Opinion: Whose safety? Policing Palestinian activism at UBC

Editors' Note: This article was submitted by Dr. Christina Laffin on behalf of a collective of concerned faculty members in the Department of Asian Studies who contributed equally to the drafting of this piece. It is adapted from an open letter sent to President Benoit-Antoine Bacon on May 17, signed by faculty members in 41 academic units and programs.

On May 15, we witnessed police with guns in our library — a phalanx of tactically armed, black-clad intruders surveilling and taunting a group of peaceable students and other protestors who chanted and drummed plastic bottles to make their demands heard. While the demonstrators took care to enable ongoing access to offices and workspaces and the continuation of work in the library, police officers shut down entry to the building and repeatedly threatened them with arrest. 

Over the past few weeks, we have seen police presence increase, including the arrival of a paramilitary force on campus. Alarmed by this militaristic response to students’ rightful protest of UBC’s complicity in genocide, on May 17 we composed a letter to UBC President Benoit-Antoine Bacon which was endorsed by faculty members from 41 units and programs. Our plea to the President was for police to be removed from our campus.

In our letter, we stated: “The presence of police leaves us less safe and endangers those on campus, particularly UBC community members who may be vulnerable to racial profiling including Black, Indigenous, Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern communities. We demand that all police immediately leave campus and that Campus Security stop targeting student activism.” 

President Bacon responded to our letter of concern regarding police on campus, indicating in a short May 22 email that the administration has chosen to ally with “law enforcement authorities” as a means of securing a “safe” campus environment. 

Following his assurance of a “measured approach,” on June 1, police arrested a hijab-wearing Muslim UBC alumna following a peaceful protest. We ask, whose safety is the University claiming to protect, and why is it that certain lives, including those of our community members, are treated as exceptions?

Over the past month, many of us have spent considerable time with members of the People’s University for Gaza at UBC, including our students, and have stood alongside them at protests. The UBC encampment has been created with a great deal of thought and careful organization, from the setting up of tents and a medical station, to the development of a library and archives, artwork and a small flower garden.

Those in the encampment have worked in tandem with some Indigenous members of First Nations, in solidarity with Palestine. All of this has been accomplished while enduring bouts of windstorms, heavy rain and cold weather. We have been deeply impressed by their dedication in calling for just demands. Students have legitimately protested our complicity as UBC continues to support the Israeli war machine through investment in companies that fund weaponry and war technologies, and the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. 

As faculty members at UBC, we are disturbed by the so-called “neutral” stance claimed by our institutional leadership, which willfully ignores our role in the financing of the ongoing Nakba inflicted on Palestinians. We are appalled by the use of policing as the university's communication strategy and the mobilization of our campus as a laboratory for shared tactics of violence across police forces (RCMP, VPD, C-IRG/CRU-BC or Critical Response Unit, partnered with Campus Security) in the name of “safety” and the “protection” of “community.” Students and community members involved with the encampment have been targeted by police on our campus. 

Through his actions, President Bacon has made clear the voices he is open to hearing and the members of our UBC community he values. It speaks volumes that he is willing to engage with Zionist politicians and lobbyists for Israel in Ottawa yet is unwilling to genuinely listen to his own students. Students have voiced their demands clearly, building on the tenets of decolonization and anti-racism our institution claims to foster. 

If we all took heed, we would recognize that those who built the People’s University for Gaza at UBC are not the enemy but are forging a path based on knowledge and justice.

We hope that the Palestinian flags which have been planted by UBC students across campus are appreciated for what they truly represent: not threat or danger, but emblems of Palestinian resistance, resilience and fearless hope.

This is an opinion article. It reflects the author's views and does not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Contribute to the conversation by visiting ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.