Ivy League librarians call for an end to all policing

December 4, 2020 • 1:00 pm

My impression of librarians is that they are sensible and anti-woke, at least in terms of their stand on free speech and free expression. After all, they are the guardians and disseminators of all knowledge, the opponents of censoring books, and I have respected them immensely. They’ve also been a huge help to me in my academic work as well as in writing my popular books.  I guess I thought this admiring view would hold for their other opinions as well. But I was sorely disabused this week when I read two screeds by high-class librarians.

The first one, below, is from a group of 13 “Ivy League+” librarians—including one from the University of Chicago—who have signed a document calling for major changes in universities and libraries. The most important of these is a call for the complete elimination of the police. Not just campus police, but all police.  This document, in fact, doesn’t materially differ from the unhinged manifestos and lists of “demands” regularly issued by students at American colleges. I am disappointed.

The Ivy+ manifesto begins with the requisite invocation of George Floyd as well as the required (but unevidenced) claim that their institutions are not only structurally racist, but complicit in sustaining that racism (emphases in the following are mine):

In early June, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, library organizations and directors issued statements condemning racism and racial violence. A statement from the Association of Research Libraries [JAC: see below] implored that “[i]t is incumbent upon leaders of libraries and archives to examine our institutions’ role in sustaining systems of inequity that have left Black communities and other people of color in the margins of every aspect of our profession.”

. . . We recognize that librarianship, an overwhelmingly white profession, has systematically marginalized BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and librarians with disabilities. The conceptualization of our demands would not be possible without the labor and leadership of these very librarians, theorists, activists, and communities. We also recognize the privilege and power held by Ivy+ and other major research libraries, and thus, it is imperative that we use our privilege to speak out against library practices that cause harm. We build from and stand in solidarity with abolitionist movements happening in all library spaces. We believe in order to fully embody the ethics of librarianship it is necessary to align with the practices and aims of abolition. We hope many more voices will join us in signing onto these demands and in this bold and beautiful work of dreaming, demanding, and being in a better world. Reckoning with our own histories of and complicity in white supremacy and anti-Black racism is in the best interest not only of our institutions and patrons but our profession at large. Libraries are not neutral, nor should they be silent — but we’ve heard, seen, and spoken enough — solidarity is not found in statements, but in actions, and the time to act is now.

Have libraries really been this bigoted and nefarious?

And they’re also said to also sustain the police. The group says that they—the librarians themselves—have internalized their bigotry:

. . . we believe libraries have not gone far enough in this examination by refusing to fully consider our relationships with policing, surveillance, and the prison–industrial complex. These library statements do not explicitly name policing itself as the problem — an expression and exacerbation of racial capitalism and violence — despite it being a very real and dire existential threat to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), as well as those in the LGBTQIA+ community. Therefore, we find these statements morally and politically insufficient responses. Without naming the specific problem of policing, these statements not only let libraries off the hook for the many ways in which we have internalized the practices of the carceral state in our profession, but also leave the door open for “both sides’’ arguments or appeals to “law and order,” and encourage dangerous and ineffective reforms.

I won’t waste my time attacking this, for, according to Hitchen’s Razor, claims unsustained by evidence don’t need to be refuted by evidence. Perhaps these statements  just constitute the necessary self-flagellation and moral preening needed before they call for the elimination of both campus and regular police . They never, of course, say what will replace the police.

The solution to police violence is not reform but an abolition of policing in all its forms. Therefore, we call on the leadership of our institutions and all of our colleagues to embrace an abolitionist vision of a hopeful, life-affirming future and to immediately begin the work of divesting from police and prisons with the ultimate goal of the complete abolition of law enforcement and surveillance from library spaces, campuses, communities — in short, everywhere.

No more cops! They’re not just talking about campus police, for they want the abolition of law enforcement and surveillance from EVERYWHERE. Who will enforce the law, then? Apparently, nobody.  The attempt of students to disband the campus police at the U of C have already failed, but the librarians’ feeble attempt to adduce “evidence” for the ineffectiveness of campus policing is risible.

Many people will acknowledge the harm done by police and law enforcement but question the safety implications of defunding and divesting from policing on campus. But reporting from police forces shows that law enforcement and surveillance do not keep campuses safe. As Black organizers across the country have been declaring in the streets, “We keep us safe.” Therefore, we demand that library leadership remove any reliance on law enforcement as a means of addressing conflicts that arise in all library spaces by 2022.

