In the wake of protests against police brutality, Central Student Government announced in May they would take steps to address issues related to the presence of law enforcement on the University of Michigan campus.
At the end of May, CSG pledged to examine police departments that work with the University and to urge the University to cut ties if they demonstrate discrimination against students of color. CSG President Amanda Kaplan and CSG Vice President Saveri Nandigama promised to include diverse voices from around campus in their investigation. However, four prominent student organizations representing students of color said CSG and the University sidelined them during the decision-making process for the fall semester.
Much of this controversy centers around CSG’s involvement in the contentious Michigan Ambassadors program. CSG leadership has maintained that they’ve worked to minimize police involvement by suggesting a text registry to prevent police interaction and by pushing for the disarmament of officers in the program. But the heads of some of the University’s multiethnic organizations said CSG did not fully listen to their concerns and have called for the program to end altogether.
Kaplan and Nandigama attended a July meeting about COVID-19 safety on campus with various student organizations. They said leaders from groups serving students of color expressed the need to limit police interactions with students on and off campus given worries that increasing policing on campus would disproportionately affect Black and Brown students.
Kaplan and Nandigama said they continued to ask for input from diverse voices throughout the summer on various issues relating to equity and campus safety.
“We have been communicating with all of the major umbrella organizations of color on literally five different committees for election programming, for the COVID addendum, for fall planning, for policing on campus, so we’re really lucky they’ve been available this summer, and we’ve been talking with almost all of them,” Kaplan said.
Though CSG held formal committee meetings and a town hall sponsored by the NAACP, Kaplan and Nandigama said their consultations with students across campus were largely informal.
“I’m a person of color, and so a lot of times, I’m the only person of color in the room, and so it’s very unfair to me to be made into some sort of monolith, and that’s a lot of what had happened previously,” Nandigama said. “To mitigate that, we created this sort of informal texting group, we have a GroupMe, and we run things by them, so that way I don’t have to speak for all students of color, and Amanda doesn’t need to speak for all white people as well as students of color.”
But the Students of Color Liberation Front — a coalition of the Black Student Union, United Asian American Organizations, La Casa, Arab Student Association and Students Allied for Freedom and Education — said in a statement to The Daily their input was excluded from key decisions surrounding safety on campus.
“CSG called our organizations into their meetings in July,” the statement read. “In those early meetings, nothing close to the Michigan Ambassadors program was ever mentioned. Rather, we discussed plans to enforce public health restrictions regarding COVID-19. Our organizations expressed concerns over these preliminary plans that expanded policing on campus in the name of public health.”
According to the statement, CSG did not discuss some aspects of what eventually became the Ambassadors program at these meetings.
“Then, after a month of no further communication, U-M Student Life, the Ann Arbor Police Department, and the Division of Public Safety and Security announced the Michigan Ambassadors program,” the statement continued. “It was clear that decisions were made without our consultation, let alone our acceptance. This is concerning considering that our organizations are the largest racial/ethnic justice organizations on campus and that policing impacts Black and Brown communities disproportionately.”
Kaplan and Nandigama said they’re actively working to mitigate any harm caused by the program. They said the text registry, a side feature of the Michigan Ambassador program, was a CSG-led initiative to reduce student contact with police.
“We have spoken to AAPD and DPSS about their concerns as far as why they have police officers in certain parts of campus,” Nandigama said. “It doesn’t matter what frankly anybody thinks is the reality of the practice, but if students do feel threatened by police officers, it’s our job as student leaders to ensure they don’t feel threatened. So we talked to them at length about reducing face-to-face interactions with police forces and minimizing police presence on campus, which is why we have the texting service.”
Students who register their address and phone number with the University will be informed via text or phone call about a complaint against their residence for minor social distancing offenses, instead of interacting with a police officer.
“We’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of people already registered for it,” Kaplan said.
LSA junior Mishaal Yazdani, a member of the South Asian Awareness Network, said she approved of the texting registry. However, she noted University communications advertised the Michigan Ambassadors program more prominently than CSG’s solution.
“I think the texting service has really gotten shadowed because I think what everyone is focusing on is the Ambassador program, and I’ve heard a lot more about that with communication through the University than anything about residents regulating themselves,” Yazdani said.
After pushback from the community, the University also announced that the Michigan Ambassadors program would no longer have armed or sworn officers walking around campus with the student-led ambassador teams. Kaplan and Nandigama said CSG’s input pushed the University to agree to this change.
Yazdani said she believes CSG leadership did the right thing seeking out members of diverse organizations on campus for input.
“I think they did a really good job,” Yazdani said. “The collective agreement with the people who were working with (CSG) was just the appreciation for them to reach out to people and invite them to have these meetings and participate in the discussion of reducing law enforcement.”
Kaplan and Nandigama said CSG has been in talks with DPSS and AAPD to increase bias training. Eventually, they said CSG wants to move toward reallocating police funding to other programs.
Nandigama said discussing anti-bias training is a strategic effort, noting that DPSS seemed open to talks, but CSG has made little headway in their goals.
“We use (anti-bias training) as an in because, especially as we’re liaising with DPSS and AAPD, we don’t want to come in saying, ‘we’re abolishing you,’” Nandigama said. “We know there’s a lot of anti-bias (training) that exists, and so if you say you do have anti-bias training, but this bias is still present, then where’s the discrepancy and how can you rectify that? And then how can you minimize police presence while people are rectifying it so that we can actually reform and change like we want?”
Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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