Northwestern and Evanston police seal off Sheridan Road Tuesday with students in their ninth day of protests, calling for the abolition of the university’s police department. RoundTable photo

Members of a Northwestern University student group pushing for the abolition of the University Police Department are vowing to continue their efforts despite a letter from University President Morton Schapiro criticizing some of the protesters’ actions.

With the group “NU Community, Not Cops” playing a lead role, students have marched or demonstrated for about a week and a half, said Karina Karbo, one of the student leaders.

On Oct. 20. Northwestern and Evanston police blocked off Sheridan Road from Chicago Avenue east to the lake as about 75 protesters sat in the middle of the street. 

“We are out here to sort of participate as a community our quarterly community dialogue with the administrators,” Ms. Karbo explained.

She said a Zoom link had been established for students to listen in to a question-and-answer session with Northwestern administrators about the group’s concerns.

A “NU Community, Not Cops”-led event  drew a gathering estimated at 300 persons Saturday night, with protesters gathering in front of Foster-Walker complex and ending outside of Mr. Schapiro’s house calling for the abolition  of the Northwestern University Police Department. 

Ms. Karbo said student demands for the University Police Department to be defunded date back to May and June when the group submitted a petition that had more than 8,000 signatures.

“And basically the general consensus is that they [the University] should defund and disband the NUPD and reinvest that money back into Black and Brown students at Northwestern,” she said. “And generally, we’ve been met with nothing concrete, nothing actionable, just dialog of which nothing came out of.”

That was until yesterday, she said, “in which we received a long email from our president, which didn’t really address any of the concerns that we’re trying to bring up.”

President Schapiro’s letter

In his letter issued Oct.19, President Schapiro noted that the University recognized “the many injustices faced by Black and other marginalized groups.

“We also acknowledge that the policing and criminal justice system in our country is too often stacked against those same communities,” he said.

“Your concerns are valid and necessary, and we encourage and, in fact, rely on your active engagement with us to make your school and our society equitable and safe for everyone,” he said addressing the student protesters.

The University encourages “members of our community to find meaningful ways to get involved and advocate for causes they believe in – and to do so safely and peacefully,” he said.

But while the University protects the right to peaceful protest, the school does “not condone breaking the law,” the president stressed.

“What started as peaceful protests have recently grown into expressions that have been anything but peaceful or productive,” Mr. Schapiro charged.

“Crowds blocked the streets of downtown Evanston and nearby residential areas, disrupting businesses and local families, defacing property and violating laws and University standards. Some of the instigators appear not to be Northwestern students at all, but rather outside activists,” he wrote.

Further, he suggested in his letter, that events in recent days seem to indicate an intent by organizers to escalate matters, and to provoke NUPD into retaliation.

“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,” he said.

Beyond free speech

“When students and other participants are vandalizing property, lighting fires and spray-painting phrases such as “kill the pigs,” we have moved well past legitimate forms of free speech,” Mr. Schapiro contended.

“I want to offer a personal illustration of the pain these protesters have caused. Many gathered outside my home this weekend into the early hours of the morning, chanting “f— you Morty” and “piggy Morty.” The latter comes dangerously close to a longstanding trope against observant Jews like myself. Whether it was done out of ignorance or out of anti-Semitism, it is completely unacceptable, and I ask them to consider how their parents and siblings would feel if a group came to their homes in the middle of the night to wake up their families with such vile and personal attacks.

“To those protesters and their supporters who justify such actions, I ask you to take a long hard look in the mirror and realize that this isn’t actually ‘speaking truth to power’ or furthering your cause. It is an abomination and you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Faculty members respond 

Mr. Schapiro’s letter triggered strong reactions of its own, including a response from the faculty and affiliates of the University’s Department of African American Studies.

Recounting a number of inequities that have not been addressed, the faculty letter, citing reporting by the Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper, pointed to “the disproportionate policing of Black students.”

“Whereas Black students comprise roughly 6 percent of the student population, 22-40% of NUPD field-initiated stops over the past two years have been of Black people.

“Given these realities,” faculty members wrote, “it is difficult to conceive of the level of ignorance, narcissism, or disingenuousness that would have to be present for you to personalize students referencing ‘pigs’ as an antisemitic slur, rather than to understand these students’ anger as a product of nightmarish experiences that you – as an adult who in fact wields a great deal of power – bear substantial responsibility to address,” the  faculty letter said.

NU Community, not Cops in its release, called it “absurd for Morton Schapiro to suggest that protestors were invoking an anti-Semitic trope derived from the European Middle Ages and not the word ‘pig’ as it refers to the racist United States police. Regardless of our intent, we apologize to our Jewish community, to individuals both inside and outside of the campaign who may have been harmed by language utilized at the protest.”

The group said it did not apologize for its overriding concerns and indicated it would continue its efforts.

“We continue to stand in solidarity with Palestinian liberation by our shared virtue of abolition. As we have been saying for months, we envision a world without state-sanctioned violence: from Evanston to Lagos to Bethlehem, cops have got to go.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.