Baltimore — About 15 Johns Hopkins University students sat below a large sign Thursday morning that read “No private police, no ICE contracts, Justice for Tyrone West.”
They were beginning their 23rd hour of a sit-in in Garland Hall, the campus administration building, as Hopkins graduates walked through for Alumni Weekend. It was the students’ latest action protesting an armed police force on campus and contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
(The name of West, who died during a scuffle with police during a traffic stop in Baltimore in 2013, was added in solidarity.)
On Wednesday, hundreds of students and community members gathered as part of the protest along Wyman Park Dell. It was among the largest gatherings over the past year protesting the two issues.
Amid sleeping bags and donated coffee and bagels, the students explained why they are still protesting after Maryland lawmakers gave their final approval to a bill that would allow the university to form its own armed police force in Baltimore. The bill awaits the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has voiced his support for the police force.
“We have been here to demand the end of militarization of our campus, Baltimore and country,” said Marios Falaris, a graduate student studying anthropology. “We want to end the complicity with ICE and tell the university no to campus police.”
University spokeswoman Karen Lancaster defended the recently approved police measure in a statement that said that “the legislation puts in place measures to ensure public accountability, public transparency and public input, and we will work together to build a model of constitutional community policing.”
The law, expected to go into effect July 1, would take several years to fully implement, Lancaster said.
“We will continue to work every day to strengthen relationships with the community and keep our campuses and surrounding areas safe,” she said. “We also will have ongoing opportunities for community engagement, oversight, and input once the [Johns Hopkins Police Department] is operational.”
Hopkins has three contracts with ICE totaling more than $1.7 million. The contracts, set to expire this year, are primarily with the medical school for educational programs that provide emergency medical training and leadership education.
Sabrina Epstein, a sophomore majoring in political science, said organizing against police is not a lost cause. “The fight is not over,” she said. “There are still many steps.”
She and others said that if Hogan signs the bill, they still have hope to stop Johns Hopkins from hiring police or to at least mobilize the community to hold police accountable.
Corey Payne, a graduate student focusing on sociology, said part of the protests is to pressure Baltimore’s City Council to ask for a referendum on the police force.
Conor Bean, a graduate student focusing on political science, said: “It should be noted that Hopkins burned every last inch of goodwill in the community. They passed this bill, but they are in for a hell of a fight as it comes back here.”
At the larger protest Wednesday, the students were joined by Tawanda Jones, whose brother, West, died in 2013 after an altercation with officers from Baltimore and Morgan State University during a traffic stop.
Jones said she has protested police brutality every Wednesday for 296 weeks since her brother’s death. She calls the demonstrations “West Wednesdays.” The students added “Justice for Tyrone West” to their banner as a show of solidarity.
State and city officials announced a settlement of a wrongful-death lawsuit with the West family in 2017 for $1 million.
As the clock ticked to 11 a.m., the 23rd hour of the sit-in, the protesters stood up and began their hourly chants.
University President Ronald Daniels has previously rejected the protesters’ demands to end the ICE contracts, saying the university is protecting academic freedom.
“Regarding the specialized training offered to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, these programs have no relationship to the enforcement of immigration policies by the current or any other administration,” Lancaster said.
“We have been unequivocal in our public statements concerning the consequences of recent immigration policies that have a clear, direct and demonstrable impact on members of our university community,” she continued. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to supporting our international and DACA students, offering broad access and support to our students, faculty, and staff without regard to immigration status and providing exceptional care to immigrant and refugee populations in our hospitals and clinics in the United States and around the world.”
Hopkins says a police force is badly needed as Baltimore experiences an uptick in violent crime. The city has seen more than 300 homicides a year for four consecutive years. Aggravated-assault reports in East Baltimore and the Homewood neighborhood — where the university is located — have nearly doubled from 50 in 2014 to 98 in 2018, according to figures reported by Hopkins. Robberies increased to 97 from 45 over the same time period.
The protests against the police force gained steam during the legislative session, drawing a letter from more than 60 faculty members who wrote that a police force employed by the university would be “undemocratic” and “antagonistic” with Baltimore’s nonwhite population. The introduction of new armed police officers, they wrote, could pose an increased safety risk and “inevitably amplify the climate of fear and justify their roles by citing stops, arrests, and detainments.”
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