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Homeland Security Goes to College

How college campuses became a Homeland Security battleground.

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 3:24 PM EDT
A UC-Davis police officer pepper-sprays student protesters.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Campus spies. Pepper spray. SWAT teams. Twitter trackers. Biometrics. Student security consultants. Professors of homeland security studies. Welcome to Repress U, class of 2012.

Since 9/11, the homeland security state has come to campus just as it has come to America's towns and cities, its places of work and its houses of worship, its public space and its cyberspace. But the age of (in)security had announced its arrival on campus with considerably less fanfare than elsewhere—until, that is, the "less lethal" weapons were unleashed in the fall of 2011.

Today, from the City University of New York to the University of California, students increasingly find themselves on the frontlines, not of a war on terror, but of a war on "radicalism" and "extremism." Just about everyone from college administrators and educators to law enforcement personnel and corporate executives seems to have enlisted in this war effort. Increasingly, American students are in their sights.

In 2008, I laid out seven steps the Bush administration had taken to create a homeland security campus. Four years and a president later, Repress U has come a long way. In the Obama years, it has taken seven more steps to make the university safe for plutocracy. Here is a step-by-step guide to how they did it.

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1. Target Occupy

Had there been no UC Davis, no Lt. John Pike, no chemical weapons wielded against peacefully protesting students, and no cameras to broadcast it all, Americans might never have known just how far the homeland security campus has come in its mission to police its students. In the old days, you might have called in the National Guard. Nowadays, all you need is an FBI-trained, federally funded, and "less lethally" armed campus police department.

The mass pepper-spraying of students at UC Davis was only the most public manifestation of a long-running campus trend in which, for officers of the peace, the pacification of student protest has become part of the job description. The weapons of choice have sometimes been blunt instruments, such as the extendable batons used to bludgeon the student body at Berkeley, Baruch, and the University of Puerto Rico. At other times, tactical officers have turned to "less-lethal" munitions, like the CS gas, beanbag rounds, and pepper pellets fired into crowds at Occupy protests across the University of California system this past winter.

Yet for everything we see of the homeland security campus, there is a good deal more that we miss. Behind the riot suits, the baton strikes, and the pepper-spray cannons stands a sprawling infrastructure made possible by multimillion-dollar federal grants, "memoranda of understanding" and "mutual aid" agreements among law enforcement agencies, counter-terrorism training, an FBI-sponsored "Academic Alliance," and 103 Joint Terrorism Task Forces (which provide "one-stop shopping" for counterterrorism operations to more than 50 federal and 600 state and local agencies).

"We have to go where terrorism takes us, so we often have to go onto campuses," FBI Special Agent Jennifer Gant told Campus Safety Magazine in an interview last year. To that end, campus administrators and campus police chiefs are now known to coordinate their operations with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "special advisors," FBI "campus liaison agents," an FBI-led National Security Advisory Board, and a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which instructs local law enforcement in everything from "physical techniques" to "behavioral science." More than half of campus police forces already have "intelligence-sharing agreements" with these and other government agencies in place.

 

2. Get a SWAT team

Since 2007, campus police forces have decisively escalated their tactics, expanded their arsenals, and trained ever more of their officers in SWAT-style paramilitary policing. Many agencies acquire their arms directly from the Department of Defense through a surplus weapons sales program known as "1033," which offers, among other things, "used grenade launchers (for the deployment of less lethal weapons)... for a significantly reduced cost."

According to the most recent federal data available, nine out of 10 campus agencies with sworn police officers now deploy armed patrols authorized to use deadly force. Nine in 10 also authorize the use of chemical munitions, while one in five make regular use of Tasers. Last August, an 18-year old student athlete died after being tased at the University of Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, many campus police squads have been educated in the art of war through regular special weapons training sessions by "tactical officers' associations" which run a kind of SWAT university. In October, UC Berkeley played host to an "Urban Shield" SWAT training exercise involving local and campus agencies, the California National Guard, and special police forces from Israel, Jordan, and Bahrain. And since 2010, West Texas A&M has played host to paramilitary training programs for police from Mexico.

In October, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte got its very own SWAT team, equipped with MP-15 rifles, M&P 40 sidearms, and Remington shotguns. "We have integrated SWAT officers into the squads that serve our campus day and night," boasted UNC Charlotte Chief of Police Jeff Baker. The following month, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a SWAT team staged an armed raid on an occupied building, pointing assault rifles at the heads of activists, among them UNC students.

 

3. Spy on Muslims

The long arm of Repress U stretches far beyond the bounds of any one campus or college town. As reported by the Associated Press this winter, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and its hitherto secret "Demographics Unit" sent undercover operatives to spy on members of the Muslim Students Association at more than 20 universities in four states across the Northeast beginning in 2006.

None of the organizations or persons of interest were ever accused of any wrongdoing, but that didn't stop NYPD detectives from tracking Muslim students through a "Cyber Intelligence Unit," issuing weekly "MSA Reports" on local chapters of the Muslim Students Association, attending campus meetings and seminars, noting how many times students prayed, or even serving as chaperones for what they described as "militant paintball trips." The targeted institutions ran the gamut from community colleges to Columbia and Yale.

According to the AP's investigation, the intelligence units in question worked closely not only with agencies in other cities, but with an agent on the payroll of the CIA. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, facing mounting calls to resign, has issued a spirited defense of the campus surveillance program, as has Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "If terrorists aren't limited by borders and boundaries, we can't be either," Kelly said in a speech at Fordham Law School.

The NYPD was hardly the only agency conducting covert surveillance of Muslim students on campus. The FBI has been engaging in such tactics for years. In 2007, UC Irvine student Yasser Ahmed was assaulted by FBI agents, who followed him as he was on his way to a campus "free speech zone." In 2010, Yasir Afifi, a student at Mission College in Santa Clara, California, found a secret GPS tracking device affixed to his car. A half-dozen agents later knocked on his door to ask for it back.

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