I invite you to look at the link they give above. It goes to a Twitter thread from an associate professor at our University’s Harris School of Public Policy, a thread that uses our campus police database to show that black people get stopped disproportionately often by the campus cops, both in person and in traffic, compared to their frequency in the Hyde Park as well as in the University of Chicago student population.

That’s it: those data say nothing about the inability of campus police to keep the campus safe. And the disproportionality doesn’t point to any one cause; there could be more incidents involving black people, it could be genuine bigotry and racism, or it could reflect the fact that we’re surrounded by black communities and the campus police patrol a much larger area of the South Side than just Hyde Park. (Hyde Park extends south for 8 blocks, from 51st street to 59th Street, while the campus cops patrol 27 blocks—from 37th to 64th Street: more than 3 times the area of Hyde Park proper, with almost all of the additional area comprising black residents.)

Is this the best that librarians can do to support their claim? Librarians? They have all the research in the world at their fingertips, and this is what they do?

There are many other demands, of course, including eliminating video surveillance in libraries, divesting from companies that use prison labor, and so on, but I’ll let you read the document itself. (I myself happen to agree that prisons should not be privatized.)

And there’s a similar list of demands representing a much more extensive group of librarians—the Association of Research Libraries:

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 124 research libraries at comprehensive, research institutions in Canada and the United States. ARL member libraries make up a large portion of the academic and research library marketplace, spending more than $1.4 billion every year on information resources and actively engaging in the development of new models of scholarly communications.

You can read their statement below. It’s mercifully shorter than the Ivy+ document, but still makes the unevidenced claim that libraries “sustain systems of inequity”. Some of the “demands” are reasonable, like ensuring that there be an equitable proportion of employees of color, but others, like “highlighting the work of theorists, educators, and other scholars who have been studying about these phenomena for decades,” represent an ideological position that is unseemly for librarians. They want to emphasize Critical Theory. (That alone has taken this group down a notch.)

But that’s just my view. It’s Friday, and I’d rather be walking along Lake Michigan (which I will) than calling out these endlessly circulating manifestos of self-flagellation and insupportable demands. So you can read this one for yourself:

It’s not, of course, that I’m in favor of racism. Rather, I’m against extreme and histrionic statements that included unfounded claims, and against proposals that restrict speech and action but do nothing to help solve the problem of racial inequality in America. And I can tell you one thing: eliminating all police, both campus and public ones, is not going to do what the proponents think it will do.

55 thoughts on “Ivy League librarians call for an end to all policing

    1. Enough of this madness! Encourage the police to go on strike (and moonlight as private security guards) and not return until the citizens — not the local govrt. or any other bunch of official bureaucrats — petition them to return. Before leaving, the police should warn the people about how to )a) hire private guards and how to (b) form effective “militias” of their own. Then let’s see which method those librarians wind up choosing — or if they’re the first to beg the cops to come back to work.

  1. I thought from the hed that librarians were calling for an end to all policing of books, and thought “great!”

    I never knew that being a librarian called upon one to express an official position on law enforcement.

    1. I’d no more look to a librarian for an opinion on policing than I’d ask a cop about the Dewey Decimal System.

  2. From the hed, I thought librarians were calling for an end to all policing of books and thought “great!”

    I never knew that being a librarian called for one to express an an opinion on law enforcement.

  3. “Have libraries really been this bigoted and nefarious?” The answer to your question, Professor, is no. I’m a retired librarian and a longstanding member of the American Library Association since my student days. My professional association has long leaned progressive, and so none of us should be surprised that it and its subdivisions have gone full woke now. I’m an old-school liberal, and I’m shaking my head at these pronouncements that librarianship has systemically marginalized minorities. Sure, Melvil Dewey, the founder of the ALA, may have voiced the sexism of his day in the late 1800s, but since then the Association has continuously grown as an exemplar of inclusion and diversity, to the point where today we have an African-American woman as the Librarian of Congress and an African-American woman as the executive director of the ALA. Space limits me in listing all the gay men, lesbians, Indigenous, Hispanics, Asians, et al., in addition to the many African-Americans, who have held and who hold now positions of power and influence in librarianship. It seems that the more liberal and inclusive an organization is, the more it has to self-flagellate about its racism. This is kind of like intellectual anorexia, in that, just as the poor anorexic is deluded into thinking they are still too overweight, the non-racist progressive is deluded into thinking they are still too racist.

