety by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law School, according to the email.
The following day, Police Free Penn released a critical annotation of the University announcement. The annotation criticized wording within the email for improperly representing the role of Penn Police and how the review process will be conducted.
In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian on June 24, Police Free Penn condemned the University’s announcement, writing that it failed to address the extent of its relationship with the Philadelphia Police Foundation and the harm caused by Penn Police to Black students.
“Asserting the Division of Public Safety is something that the Penn community can take pride in ignores the real harm perpetuated by policing on campus,” Police Free Penn wrote. “Nowhere in the statement does Gutmann acknowledge these acts, nor does she consider the changes for Black students that UMOJA ha[s] pushed for.”
Police Free Penn has also leveled criticism against Penn Vice President for Public Safety and Superintendent of the Penn Police Department Maureen Rush. Rush currently serves as the president of the Philadelphia Police Foundation, which helps finance the purchase of militarized police equipment often used by the Philadelphia Police Department, according to database LittleSis.
In response to requests for comment, the Division of Public Safety directed the DP to Penn's June 24 University announcement regarding public safety.
Penn Police has previously been involved in incidents of excessive force used against Philadelphia residents. In November 2013, Philadelphia resident Mustafa Waliyyuddin filed a complaint against the University and Penn Police Officer Michael Riccardi, alleging he was wrongly beaten by the officer because he resembled a Black man who had stolen a bike on campus. Penn denied the allegations and in April 2014, the case was dismissed.
On the Instagram account Black Ivy Stories, where Black community members of Ivy League institutions share their experiences within the Ivy League, an anonymous Penn student submitted an incident of racial profiling by Penn Police. According to the post, Penn Police followed the student under the belief that the student was trespassing upon leaving the library late at night.
Police Free Penn is also urging the University to remove all existing campus memorialization that portray people who were involved in or endorsed violence against Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx people.
On July 2, Penn announced plans to remove the statue of George Whitefield in the Quad due to his advocacy for slavery. Penn also announced the formation of a Campus Iconography Group, which will be chaired by Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell and Dean of the Weitzman School of Design Fritz Steiner, and will research and advise the University about memorialization currently on campus.
Police Free Penn also criticized Penn’s proposed Projects for Progress, a $2 million fund that will support pilot projects on research that addresses social issues and inequities. Instead, Police Free Penn directed the University to distribute funds toward the Bread & Roses Community Fund, a Philadelphia non-profit that channels money to grassroots organizations in the region, and toward PILOTs, payments that support the local Philadelphia community and school districts.
According to Rogers, Penn’s Projects for Progress are representative of the nonprofit industrial complex, when large organizations co-opt social justice movements and withhold funding from members of the local community.
There are currently over 100 people directly involved in Police Free Penn, History professor and Police Free Penn member Anne Berg said. When including endorsements from community organizations, nearly 1,000 people are involved.
Berg said she joined Police Free Penn because she believes there is an urgent need to organize a countermovement to police violence in the United States.
“The kinds of connections I see happening in front of our very noses require not just petitions, they require comprehensive education and a comprehensive platform for reimaging and reenacting a different kind of world,” Berg said.
Ghose said he was motivated to join the assembly due to continuous disapproval from Black students regarding Penn faculty and administration.
“It was the slew of Black students coming to us and saying, 'What is Penn doing and what are we doing?'” Ghose said. “It’s the incoming students calling me and saying, 'What is Penn doing and why should we come to Penn?'”
English professor and Police Free Penn member Chi-ming Yang said not everyone in the group identifies as Black, but said every member is invested in ending anti-Black racism.
“We’re further on our way towards collective liberation when the subjugation of Black people ends,” Yang said.
Police Free Penn does not consider itself to be the hub for organizing, but instead a space for educating and raising awareness about Penn’s role in systemic racism and policing.
“The group is focused on self-education, as well as consciousness-raising on getting things done, so that the University’s promises to end systemic racism are put into real action,” Yang said.
Police Free Penn has continued to push for change since releasing its initial statement nearly one month ago.
On June 19, Police Free Penn organized a campaign to email University administration with the same demands in Police Free Penn’s statement.
On Tuesday, Police Free Penn created a petition urging Penn to publicly reject the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement order requiring non-immigrant students on F-1 and M-1 visas to take in-person classes. Over 1,500 people have since signed the petition.
Ben Mendelsohn, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities and member of Police Free Penn, said the University cannot easily disregard Police Free Penn’s demands because they affect all members of the Penn community, including future students.
“Campus policing and the larger network of carceral and anti-Black strategies is a threat to all our safeties on campus,” Mendelsohn said. “The things we’re fighting against threaten the safety of incoming students, [and] threaten the safety of campus for those who might be coming here in the future.”
The next step for Police Free Penn is spreading awareness about its demands and connecting people with organizations already involved in anti-racist and abolition work, Rogers said.
“I’m worrying that people are going to see this and think it’s only about divesting from the [Penn Police],” Rogers said. “We are talking about a full-scale transformation of our political, economic, and social order.”
For Ghose, the group's next step is based on the University’s response to its demands, or lack thereof.
“It’s all great for Amy Gutmann to come out and say Black Lives Matter, but saying it is not the same as doing it,” Ghose said. “Do Black lives matter? I want to see what they’re doing to make that real.”
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