Northwestern’s President And Students Engage In Heated Dispute Over Abolishing Campus Police

Northwestern Weber Arch
Parts of Weber Arch on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus are covered after being spray-painted during a weekend protest. Mark LeBien / WBEZ
Northwestern Weber Arch
Parts of Weber Arch on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus are covered after being spray-painted during a weekend protest. Mark LeBien / WBEZ

Northwestern’s President And Students Engage In Heated Dispute Over Abolishing Campus Police

Northwestern University students are continuing daily protests this week as part of an increasingly heated and personal dispute with President Morton Schapiro over their demand for the abolition of campus police.

The rancor has led Evanston’s NAACP branch to offer to mediate.

The dispute escalated last Saturday night when protesters marched through downtown Evanston and neighborhoods, and then gathered outside Schapiro’s home near campus. On Monday, Schapiro sent a lengthy email memo to the Northwestern community that sharply criticized some of the protesters and accused them of spray-painting campus property, lighting fires and blocking residential streets.

“I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the overstepping of the protesters. They have no right to menace members of our academic and surrounding communities,” wrote Schapiro, who has been president since 2009.

Schapiro also accused the protesters of chanting “f*** you, Morty” and “piggy Morty” outside his home Saturday night. An observant Jew, Schapiro added that the latter chant came “dangerously close” to anti-Semitism.

His memo prompted a strong response from NU Community Not Cops, the group led by Black students that has been organizing protests. On social media and in a press release, activists defended their actions.

In a tweet, the group said it was “not valuing property over the lives of our people.”

NU Community Not Cops also said Schapiro should resign, and the group rejected any suggestion of anti-Jewish intent.

“Morton Schapiro was called a pig by members of our campaign because he aligns himself with law enforcement and prioritizes police and private property over the lives of Black students,” the group’s release said.

The release said the students will continue their demonstrations “until [the] Northwestern Police Department is abolished.”

“This is the first time our president has addressed our movement at all,” said Karina Karbo-Wright, a junior and member of NU Community Not Cops. “The language is very disappointing and saddening for a lot of people who really want to work toward a better campus.”

NU Community Not Cops began its calls for abolishing campus police months ago. In its press release, the group said, “Black people are not safe anywhere in a world with police, including in their homes, a reality that Black students at Northwestern also contend with.”

Northwestern’s Department of African American Studies also issued a response to Schapiro’s memo, calling him “beyond tone deaf” and stating it was “difficult to conceive of the level of ignorance, narcissism, or disingenuousness” of his suggestion of possible anti-Semitism.

On Wednesday, the Rev. Dr. Michael Nabors, president of the NAACP’s Evanston branch, condemned the language used by both sides in an open letter to the Northwestern and Evanston communities.

Nabors said the protesters’ chants aimed at Schapiro were “deeply offensive and possesses no analytical or critical objective for mediation.” Nabors also said some of the language in Schapiro’s memo “makes it difficult to provide the opportunity for conversation, mediation and finding common ground.” Nabors offered to be a mediator to “work towards resolving these concerns.”

The divide between the two sides was evident again Tuesday night when students, Schapiro and other Northwestern officials held an online discussion that had been scheduled weeks before, according to Schapiro’s memo.

The meeting was closed to the public and not recorded, according to Northwestern spokesmen. But students who took part said Schapiro and other university officials were asked about the protesters’ demands.

Juan Zuniga, a senior and president of the Associated Student Government, helped moderate the meeting.

He said Northwestern officials said they would reassess police policies on use of force and carrying arms. They also said they would release information about the campus police department’s budget by the end of November, and they would consider cutting it, according to Zuniga.

But, overall, Zuniga said he was disappointed by officials’ lack of details.

“The university leadership does not hold the commitment to making sure that Northwestern is an equitable space for Black and brown students,” he said.

Daniel Rodriguez, a junior and an executive officer of the Associated Student Government who also moderated the meeting, said he had expected more from the discussion. But he said it was a way to ensure that university leaders are held accountable for their promises.

“It is really hard to get every single demand met right now, but the fact we were able to get more promises and also say, ‘Give us an answer,’ is a huge win,” Rodriguez said.

He added that students are frustrated by what they believe is Schapiro’s lack of empathy for the protesters’ cause.

“I remember there were times when we asked Schapiro if he condemned any of the language he used in the email, or if he was going to stand in support of the Black and brown students,” Rodriguez said. “It just hurt me to see he wasn’t supportive of the community or the movement.”

Northwestern did not respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment on the meeting.

With the university and protesters at an impasse, NU Community Not Cops plans more daily demonstrations. The group scheduled a march and sit-in at the CTA’s Davis Street station in downtown Evanston on Thursday afternoon.

Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty said this week that residents have been calling police with complaints about the unrest. He said Evanston police are investigating any crimes related to the protests.

“We support peaceful protests done properly, but we don’t want to see street signs defaced or graffiti on walls here,” Hagerty said. “We have no tolerance for that.”

Karbo-Wright said members of NU Community Not Cops had been holding virtual meetings with Northwestern officials since June. She said disappointment over the lack of progress contributed “in part” to the protests.

“We did not receive a response until we were forced to escalate to this level,” Karbo-Wright said.