What if Babo Didn’t Have Guns?

If you would never think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs, take one step forward. – this question is in the online privilege walk, an activity we conduct in the OFYI Privilege session. 

One year, a student openly reflected in class. They said something like: “Until I saw that question, I didn’t realize that people would think twice about calling the police. That was an important realization for me.” I deeply respect that person’s openness in sharing that reflection. That openness sparked this article.

As a result of years of tireless organizing by the Movement for Black Lives – popularly known as the movement Black Lives Matter – the death of George Floyd sparked widespread protests, especially in the USA. The broader American public began to realize something that many Black and brown people had known since the invention of the modern police state: something’s very wrong in our assumptions of what policing does and who it benefits. In my first semester, I saw students and professors with Zoom backgrounds and profile pictures with the BLM logo. I saw Olin’s stated mission shift towards recognizing racial injustices in engineering systems and committing to combatting that

Yet I didn’t hear a single conversation, comment, or jibe about the police here, at Olin. The only thing I recall was an exchange between two other international students, where one warned another not to mess with Babson Police, “it’s not like the police at home”. It seemed to me that everyone was convinced that Derek Chauvin is a “bad” police officer, unlike Babson Public Safety, who are “good” police officers. Babo wouldn’t do that. I am sure that many officers at Babson Public Safety recoiled at Derek Chauvin’s actions. But that’s not the point.

I wish I didn’t have to clarify this, but I am not saying that the officers I have interacted with at Babson Public Safety are bad people, as far as I know. (I’m sorry if you cringed or felt dismissed at this supposed clarification because you’re thinking “it doesn’t matter if they’re good people” – I promise that’s my point, keep reading.)

The point is to criticize the assumptions of policing, as BLM does. Every day, people in the US (especially black and brown, especially those experiencing homelessness, especially trans and non-binary people, especially women of color) die from police violence. Abolitionists have known that the reason these people get killed by police is not because they are “bad actors” who deserve punishment, but that the communities that are policed the most are the most marginalized and under-resourced. 

Abolition is the broad movement to reimagine a world without policing and incarceration, and in the crudest of terms, it is about focusing on prevention of harm, not punishment and control. I wish I could go beyond the tiny, tiny scrape off the tip of the iceberg in the stories and organizing and scholarship in truly recognizing why policing exists in various degrees of severity in nation-states and what it means when abolitionists ask us to imagine a world without police, but I won’t. Mainly so that you keep reading, and maybe because I’m scared of the vastness of the divide between my opinions and acceptable discourse at the college. Baby steps.

Here’s what I do feel comfortable telling you, in the political context of Olin in March 2024.

Armed campus policing is not normal. Just ten years ago, only 22% of private, small (<5000 student) colleges had armed police. I don’t know when Babson Police were first armed, but I hope to ask them about it in the future. Many private colleges still don’t have armed campus police, such as Vassar College in New York, or Smith College in Massachusetts. None of the colleges I know in India have armed police on campus – just “Campus Security” to berate drunk students. When you think about it, having armed officers patrolling a college campus doesn’t really make sense.

But Vedaant, I feel more safe with the police being armed.

Which means you’re probably white. Or grew up in a wealthy neighborhood. Or have never had an encounter with a cop that left you shaken. An argument I have heard from fellow students is that “But no one at Olin really cares.” That statement, to me, speaks to how much further Olin has to go in having a student body that’s truly representative of the US population. Olin is a place where people get loud and aggressive, people have their stuff stolen, people experience sexual violence, and none of that requires an armed police officer. Remember, I’m not asking for abolition of campus police just yet – just not arming them.

But Vedaant, what if there’s an active shooter?

This is one of the most common questions. This isn’t India, people own guns here. Many studies have shown that having an armed police officer on campus has no correlation with deterring a shooting, or speeding up the response to one. We know this because of the unfortunate number of elementary schools with armed police officers which have experienced horrific school shootings. We simply cannot use the argument of guns to justify more guns.

But Vedaant, Babo is so helpful with the transports.

Exactly! Babson Public Safety (at least according to some accounts) is ostensibly helpful, reasonable, and quick to act when it comes to the health and safety of Olin students. Which should not be the role of an armed police officer. In the words of the Dallas Police Chief, “We are asking police to do too much in this country…Policing was never meant to solve these problems.” 

I want to be able to dial 5555 and a trained, level-headed, adult to show up in minutes to help in an emergency. I want that person to have first-responder training and de-escalation training and be a paid adult whose full-time job is to make sure that everyone in the community feels and is safe. I want that person to be as approachable and friendly as a Peer Advocate or R2 is, so that students have support in handling crisis situations. And I want that person to not have a gun. It would make me that much less hesitant to call them.

In the words of legendary abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” Beyond Olin, abolition as I understand it is about rethinking a world where we don’t create the conditions of desperation that spawn violence and harm by investing our resources in “healthcare, housing and wages to its community members that truly keep communities safe”. It’s a big vision, but it’s certainly not impossible, and to me is intrinsically connected to the equally big vision of Engineering for Everyone in envisioning a world where everyone has equitable access to explore, to dream, and live fulfilled, safe, lives.

And that won’t happen at the snap of a finger; the point is that it is a thoughtful transition. I’m not asking for Babson Public Safety to disappear tomorrow and leave us with no one. But right now, at Olin, I’m asking for Babson Public Safety to not have guns. I’m asking Public Safety to mean genuine public safety, not a synonym for armed police. And therefore, I’m asking for Babson Public Safety to refocus itself to the critical care and first-responder work that it isn’t adequately trained to do, which StAR and student resources may be stretched too thin or wrongly placed to do. 

I’m asking for us to recognize that I can still choose whether Babson Public Safety makes me feel safe or not. And that there’s privilege in having that choice.

Footnote: I want to leave a quick note for who I believe is Frankly Speaking’s most important reader. The future student. I’m in my final semester at Olin, and I don’t have the time or energy left in me to engage in conversations, research, campaign, organize for this. But I recognize that Frankly Speaking may inspire you just as it inspired me. 

About ten years ago, students wrote about sexual violence, about fossil fuel divestment, about the deaths our engineering could enable unless we choose otherwise. Those writings gave me a launchpad to think critically about this college and to find peers who did too. I hope that ten years from now (hopefully sooner), our writings today give you a launchpad to be critical and to care.

I also recognize that, just as I judged the Frankly Speaking articles 10 years ago for being too conciliatory, a little naive, and often insensitive, you may judge this article today too. In the vast history and organizing practice around police abolition and the violent realities experienced by millions of Americans, what I’m arguing for is rather – mild. I could have written this in a vastly more “radical” form, but I chose not to. I want it to be a starting point, a tiny widening in our imagination of what’s possible. Baby steps.

Shout out to Olivia Chang for her endless support and helping out with research for this piece.

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