The University of Arizona's Institutionalized Border Violence

How The University of Arizona is entwined with the Genocide Economy

courtesy Taylor Miller

It was dusk for kilometers and bats in the lavender sky,

like spiders when a fly is caught, began to appear.

And there, not the promised land, but barbwire and barbwire

with nothing growing under it.

[from Javier Zamora’s “Saguaros”]

There are currently more than 170 encampments—from Humboldt to Río Piedras, San Juan…Kyoto to Te Wānanga o Aotearoa where students and allies are co-creating present and future spaces of learning, of revolution. The urgency to document the demands for boycott, divestment, sanctions, arms/energy embargo and the multitudes of direct actions, as well as the circulation of evidence against perpetrators is an uphill battle as this genocide hastens.

This spring’s university graduation ceremonies gifted stunning vignettes of solidarity; gowns, caps, stoles, keffiyehs, babies, banners, boos, backs-turned, bodies moving—out, and against the Ivory Tower’s empire of stolen land and life. Even the smallest of acts, which might seem insignificant to many, when carried out before family, friends and potential employers, demonstrate immense bravery, and are declarations against complicity, apathy. These gestures and protests of course did not emerge from a vacuum (rather, this story certainly did not begin October 7, 2023). The nakba is ongoing—76 years and counting—and resistance to it is a story just as long. As Mohammed el-Kurd insists:

The English translation—“Catastrophe”—is reductive, because it wasn’t a sudden natural disaster. Nor is it a tragic relic from the past. The Nakba is an organized and ongoing process of colonization and genocide that neither began nor ended in 1948. The perpetrators have names and the crime scene remains active. And where you cannot see the rubble, know that pine trees have been planted on top of it, to conceal it…we owe it ourselves to look at everything, to look for everything. To see the picture with all of its details. As deadly and treacherous and unrelenting as it is, the Nakba will not last forever. The world is changing because it must. If seeds can germinate in the inferno, so can revolution.

A moment, then, to also ruminate on what’s concealed—plowed through, paved over, with walls built on top of—the seeds beneath the Sonoran Desert soil.


On May 9, 2024, the evening before commencement ceremonies, University of Arizona President Robert Robbins authorized the UAPD and Tucson Police Department to violently dismantle the students’ encampment. This was the third iteration of the “UA Liberated Zone,” in solidarity with Palestine and its people, which initially blossomed in front of the Old Main administrative building on April 29. That first version lasted several hours, in spite of the deployment of lawn sprinklers (always overused, for picturesque green grass in the heart of the Sonoran Desert) before local authorities issued multiple warnings, shuttering the efforts.

Version 2.0 emerged in late afternoon on April 30 under the olive tree grove near the main entrance to campus. Supporters stocked supplies, signage, and a keen eye for each other’s safety—alert to higher-ups’ hostilities. In the early hours of May 1, UAPD and TPD—in full riot equipment—wielded clubs and unleashed chemical munitions on the community. The courage of these students and their comrades cannot be overstated here, when they attempted encampment the third time; many risking repeated exposure to officers’ brute force, in addition to CS gas, sound cannons, and other very-lethal “non-lethal” armaments:

At times, the protesters Thursday night were jovial, laughing and singing. People drove by and honked or played music in support. However, before midnight, dozens of police, including UAPD officers, deputies from the Pima County Sheriff's Department, members of the regional SWAT team, and Arizona State Troopers decamped from Old Main and assembled a skirmish line in front of the Arizona State Museum. There, a UAPD sergeant repeatedly asked protesters to leave, announcing with a bullhorn that police would use pepper spray and other "munitions" to clear the area.

"I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly," said Sgt. Andrew Valenzuela. "You have been given several warnings this evening, we are prepared to use munition such as gas and pepper spray and pepper ball."

"Leave the area now. If you don't wish to be harmed by chemical weapons, leave the area now," he said.

As a three-time alum of the University of Arizona, I continue to receive push notifications from the UAlert system, including this latest for “Unlawful Assembly.” By 10am in my inbox: “Last night, the University of Arizona Police Department and partner agencies enforced the University’s campus use policy to remove an unauthorized encampment near Main Gate Square on the Tucson campus. I know that this decision may provoke strong opinions and perhaps questions, including any impact on graduation celebrations planned for today and this weekend. Commencement and other ceremonies will go forward as planned.”

So this is a meditation on urgency, on the over 36,200 Gazans massacred during the last 248 days, and counting. But this is also a meditation on the scaffolding of ceaseless munitions manufacture, and, the implicit connection between the University of Arizona and the protraction of global forever war.