    1. “Intellectual anorexia.” That’s perfect.

      And yes the current librarians at my research university are super-woke regressives, but their predecessors were not.

    2. “Intellectual anorexia” is indeed a wonderfully descriptive term that brings into focus the unhealthy fixation with the prevalence induced concept change that causes one to see finer and finer grained instances of the offending behavior. It is this sort of thinking that has given us microaggressions, which presumably within the next decade will give way to nanoaggressions.

  4. I think not only should police, courts and prisons be defunded but, given the racial/sex differences in health and life expectancy, the whole medical industrial complex – hospitals, doctors, health insurance, pharmaceutical companies – should also be defunded in order to achieve health equity.

  5. I think we can expect the Woke to penetrate all academic areas, especially those that are distant from STEM fields. Virtually everything they deal with is opinion so the whole “lived experience” and “you make your own truth” resonates with them. If there should be any doubt, the Wikipedia entry for “Library science” has a top-level item:

    4. Gender and library science in the United States

    You just can’t get away from this stuff.

  6. Why don’t they set an example by promising never to call the police for crimes committed in their libraries. For example, if someone walked out with an armful of books without checking them out. Or took some of the library furniture home. Or, even carried out violent attacks on library patrons, they would never call the police.

    1. Bill, I know you’re exaggerating for effect, and I agree with your point. As a counterexample to the librarians in Prof. Coyne’s article above, I can report that in the six libraries I have worked in, my colleagues and I enjoyed close, friendly relationships with our local police departments. The libraries and the PDs even put on joint programs. We considered ourselves partners in public service.

    2. I will be happy to help test and enforce that example, since there are many libraries whose books I covet.

  7. The logic of this pronunciamento is simplicity itself. The problem, which it states at the outset, is that
    ” librarianship, an overwhelmingly white profession, has systematically marginalized BIPOC, LGBTQIA+,
    and librarians with disabilities.” The obvious solution: to abolish all police, prisons, and courts, which will
    therefore create a flood of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ librarians.

    Incidentally, the last-named acronymic group seems to have grown since I last encountered it, when it was only LGBT. We can guess who the Q are, but who are “I” and “A+”—unless “A” and “+” are two separate new categories of the Elect. Hard to keep up with these fine points of terminology. I guess it
    would fine to have more “A” and “+” librarians, whoever they may be.

      1. I’m not sure that the plus is for everyone who doesn’t feel included in the previous as I guess cis-gendered heterosexuals are excluded.

    1. “The obvious solution: to abolish all police, prisons, and courts, which will
      therefore create a flood of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ librarians.”

      You’ve nailed the motivation behind these librarians, who all hold elite positions. They are defending their privilege. Instead of formulating concrete policies to diversify their institutions, they are engaging in cosmetic activism, pushing a frivolous policy that has no chance of becoming reality. They can hold on to their privilege while looking like activists at the same time. So much wokeness in this country is produced by the Ivy League to make itself look good. It’s time we engaged in some genuinely serious anti-elitism!

  8. There is only one thing you can be sure of. Everyone today is an expert. I’m sure the librarians have the full support of the custodial services that actually clean their libraries. Those folks who work nights and likely go through the roughest part of town getting from work to home. Sure they did….

  9. The library is TOO quiet, they want action. With no cops about they will certainly get it,
    Did the NRA endorse this policy?
    cos everyone will be taking care of themselves… apparently.
    Shoot out over late returns?
    Books and Bullet specials?
    How to be your own cop! A must read.

    1. Seriously, there was a trustee at one of my libraries who, in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, wanted to arm every librarian.

      1. I wish I had had one! Preferably a blunderbuss with a good scatter to get the maximum number of stoodents!

        Actually I loved my students & had a great relationship with them, mainly because I made sure they knew I was there for their benefit not mine.

      2. Presumably under the mantra of “The only way to stop a bad librarian with a gun is a good librarian with a gun”?

  10. The manifesto states:

    “The solution to police violence is not reform but an abolition of policing in all its forms.”

