The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black communities and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and Rayshard Brooks should finally make it clear:
Our house is not built equitably. It is stratified along the lines of race and class. Working class communities of color face premature death from inadequate resources, pipelines that steer them into prisons or poverty, a justice system that criminalizes them and turns a blind eye to structural inequality, and a police force that enforces laws and practices that treat them worse than animals.
People in these communities know this all too well (listen to her, before me, really). Some institutions are finally catching up: The American Public Health Association and several cities have declared systemic racism a public health crisis.
In San Diego, we need our representatives and public institutions to acknowledge this crisis and to work with these communities to develop systemic solutions.
They do not.
Our city council members approved a budget that puts more money into a blunt instrument. Policing deals with symptoms rather than causes. It targets working class communities of color that feel the greatest impact of our defunded and frayed social safety net. It violently protects an inequitable status quo. The numbers show the gross inequality in San Diego policing.
To some, our university may seem removed from this, but it is not. For decades UCSD administrators have recognized the structural flaws that produce inequities but have lacked the courage to implement bold structural reforms. Elitist standards block working class communities from entry. The assumption of a level playing field steers working class students of color away from “competitive” majors and to the lower end of the grade curve. Added to this, administrators invest in a police force that blasts out racial profiles when crimes are reported on or near campus, or that questions Black students for being outside their own apartments. Then, of course, there are the microaggressions or aggressions on campus or in La Jolla. Underrepresented Black and Brown students, already alienated from whitewashed academic culture, are made to feel the stigma this country has carved into their skin or hung around their necks.
People in the streets know that peace will only come when those treated unjustly achieve justice. That is why we chant, “No justice! No peace!”
Justice will not be achieved with hollow statements, another office of diversity, more officers on the streets. It will be achieved through tangible economic policy that prioritizes communities looted and overpoliced for centuries: Black, Brown, Indigenous communities. It will be achieved when they get their due: wealth, power, and resources long-denied and long-hoarded by white elites.
Our city council can step toward justice by divesting money from policing and investing it in these communities.
UCSD can also take steps. It can begin by acknowledging its own complicity in the crisis: how its elitist culture excludes, polices, and punishes working class communities of color. It can then commit to changing the culture: the UC-wide elimination of biased standardized tests and moves to restore affirmative action are good steps. But the steps must extend beyond inclusion to empowerment. It could give students and faculty of color from working class backgrounds a prominent role in curriculum development and discipline oversight. It could cut ties with companies that have records of discrimination or worker abuse. It could forge connections with local businesses owned by black, brown, indigenous folks.
Most importantly, UCSD can shift its priorities. It can put people—especially local working-class communities of color—above profits, patents, and growth. Such a shift might get us to question our investment in industries that reap profit from human misery or that create new markets where the safety net has been cut. It would get us to move funds from military research on drones and surveillance toward community-led and community-centered research initiatives. Imagine Black, Brown, Indigenous communities marshalling university resources to develop humane institutions that make policing and prisons obsolete. Imagine these communities guiding the university to projects that, instead of profiting individual professors or corporate affiliates, makes San Diego healthier, more equitable and integrated, more planet friendly. One way UCSD can begin this shift is by restoring laid-off essential workers, many of whom come from communities hardest hit by the crisis. Silicon Valley-style facilities shouldn’t be put before facility workers’ lives.
Changes of this sort won’t come without pressure from grassroots organizations. In San Diego, Defund the Police San Diego has been educating people about alternatives to policing. The Community Budget Alliance has proposed a people’s budget that prioritizes communities most impacted by Covid-19. At UCSD, Black medical students organized protests around a series of anti-racist demands. The rest of us should follow their lead, even in simple ways like voting for city council members or AS representatives who support systemic solutions, gearing our curriculums and careers to confront this and interlocking crises, or divesting ourselves from companies whose thirst for profits has literally sucked up the oxygen from working class communities and black bodies.
History shows us that together we can make change. Those at UCSD need not look far for examples: the UC divestment campaigns that helped end apartheid in South Africa; the anti-sweatshop campaigns of the early 2000s that cut university ties to sweatshop labor; divestment from fossil fuels, which despite what UC investors reasoned, was made possible by sustained student activism and faculty pressure.
And this change is now. We’re living in it. Over the last few months, we have seen far too many people die prematurely to sleep through this revolution. To do them justice, we recognize what took them too soon—not the pathogen alone, but a pathological system that exposes vulnerable populations to infection. Not the racist officer alone, but a system that produces too many of those officers. The most pained victims of our system—nursing home residents and essential workers; abandoned Black, Brown, Indigenous communities; queer, trans, and undocumented people; refugees and prisoners; opiate addicts and the unhoused; George Floyd and his lynched brothers and sisters—place a demand on us. They call us to look deeply at the problem, to root it out of our institutions and minds, to redress the damage done. So that their kin can breathe. Breathe free. When that day comes, the dead will have justice, and the living: peace.
Niall Twohig teaches systemic analysis in the Warren College writing program. He dedicates this essay to his students who lost loved ones this quarter.