If I say here that divestment—a core demand of the UA encampment—is a pipe dream, I’m not mired in defeatism. But to understand the border-military-industrial complex—this university a central cog—is to see the pipeline; the sprawl of a land-grab university built upon the dispossession and expropriation of Indigenous land, cloaked as a “Hispanic Serving Institution”…whose business, engineering, mathematics, and public policy programs (and beyond) feed off < > are funded by < > profit from the insatiable reproduction of borders.

la paperson reminds us:

The politics of land-grant institutions directs us to think about the work of school beyond curriculum and pedagogy, beyond knowledge production. Universities are land-grabbing, land-transmogrifying, land-capitalizing machines. Universities are giant machines attached to other machines: war machines, media machines, governmental and nongovernmental policy machines. Therefore the terms of the struggle in the university are also over this machinery—deactivating its colonizing operations and activating its contingent decolonizing possibilities.

Of course this is not unique to UA—quite contrary. It’s the capitalistic rhizomatics of The University, where all theories and formulations must point to profit maximization, and by no means can I provide an exhaustive account of UA’s version here. But if we’re to abolish the walls, we must better explicate how they’re built.


UA touts prominent partnerships with industry giants like Caterpillar and Tucson-based Raytheon Missiles & Defense:

"Raytheon is hiring University of Arizona engineers as fast as they can graduate...At the federal level, we’ve seen that great things can happen when industry and academic institutions partner to develop advanced weapons for the good of our country – and the next big playing field is hypersonics," UA President Robbins and Raytheon President Wes Kremer wrote.

Researched, developed, and manufactured in Tucson by some UA interns, alumni, and the community writ large (Raytheon is Tucson’s largest employer)—a sampling of these advanced weapons good for our country:

  • GBU-28 “bunker buster” bombs
  • Active Denial System “non-lethal” millimeter wave weapon
  • Paveway laser-guided bombs, as well as the BGM-71 TOW, AGM-65 Maverick, Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM, BGM-109 Tomahawk, MIM-23 Hawk, MIM-104 Patriot missiles
  • Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle anti ICBM system
  • Coyote unmanned aerial system
  • AGM-154 Joint Standoff air-to-surface glide bomb

The David's Sling medium to long range surface-to-air/anti-ballistic missile, jointly manufactured with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is a key component of the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) military systems, lauded for how its “lethal hit-to-kill interceptor defeats current and emerging threats.” Raytheon’s products are similarly integral to the IOF’s Iron Dome—the “multi-mission, combat-proven, air and missile defense system that combines SHORAD, C-RAM and cruise missile defense capabilities,” or, the missile system funded by the US that further entrenches both regimes’ commitment to the status quo of the permanent occupation of Palestine.

I peruse most days’ Department of Defense contracts, not with the ambitions of a budding economist, but for a sense of the millions thrown—every single day—towards borders couched in contracts, and the direction of where Fiscal Year 2025’s $849.8 billion budget will hemorrhage. On May 23, 2024:

Raytheon Co., Tucson, Arizona, is awarded a $227,350,165 firm-fixed-price, cost-plus-fixed-fee, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract to provide depot level repairs, logistics support, sustainment engineering, software support, integration support, failure analysis, configuration management, technical data, diminishing manufacturing sources, and material shortages management, training, field support, spares predictions, ordnance assessment,  reliability, and management of government property to support AIM-9X and AIM-9X Block II missile sustainment efforts for the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Foreign Military Sales customers. Work will be performed in Tucson, Arizona (93%); Cheshire, Connecticut (3%); Indianapolis, Indiana (2%); and various locations within the continental U.S. (2%) and is expected to be completed in May 2029.

This, on top of the more than $2.6 billion annual impact to Arizona, as most promising to profiteers; former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey affirmed: "Raytheon is one of our state's most valuable assets…This high-tech powerhouse is a major jobs creator, and its products help to defend freedom around the globe. Arizona will continue to foster a pro-growth tax and regulatory environment that allows Raytheon to thrive in our state for years to come."

courtesy Cameron Capara

Presently, Tucson’s economy is built upon forever war—with Raytheon, the Davis Monthan Air Force Base, military contractors-disguised-as-trailblazing-optics-innovators, and earth-razing mining multinationals as the city’s biggest boosters, who reap billions from the slaughter of Palestinians, Sonoran desert crossers and all others in the crosshairs of imperial conquest.

This is why the UA encampment was attacked and rapidly dismantled, three separate times, causing great damage to the land and its caretakers. The Board of Regents, University President, and all those who cosign the policies and plans are stakeholders (and many, shareholders) in this genocide. The University of Arizona is thus elemental to this occupation and hyper-militarization of Tohono O’odham land, the prolongation of pillaging abroad, and the manifestation of myriad borders.


One of the research programs in the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management is the National Center for Border Security and Immigration, nicknamed BORDERS, created in 2008. From the Center’s mission:

As a Department of Homeland Security [DHS] Center of Excellence, Emeritus, our work helps to protect our nation’s borders, foster international trade and enhance in-depth understanding of issues surrounding immigration—impacting organizations including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.

