A prominent national activist cheered on students at Northwestern who are calling for the abolition of campus police as she gave a keynote during the university’s “Dream Week ” dedicated to commemorating the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If King were alive today at 91 … I have no doubt that what he would be addressing in our current historical moment is the violence and destruction of the prison industrial complex,” Mariame Kaba, the organizer and educator known for her work on prison abolition, said Wednesday.
Kaba added that “there are people at Northwestern, at your campus, currently taking up King’s struggle in calling for the defunding and abolition of campus policing,” referring to student activists with the Northwestern University Community Not Cops (NUCNC) campaign, which is calling for the defunding of police and investing resources in Black communities.
Kaba’s speech — streamed live to an audience of more than 1,200 viewers, according to a Northwestern spokeswoman — comes a day after NUCNC’s first public meeting with University President Morton Schapiro and other administrators over the issue of abolishing the campus police force.
The school’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, reported that at the meeting, Schapiro and administrators “repeatedly challenged claims the students made and largely avoided concrete answers.”
Student activists had been participating in protests for months, calling for the disbanding of the campus police force. Their clash with NU administration escalated on Oct. 17 of last year, when protesters marched through Evanston and gathered outside Schapiro’s home. Two days later, the university president sent a lengthy email memo criticizing protesters and stating the university has “absolutely no intention to abolish” the campus police.
When asked how Kaba’s address fits in the context of the police abolition movement at Northwestern and the administration’s response, university spokesman Jon Yates said in an emailed statement to WBEZ that Kaba was selected as the keynote speaker by the Dream Week Selection Committee, a group of NU faculty, staff and students in charge of the programming.
“The University prides itself on supporting and encouraging a civil dialogue on challenging issues in an effort to create mutual respect and understanding of different perspectives,” Yates wrote.
Junior Karina Karbo-Wright, a member of the NUCNC campaign who was at the meeting with NU administrators, said Kaba’s speech was “a healing event,” especially after Tuesday’s “disappointing” conversation with administrators.
“Having Mariame come and say to us, ‘You’re on the right side, you’re doing what’s right,’ is validating,” Karbo-Wright said. “It’s a reminder that we just have to keep pushing.”
She added that the university’s week of celebrating King “feels empty. It feels very much like they’re choosing which MLK they want to promote, spouting the quotes but not following up with the action.”
The call to abolish campus police at Northwestern is one of many similar campaigns on university campuses across the country, including at the University of Chicago, NU’s neighbor 20 miles south.
Kaba, an NU alumna who has also taught at the university, said Northwestern should listen to the students who are calling for defunding the campus police. She said universities are ideal places for reimagining public safety.
“Why isn’t the university actually opening up to multiple kinds of new ways of thinking about safety?” Kaba asked. “Using your ability to innovate and think about things expansively and to think in a transformative way … this is what a university should be for.”
Kaba’s keynote speech kicked off a week of events that include an oratorical competition, panel discussions and a service project.
Melisa Bridget Stephen, a program coordinator with Northwestern’s Women’s Center who nominated Kaba for the keynote, said in an email to WBEZ the activist’s work is “more relevant and important than ever given the past year we’ve had.” Stephen hopes the “university’s major decision makers pay close attention to what Kaba says.”
After her talk, Kaba tweeted a more informal message to her followers: “Thanks to everyone who joined us for the MLK Keynote event. I have no doubt that Northwestern U won’t be inviting me back, LOLOLOLOL…”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk and WBEZ’s Education desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.