    Such an absurdly stupid statement reflects what seems to be an increasingly dangerous phenomenon: people living in their own hermetically sealed bubbles, totally oblivious to reality. Apparently, the librarians don’t realize this will never happen. Even worse, it is fodder for the right wing. Such is the reason why much sorely needed true progressive reform is so hard to implement because the far left refuses to compromise and, hence always loses.Of course, the right wing is in its own bubble. This sad situation reflects how badly fractured American society is. The voices of people in the middle tend to be shouted down.

    1. As a retired librarian, I feel safe in assuring you that this manifesto did not come from the librarians working on the front lines, the people in the middle, but rather from those residing in the Ivory Towers of the profession.

      1. Some libraries are effectively day centres for the homeless. Despite being very progressive, they tend to have security.

      2. Snap! Have seen the bullshit that is churned out by the awakened…

        By the way, who won the Ivy League this year? 🤔

    2. And some justify abolishing the police because reform hasn’t worked in the past. But can it really take long before one sees the illogic in that idea?

  11. While this is as stupid as it gets, there are only a dozen librarians who’ve signed off on this, which, all things considered, is very few. It will do with watching, though. Librarians have been protectors of knowledge traditionally, if they start going woke in large numbers, I expect we’ll hear of calls for book purges.

  12. “We must overthrow from top to bottom this effete social world which has become impotent and sterile”

    Or, as reputedly written in a public lavatory, “smash the cistern!”

  13. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “abolish the police” has become a fad during a period of low crime rates. And I think it will become much less popular if the crime rate creeps back to what it was in the 80s and 90s!

  14. tl;dr Marginalized communities often need the police; activists don’t care

    About 10,000 people live in the Vancouver neighbourhood called the Downtown East Side, and about 1000 of them are homeless (on the street, in shelters, or in tent camps). Lots of drug trafficking and sex work, lots of street crime, so also lots of policing. And hundreds of deaths from fentanyl overdoses by people who thought they were getting heroin.

    Recently a video surfaced seeming to show a sexual assault in broad daylight on a busy street corner in the DTES. The video generated news stories and interviews with trans activists and sex trade advocates (but typically not with actual homeless people) who brutally criticized the police for not stopping this sexual assault and for not adequately protecting the various groups of marginalized people living on the streets of the DTES.

    One activist suggested that the person who appeared to be assaulted in the video was a black trans sex worker who had ended up in the sex trade (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that”) because of racism and anti-trans bigotry. And implied that this racism and bigotry explains why police don’t protect the people of the DTES.

    Other activists at other times of course point out that homeless people, sex workers, drug addicts, and (especially in Canadian cities) indigenous people are way over-policed and have far too many encounters with police that have a high potential to end in violence and arrest.

    So the police really can’t win: either they are racist anti-trans bigots and are constantly harassing sex trade workers who are just trying to make a buck.

    Or the police are racist anti-trans bigots who don’t care about the violence experienced by black trans sex workers, and are never around when a girl needs a cop.

    I don’t mean the police especially deserve sympathy here: they are all big girls and boys and can take care of themselves.

    Those who really deserve sympathy are the individual people living in the DTES: some days, a girl might really need the paramedics for a dose of Naloxone (and might need the police to just stay out of her way and not hassle her about that bag of heroin that turned out to be fentanyl); other days, she might really need the police to keep the streets safe for her to make a living.

    To the librarians, though, those girls are all just one big mass of identity and needs. No details, no differences, and no nuance (as the free-speech critics like to say). So defund the police, but stop the violence. Somehow.

    And you can bet that if a black trans librarian was sexually assaulted on the street in front of the university library, the librarians would be howling for armed police patrols (and not the unarmed rent-a-cops who the university hires for security).

    The hypocrisy of the librarians is bad enough. But the vanishing of individuals and their needs or qualities seems like a worse feature of this kind of woke blindness.

  15. When I was younger, I worked with several ex-convicts—some of them former gang members. Those guys and their friends would make short work of a bunch of Ivy League librarians. The results would not be pretty. I’d like to tell the Ivy League+ people, “Be careful what you wish for.”

  16. One of the founders of Sociology in the late 19th century was the Frenchman Gabriel Tarde, who postulated that human Society was largely based on imitative behavior. In his “Lois de l’Imitation” (1890) he sought to define “laws”, analogous to the physical laws of motion, governing imitation by humans. The ghost of M. Tarde must be delighted by this year’s wave of penitent mea culpas from university administrations, English departments, Ivy League librarians, and bird-watching societies, all verbally rending their garments in tearful, interchangeable confessions of complicity with the undefined but universal systemic racism. The group which issued the first such confessional—which was it, do we know?—led one hell of a parade of imitators.

