Over 2,000 mathematicians have signed a letter agreeing to boycott all collaboration with police, and insisting their colleagues do the same.
They are organizing a wide base of mathematicians in the hopes of cutting off police technologies at their source. The letter’s authors cite “deep concerns over the use of machine learning, AI, and facial recognition technologies to justify and perpetuate oppression.”
Tarik Aougab, an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Haverford College, was one of many mathematicians who saw the recent uprising as a push to take action against these practices. “If there is already disproportionately large amounts of time and energy being spent criminalizing Black and brown people,” Aougab explains, “the predictions the algorithm puts forth are just going to reflect that. It’s a way to perpetuate that over-criminalization.”
Black people not only face higher murder rates at the hands of police but disproportionately high arrest rates as well—twice that of their white counterparts.
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The popular use of racist predictive policing technologies is unsurprising for Aougab, who traces the history of the police, which is rooted in slave patrols and private security forces hired by the rich to break up labor strikes. Their primary motivation is not to serve and protect, Aougab said, but “preserving a social order that is put forth by the will of elites to protect property. The institution has never drifted away from that basic function over its entire existence in this country.”
“At some point we all reach a breaking point, where what is right in front of our eyes becomes more obvious,” says Jayadev Athreya, a participant in the boycott and Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Washington. “Fundamentally, it’s a matter of justice.”
The mathematicians penned an open letter, collecting thousands of signatures for a widespread boycott. Every mathematician within the group’s network pledges to refuse any and all collaboration with police. Called out in particular was a mathematics foundation that allowed the founder of PredPol, a major predictive policing company, to host a sponsored workshop encouraging mathematicians to work with police.