A petition calling on the University of Pennsylvania to end what organizers call a campus “police state” gained more than 10,000 signatures Sunday, one week after it launched.
Toorjo Ghose, an associate professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice, started the Change.org petition against “militarized” policing after the May 25 death of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes.
The petition calls out practices including “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.”
Ghose, also the founder and CEO of the Center for Carceral Communities, which offers support services to formerly incarcerated people, said the “Petition to End Penn Police State Collusion” had more than 10,000 signers as of Monday evening.
On Friday, 70 people representing a number of campus and community organizations, including Jobs with Justice and GET-UP, a Penn graduate student group that supports unionizing, met in a Zoom meeting to organize under the name #StopCarceralPenn Collective.
Among its demands, the petition asks that Penn:
Ban the use of guns on campus.
Stop the “racialized practice” of broadcasting texts and emails only when community members are alleged to commit crimes, given that crimes committed by predominantly white students are not given the same publicity.
Pay property taxes the university owes the City of Philadelphia, as it hurts public education and strengthens “the school-to-prison pipeline.”
End “all support of, and associations with, police unions and organizations that support the implementation of militarized policing in our communities.” For example, Penn, like Temple University and Comcast, participates in the Philadelphia Police Foundation, which raises money to help the Police Department buy guns, drones, and SWAT Team equipment, Ghose said.
Ron Ozio, director of media relations for Penn, said in a brief email response that he was aware of the Change.org petition but did not agree with its premise.
“We strongly disagree with the assertion that there is a ‘police state’ at Penn,” he wrote. “We have one of the finest university police departments in the country. Racial profiling is something the university does not tolerate.”
The Penn activists are looking at how Philadelphia funds its police department as well.
“Mayor Kenney is proposing $14 million to invest in policing at a time when social services are getting cuts ... in the poorest big city in the country,” said Christopher R. Rogers, a graduate student at Penn, who signed the petition.
Not only are black community members put under surveillance on campus, but black students say they are routinely questioned by police and asked to show ID, Ghose said.
In a December 2019 Medium article, two anonymous black Penn students wrote about an encounter with campus police, and Penn alumnus Ernest Owens wrote in 2017 for Philadelphia Magazine about often being “stopped and frisked” as a black man on the largely white Ivy League campus:
“While my white peers could run around University City publicly intoxicated on weekends, I was reminded each time I was stopped and frisked by law enforcement on campus: My experience wasn’t the same.”
Ghose said he is hopeful after a majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged Sunday to disband its police department to create a new system for public safety. But he noted that the University of Minnesota acted first on May 27 by cutting ties with the Minneapolis Police Department.
“Minneapolis is setting the example, but Penn can be at the forefront of change if [university president] Amy Gutmann uses her bully pulpit. … City Council will listen if Penn says enough is enough.”
When activists call for “defunding the police,” he said, “I take it to mean abolishing the current system of militarized, muscular style of policing.”
The associate professor of social work, who is from India, said he and an African American student were subjected to racial profiling several years ago when, on a walk through campus, university police suddenly threw both men against a wall.
Someone had reported to police that a black man had a weapon. Ghose’s student had draped his sweater over his arm.
“I was yelling, ‘I’m a professor,’ and, ‘This is my student,’” Ghose said, “but it didn’t matter.”