    1. Your observation reminds me of this statement by Eric Hoffer: “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

  17. I find it just horrifying that woke people are increasingly in charge of our museums and libraries.
    I have noticed over the past year or so that some of the most outrageous woke statements have come from university librarians.

    The “end to policing” thing sounds like it comes from people with no knowledge of history or experience with human nature. It is such a childish demand that it is hard to take anything else they say seriously, either.

  18. I think this attitude qualifies as something like “suicide by incompetence”.

    Are there difficult dynamics involved in any kind of authoritarian system, from police officers to soldiers? Yes, of course. No one in their right mind thinks that having to deal with an issue by force – be it averting crime or protecting a nation – is a desirable thing. It’s not good for those in authority or those on the receiving end of authority. It’s absolutely better for all involved if it can be avoided.

    That said, it is also a reality. It’s a part of life. Anyone with, as the saying goes, two neurons to rub together, realizes that we are not going to function with no police. So to take that stance is essentially to virtue signal and wash one’s hands of the situation, with some awareness, in the back of one’s mind, that they are simply agreeing to let those with more authoritarian attitudes oversee such areas. It’s not saying “I think there should be no police” – functionally, it’s saying “I realize there will be police, but I want to wash my hands of that reality and let other people deal with it.” The problem with this attitude, of course, is that you then hand over the issue to those with far more authoritarian attitudes.

  19. Oh the self preening, the flagellation, the bs, the whole enchilada of irritating nonsense. And the side salad of dumb that comes with the enchilada. Good on you flor pointing out the (manifold) flaws. You deserve that walk by the water,, prof. Although.. isn’t it a little chilly over there? 🙂
    D.A., J.D., NYC

  20. I’d like to see these over-educated idiots try living in a community that had no civil police force. Let’s see if they’d choose to pay private guards or organize a militia themselves.

  21. Obama has come out saying the slogan “defund the police” has cost Democrats votes due to its vagueness. It could be (and has been) construed as “abolish the police”. And then we have statements such as this, which are not at all ambiguous. Obama has been criticized over this intervention, but he is of course right. He is more than right, if that is possible. What has happened, and it’s been seen across all university campuses, is the corruption of a campaign to divert some funding from policing towards other more supportive work, into a full throated cry to eliminate police and prisons. It is sheer madness.


  22. ““The solution to police violence is not reform but an abolition of policing in all its forms.”

    From which one may generalize with what we call the universal quantifier, AKA ‘all’.

    And then much more follows by particularizing. For example:

    ‘“The solution to human violence is not reform but an abolition of humans in all their forms.”

  23. I know nothing about the 13 ivy league librarians, but permit me to speculate on their character and motivation. I speculate that they are all young or youngish, and that most of them signed the statement simply to imitate others, just as Gabriel Garde explained 130 years ago. A few (perhaps just a couple of activists) are the initiators of the letter, and these few know the police abolition movement in some detail—revealed by their repeated, explicit use of the word “abolition”, rather than the flabby weasel-word “defund” preferred by more circumspect groupies.
    For 20 years, police and prison abolition has been a hobby-horse of Angela Davis, vice-presidential candidate of the CPUSA in 1980 and (fittingly) 1984. Her animus is against the US police only, and she had no objection to the various police agencies of East Germany. In fact she extolled the border guards on the Berlin Wall during her 1972 pilgrimage there to meet Central Committee Secretary Erich Honecker, and accept a Star of Peoples’ Friendship award from State Council Chairman Walter Ulbricht.
    My guess is that the hot-dogs behind the librarians’ letter know Prof. Davis’ abolition campaign well, and are fans of hers. After all, she is not merely a WOC, and thus irreproachable, but also an actual, live Communist. Nobody of the letter writers’ generation gets to meet a real live Communist anymore, and I’ll bet they find it thrillingly adversarial just to write a letter in support of one. Safe in their ivy league library offices, they no doubt enjoyed a further revolutionary frisson when they added a passing thrust at “racial capitalism”. They could have gone on to add a few words of tribute to the late-lamented Berlin Wall (or “Socialist Protection Rampart”, as Honecker and Ulbricht called it back then), but few in their generation are even aware that the Wall once existed, let alone of its pleasing qualities

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