Zou, Carol. "Against the Carceral Logic of the University." PUBLIC: Arts, Design, Humanities v5, no. issue2 (2019). http://public.imaginingamerica.org/blog/article/against-the-carceral-logic-of-the-university/.
Against the Carceral Logic of the University


The slogan on the Left, then, ‘universities, not jails,’ marks a choice that may not be possible. In other words, perhaps more universities promote more jails. Perhaps it is necessary finally to see that the university produces incarceration as the product of its negligence. Perhaps there is another relation between the University and the Prison—beyond simple opposition or family resemblance—that the undercommons reserves as the object and inhabitation of another abolitionism.

—Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013, 41)


The paradox of a university pursuing community-engaged work is that the proposition already presupposes a hierarchy of difference. For the university to work with “community,” the “community” must be defined as outside, or other; the university cannot at once be the community it proposes to engage.

For the university to see itself as part of a community, however, means that the violences that one may perceive and try to address in this otherized “community”—precarity, incarceration, displacement, etc.—are acknowledged as the same violences that pervade the university. For a university to be part of a community, instead of standing apart, the university must also open itself up to the same agitation and transformation that it engages beyond its walls. If the architectural logic of incarceration, of border separation, is walls, then the architecture of decarceration must at the very least identify places where conceptual and physical walls between the university and its surrounding community become porous.

Writing in “The University and the Undercommons,” Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013) gesture at the existence of carceral logic beyond the structures of prisons, and assert the university as one of the sites of this carceral logic. Imagining a decarcerated society, in other words, requires imagining a decarcerated university—or perhaps no university at all.

Imagining America’s 2018 National Gathering, Decarceration and Liberatory Futures, occurred one month after California State University Long Beach (CSULB) had exercised this carceral logic with the firing of University Art Museum director Kimberli Meyer for her support of artist lauren woods’s American MONUMENT project on police brutality. The artists, agitators, and organizers who cocreated Imagining America’s National Gathering, and the carceral suppression of American MONUMENT on a public university campus, provide a starting point for thinking through the strategies, realities, and challenges of decarcerating higher education.

Figure 1: Installation view of American MONUMENT, CSULB.
Image courtesy of the artist lauren woods.

American MONUMENT is a project by Dallas-based artist lauren woods, in which 25 vinyl record players play back audio recordings of phrases excerpted from files on police killings of black victims, including Philando Castile (killed by Jeronimo Yanez, July 6, 2016, in Saint Paul, Minnesota) and Mike Brown (killed by Darren Wilson, August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri). The project also included pedagogical components intended to engage CSULB students and local activist groups. American MONUMENT was part of a larger effort by then CSULB University Art Museum Director Kimberli Meyer to introduce racial justice-focused programming that would increase the relevance of the museum to a campus with a student of color majority.

However, CSULB fired Meyer days before the opening of American MONUMENT. In response, woods placed the project on pause, stating that it could not continue without one of her main collaborators. As woods, Meyer, and concerned students and allies continued to advocate for a restorative justice process to un-pause the project, a complicated story emerged linking Meyer’s firing to the politics of police unions, employee unions, and expansionist efforts by CSULB in downtown Long Beach (Shaked 2018).

In the aftermath and duration of the pause, the University Art Museum has tried to salvage its public image through social justice-oriented panels and programs. However, a good faith decarceration effort on the part of the university requires structural change, not public programming. The banality of evil, and the related banality of incarceration, takes the form of a police union making an unprecedented request to see the content of the exhibition before its opening. It takes the form of an appeals process in which one of the deciding administrators is also an advisor for the Downtown Long Beach Alliance, where Meyer refused an expansion of the University Art Museum into a rapidly gentrifying downtown Long Beach. On the surface, these processes don’t look the same as the processes of incarceration; however, these seemingly banal processes uphold structural violences that prevent a public institution from pedagogically addressing the abuse of police power that so often leads to incarceration, death, and the decimation of black and brown communities in the United States.

On the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains, the group Revolutionary Scholars at California State University Northridge (CSUN) creates advocacy and support structures for formerly incarcerated and systems-impacted students. One of Revolutionary Scholars’ focal points has been Executive Order 1100, a statewide executive order that threatens the existence of ethnic studies programs in California State Universities. Both of Revolutionary Scholars’ endeavors—working directly with incarcerated and systems-impacted students and statewide advocacy—aim to carve out a space in higher education for historically excluded community knowledges as part of Revolutionary Scholars’ decarceral premise.

The existence of ethnic studies programs in California public universities, after all, grew out of 1960s student activism alongside the civil rights movement. Lowered barriers to tuition and access resulted in an influx of first-generation students of color, who would then continue to occupy transformative positions in the push toward racial justice and recognition. If we understand necropolitics as addressing forms of physical, economic, and social death, access to higher education becomes an important conduit by which communities of color access economic survival. Justice for the extrajudicial killing of black and brown bodies necessitates the concomitant creation of separate conditions of survival; the Black Panther Party recognized this relationship with their initiatives addressing access to food, health care, and education.

