Why Are U.S. Universities Arming Themselves with Grenade Launchers?
Sending an ominous signal to student protest movements nationwide, universities across the US are once again able to equip their police forces with castoff military gear, tying them ever more intimately into the military-industrial complex.
In August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced at a Fraternal Order of Police convention that Program 1033 would resume providing ex-military equipment to police organizations, including university police departments.
Program 1033 has been running since the 1990s but was stopped two years ago by President Obama. Part of the program’s initial aim was for “use in drug enforcement by federal and state law enforcement.” As we well know, the “war on drugs” has been an abysmal failure.
As part of the program, already at least 117 colleges and universities received surplus-military gear. At least 117 places of higher education felt they needed military gear. At least 117 educational institutions are now armed and armored. This is the state of higher education in the US.
Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students at the University of Florida, told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “For me, this is a cost savings for taxpayers.”
Meanwhile, Michael Qualls, an associate professor of criminal justice at Fort Valley State University, said, “If we continue on with the 1033 program, as those items become obsolete at the military level and if they become available, why not get ’em? It’s better to be prepared than not prepared.'” The flimsy — if paranoid — excuse for obtaining these items is boiled down to its purest essence: Why not?
What Universities Are Receiving
The list of items that are included in these transfers includes things as mundane as gauze — yes, gauze — and some standard pickup trucks. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee received mundane items, such as four adapter sockets, two key set socket heads and fours shelves for food service. No one, I would guess, has any problem with a university owning these items.
At the other end of the spectrum are armored vehicles. As part of the program, throughout the US, in total nine armored vehicles were exchanged — some being armored pickup trucks, and others being “Mine Resistant Vehicles.” MRAPS, as they’re known, were originally designed to withstand improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. The University of Florida was one of the recipients of an armored truck.
Across the country, numerous universities also received guns and ammunition. These include small arms (pistols) and rifles (M-14), as well as assault rifles (M-16). And two universities — Hinds Community College and University of Central Florida — obtained grenade launchers. For scale, the 2014 report states that 930 guns were provided in total to 87 different universities.
This supply of military gear is part of the process of universities throughout the US taking on various policing roles outside of their buildings. At many universities, these roles addressed issues that fell under the label “public safety” — often mostly about alcohol. In the past 20 or 30 years, universities have begun having increasingly active, working police forces dedicated solely to policing the life and boundaries of the university. It is these organizations that are receiving these weapons and vehicles.
Concerns about this supply of military gear is exacerbated by the reality that many campus police organizations are privatized, leading to less oversight and accountability in many cases. A 2014 Vice article laid out the difficulties faced regarding the University of Chicago Police force, which is privatized, and the fact that these private police forces often have “the legal status of a private police force and the powers of a public one.” How these privatized police forces are themselves policed is a critical question that is still, in many ways, unanswered.
Reinstituting Program 1033
All of this is crucial, as President Trump and Jeff Sessions, making good on a campaign promise, stated that they would be resuming the transfer of weapons to police departments across the country. Jeff Sessions said, “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety…. The executive order the president will sign today will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become the new normal. And we will save taxpayer money in the meantime.”
The assertion that this is about fiscal responsibility seeks to waylay the reality that arming police on campuses has a dramatic impact on the campus community, and an even greater impact on the engagement with communities outside of the student body. The increased policing in all communities is worrying. When on campus, this increased policing acts as a deterrent to student resistance, and as an obstacle between dialogue within and outside of the university communities.
All of this is part of a broader pattern of police enforcement, and is simultaneously connected to unemployment. At this juncture in history, the system is producing not simply excess workers, as capitalism almost always has, but completely expendable workers to a degree that it never has before. And in the US, we are asking many of these expendable workers to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend university. The average student who graduated in 2016 is left with $37,172 in student loan debt.
It should not be surprising that the majority of the military gear requisitions went to states with the highest poverty rate. High levels of poverty with increases in military-grade equipment is a recipe for disaster. These weapons are not only designed to keep students in line, they also perpetuate a racial and class divide between campus and community. This is especially true for urban campuses, where brand new multimillion-dollar buildings sit comfortably just inside the invisible walls of campus, while run-down houses and apartments sit precariously just outside. This invisible wall is where many of these police acquisitions will be utilized, as the wall is the most common route for squad cars on many campuses.
University Campuses as Police Zones
The US public should be outraged that colleges are undertaking a militarization of their campuses and that higher education administrators are actively supporting this process. Administrators are actively engaged in violently assaulting and bludgeoning our 17-22-year-olds, demonstrating to them the force of the state. Henry Giroux has written previously about these changes in higher education in his prescient book “University in Chains: Confronting the Military-industrial-academic Complex.” The continued supplying of weapons to universities now moves the connections between higher education and the military industrial complex even closer.
Academia is now becoming an even more direct part of the violent controlling arm of the neoliberal state apparatus by enmeshing itself in the military-industrial complex. Nowhere is this more clear than in the continuation of Program 1033, where “money savings” is used as a way of introducing the military to campus, and where administrators oversee the elaboration of a system whereby dissent is quelled by a show of direct force. For what else is an armored vehicle besides a show of force? Bringing the military to campus is providing students an education in living in a police state, and giving them a front-row seat in the classroom of neoliberal politics in the 21st century.