Counter Monument: Notes on Abolition May

In May 2021, an abolitionist caucus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Graduate Employee Organization (GEO UAW 2322) joined up with the Cops Off Campus Coalition (COCC) to support Abolition May, “a month-long series of actions on campuses across Turtle Island to demand the removal of ALL campus police.” After a year of political education, we spent the month taking direct action on the UMass Amherst campus to support abolition. As a caucus, we secured a vote from union membership to prioritize abolition during contract bargaining: the police have a long history of busting unions and enforcing the exploitation of workers. For the May 3rd Transnational Day of Refusal we collaborated with the Illuminator Art Collective to project a virtual picket line with crowdsourced abolitionist messaging on the side of Herter Hall. On May 20th, we hosted an abolition “block party” with literature, art, zines, a student-led petition for budgetary reallocation and racial justice, and coalition-building among students, faculty, and local abolitionist organizations.

Further, to link our work to actions against colonial monuments worldwide, we staged an artistic intervention symbolically connecting two prominent campus statues: the “Minuteman” and “Metawampe.” Inspired by the artistic, visual, and textual annotations and redactions of Nona Faustine, Wendy Red Star, and Christina Sharpe, we attached roughly six hundred feet of red thread to the granite base of the Metawampe statue, using red duct tape to secure the thread to the ground along a path by the northwest bank of the campus pond. The red thread terminated at  the end of the gun held by the Minuteman, thus representing, for us, a visible (re)articulation of the interconnections between the commemoration of white supremacy, the history of campus policing, and the ongoing violence of settler colonialism. 

The red thread, as attached to the Minuteman statue.

The red thread intervention provided a pathway into the fraught history of these two monuments. One would not know simply by looking at them, but both monuments were at the center of several campus controversies regarding stereotypical Native mascots, romantic narratives of settler colonialism, and the expansion of campus policing during the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Metawampe was a gift of the “veterans class” of 1950 that solidified a 1947 student vote to change the UMass Amherst mascot from the Statesmen to the “Redmen”. Thus its granite base refers to the “Legendary Spirit of the Redmen” through the apocryphal figure of a “local Nonotuck American Indian who sold land North of Mt. Toby to Hadley settlers.” The Minuteman statue was also a gift of the class of 1950 (this time, in 2007). The statue harkens  back to the paramilitary groups of the colonial and early national eras first codified in the Militia Act of 1792, which lent the President authority to incite white male citizens to arms “whenever the United States shall be invaded, or be in imminent danger of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe” or to “suppress insurrection.”

UMass Amherst changed its mascot to the Minutemen in 1972, arguably for reasons similar to those named in 1792: in this case, to police access to higher education. Historian Robert E. Weir explains that the rejection of UMass’s stereotypical Native mascot was directly related to a surge in student enrollment from 6,495 students in 1960 to 28,000 students in 1970: a student body politicized, moreover, by civil rights, anti-war protest, Black Power, Red Power, Second Wave feminism, and rising tuition costs. Around the same time, UMass was one among many universities to constitute and resource a fully armed and militarized campus police department. In September 1972, Sioux author Vine Deloria Jr. advised a UMass audience debating the future of the university’s mascot to “rename your Redmen the Smallpoxes or the Genocides in memory of Jeffrey Amherst.” Students were asked instead to vote on six different options: the Bay Staters, Colonials, Minutemen, Pioneers, Raiders, and (again) the Statesmen. This brief history of administrative counterinsurgency is of course rigorously distorted by the university’s recent “be revolutionary” brand launch.

Abolitionists, including the group Abolition Is… in a recent Insurrect! roundtable, talk about the infinite possibilities of a third university, an abolition university, an internally external undercommons university. Abolitionist plans for the university are rich with possibility, differentiation, and disagreement, but the removal of campus police, including monuments to historical precedents like the Minutemen, is a core principle of a movement whose demands prioritize Land Back and “a campus and community that are truly free and safe for all.” Removing monuments is not enough if the brutal logics of policing BIPOC students, surveilling university property, deputizing classmates, and repressing academic expression remain intact. The coalition doesn’t want “better” mascots. We want cops off campus.

The red thread installation was not only a creative expression of this political desire, it was also a strike against monumentalization, a cut across the landscape of a “land-grab” university, and the symbol of an open wound. Although we did not remove the monuments, I see their removal as a distinct possibility. To borrow from the Rhodes Must Fall artist and activist Thuli Gamedze, colonial monuments like the Minuteman and Metawampe statues “[have] nothing to do with human collectivization, commemorating or coming together, and [have] only to do with an epistemological securing of dominant ideology.”

On May 20th, the day of our Abolition May block party, the Minuteman monument was surrounded by the remains of graduation celebrations: sticky with dried champagne and littered with corks and empty cans of White Claw. We gathered, we ate, we listened, and we talked about the future of abolitionist unionism. This gathering, the short-lived art installation it birthed, and this piece of writing are all a gift to the activists who were there, to those who have graduated, and to those who will come after. It is a counter-monument, if you will: a miniature archive to commemorate Abolition May, reminding readers that we were there and will continue to be. In the context of student activism, where there are deep ebbs and flows in participation, and challenges with continuity, this kind of counter-monumental durability is crucial. What happens next is for any of us to decide.

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