Today, as Revolutionary Scholars leads protests against Executive Order 1100, students graduate college with staggering debt into a bleak job market that offers few opportunities for debt repayment. Tenure-track faculty positions dwindle in favor of adjunct faculty who often juggle course loads at multiple institutions without health care or job security. This swift erosion of education access undergirds the increasing divide between the rich and poor.

Poverty is not just poverty; poverty is no uncertain road to death. Higher education’s complicity in the poverty of its staff, adjunct faculty, and students is intimately connected to the epidemic of black and brown death in the United States. American MONUMENT and Revolutionary Scholars address police brutality and incarceration within the larger context of student debt, adjunct insecurity, campus sexual assault, and forced displacement of neighboring communities that has come to implicate higher education.

American MONUMENT’s presence at CSULB has now ended with no satisfactory resolution. If we are to reimagine the university as a porous entity, accountable and in relation to the society-at-large within which it exists, we should consider the following events which occurred in geographic and temporal proximity to the American MONUMENT opening and Imagining America’s 2018 National Gathering:

On August 28, 2018, 19 days before the opening of American MONUMENT, Balch Springs (a Dallas suburb) police officer Roy Oliver was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the 2017 murder of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.
On September 6, 2018, 10 days before the opening of American MONUMENT, off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyger walked into Botham Jean Shem’s apartment and fatally shot him twice in cold blood.
On October 5, 2018, 19 days after the opening of American MONUMENT, and 2 weeks before Imagining America’s Chicago gathering, Chicago police officer Jason van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder for the 2014 murder of LaQuan McDonald.

In 2014, the same year that LaQuan McDonald was murdered, Patrisse Cullors-Khan, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometti formed #blacklivesmatter in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. At that time, a conviction for an officer-involved shooting seemed unimaginable. Roy Oliver’s conviction comes 45 years after the last time a Dallas-area officer was convicted for the shooting of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez. Jason van Dyke’s conviction comes almost half a century after the last conviction in Chicago. And yet, while these convictions would seem to bend towards the arc of more justice, the pyrrhic nature of a 15-year-sentence and of second-degree murder suggests that we are no more at peace. We still live in a world where Amber Guyger bonded out in under 3 hours while protesters demanding justice for Botham Shem Jean remained in jail for over 15 hours (Alcorn 2018) and we still live in a world where a university will agree to an exhibition on police brutality, but fire a museum director for their anti-racist institutional work.

These small steps towards police accountability and the end of the carceral state would not have succeeded without years of tireless organizing and dozens of unnamed protesters risking their bodies and livelihoods. Structural change does not only consist of mounting an exhibition, but of changing institutional policies, behaviors, and attitudes that have been systematically designed to disregard black life.

The sustained effort that resulted in a modicum of justice for LaQuan McDonald is an arduous and unglamorous struggle with many unknown casualties. It is a struggle whose road is lined with phone calls, sit-ins, and paperwork, indicated by the pop-up archive of Chicago-related print ephemera curated by Read/Write/Library. Chicago activists such as Mariame Kaba of Project NIA and the coalition behind the Chicago Torture Justice Center have spent years educating and mobilizing an organizing infrastructure that continues to agitate against an unjust state.

In these moments, the constellation of agitators gathered by Imagining America’s 2018 conference remind us that knowledge about social change originates from outside of higher education, from organizers living and working in communities directly impacted by systemic violence. Monica Cosby, a Chicago-based organizer and one of the advisors for the conference, noted that university entrance applications demand knowledge that formerly incarcerated individuals cannot access, while dismissing the breadth of lived experience that formerly incarcerated individuals possess. Cosby is pursuing her degree at the University of Illinois as part of a program supported by the Education Justice Project, an example of a structural intervention into the university to transform the way that knowledge is defined and accessed.

Decarcerating higher education requires structural interventions into the ways that a university relates to a larger community, and the way that a university relates to pedagogy. In the case of American MONUMENT, it requires systemic changes that enable a university to sustain a good faith dialogue about the violences that occur within its larger social context. In the case of Monica Cosby and Revolutionary Scholars, it involves creating access points for systemically excluded communities. And lastly, decarcerating the university means ceding higher education’s monopoly on knowledge production to activists like Mariame Kaba and the organizers behind the Chicago Torture Justice Center. Abolition does not only call for the end of prisons, but rather for the complete reimagining of a society and how it addresses violence and harm. We can begin by reimagining the university.


Works Cited

Alcorn, Chauncey. 2018. “Botham Jean Supporters Arrested at Dallas Cowboys Game Stuck in Jail While Amber Guyger Walks Free.” Mic, September 17. https://mic.com/articles/191363/dallas-cowboys-botham-jean-protests#.VdjnVO5HS.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. “The University and the Undercommons.” In The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School of Business. https://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6024&context=lkcsb_research.

Shaked, Nizan. 2018. “After a Director Is Fired and a Work of Art Paused, We Must Demand Social Justice.” Hyperallergic, October 26. https://hyperallergic.com/467456/after-a-director-is-fired-and-a-work-of-art-paused-we-must-demand-social-justice/.

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