BORDERS’s spotlighted projects, crafted to “respond to DHS identified interest areas and contribute to the public good,” center on three research areas: Research Area (RA) 1 – Detection, Identification and Screening; Research Area (RA) 2 – Sensor Networks and Communication; Research Area (RA) 3 – Immigration Policy and Enforcement. More simply, students, faculty and affiliated researchers are tasked with developing, prototyping and testing the next surveillance and walling technologies, for the Sonoran Desert and beyond.

One “current project” is AVATAR—Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time. Their synopsis:

Using artificial intelligence and non-invasive sensor technologies, BORDERS has developed a screening system called the Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time (AVATAR). The AVATAR is designed to flag suspicious or anomalous behavior that warrants further investigation by a trained human agent in the field. This screening technology may be useful at Land Ports of Entry, airports, detention centers, visa processing, asylum requests, and personnel screening.

The AVATAR has the potential to greatly assist DHS by serving as a force multiplier that frees personnel to focus on other mission-critical tasks, and provides more accurate decision support and risk assessment. This can be accomplished by automating interviews and document/biometric collection, and delivering real-time multi-sensor credibility assessments in a screening environment.

Now, the University of Arizona campus is situated approximately 70 miles from the US/Mexico border—specifically the Nogales Port of Entry—so it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that by “BORDERS”, they mean, well, that one. Or even the greater span of the international boundary, which splices through and desecrates unceded Indigenous Tohono O’odham land, stewarded since time immemorial. But BORDERS’s incestuous relations with necropolitical logics of capture reach much further.

UA’s allegiance to the bordering and ordering of this world is evidenced in an October 2014 report, “Appraising the AVATAR for Automated Border Control: Results of a European Union Field Test of the AVATAR System for Interviewing and Passport Control.” From the Executive Summary, shared by the European Parliament:


Since 2009, BORDERS has collaborated on the development of the AVATAR with Frontex through annual workshops, experiments, and field tests. The goals of these activities were: (1) to introduce border guards to the AVATAR system, (2) to learn the requirements of border guards and other end-users and to collect their feedback in using the system, and (3) to explore the technology’s potential utility for the European Union.

The report details many workshops and experiments, including the 2013 field testing in Henri Coandă International Airport in Bucharest, Romania. Minute details of biometrics aside, the kiosks gleaned from vocalic, kinesic and proxemic sensors, while simultaneously honing “anomaly” detection and decision algorithms (algorithmic profiling). AVATAR’s “deception detection” also includes linguistic, cardiorespiratory, and thermal measures as screening strategy. While these exact prototypes proved too slow for passenger use at the EU’s checkpoints, UA’s BORDERS research and development, and its continued funding support from the Department of Homeland Security, are spearheading artificial intelligence initiatives for the EU’s “smart borders.”

UA’s collusion with death-making here dates to 2009; clearly stated at multiple turns: BORDERS multi-year collaboration with The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). While initially established in 2004, Frontex was pushed into headlines in 2015-2016 for its coordination efforts of the world’s deadliest migration route. Frontex’s fatal policies and (non-)actions grossly contributed to over 9,000 deaths in the Mediterranean Sea in those two years, a presumed undercount if factoring those missing/undocumented on their journeys. In this decade, nearly 30,000 migrants are recorded missing in the Mediterranean; a catastrophic failure landing squarely on the shoulders of the boosters of these borders—shareholders, policy makers, and all degrees of developers behind these technologies of tracking and torture.


The Arizona Commerce Authority’s website offers a search function for its Arizona Aerospace & Defense interactive database; typing “Tucson” provides 250 results. So clearly, this isn’t the space to parse each company and its connections to UA, as well as the certainty of destruction wrought upon this ecologically fragile desert. But it is a chance to highlight how these matrices of walls and their correlated structures—virtual and physical—most operating in plain sight…along the I-10 freeway, in the UA Tech Park, and in sprawling strip malls slicing into the Santa Catalina Mountains…are necessary to this region’s behemoth borders, here and across the globe.

It's also an opportunity to note, all UA websites and communications share this footer:

We respectfully acknowledge the University of Arizona is on the land and territories of Indigenous peoples. Today, Arizona is home to 22 federally recognized tribes, with Tucson being home to the O’odham and the Yaqui. Committed to diversity and inclusion, the University strives to build sustainable relationships with sovereign Native Nations and Indigenous communities through education offerings, partnerships, and community service.

When images from UAPD/TPD’s invasion of the student encampment started circulating in the earliest hours of May 10, an immediate concern was of course my former students, my comrades and community—was it CS gas, again? My mind then fixated on the creosote shrubs and saguaro cacti, also elemental to our community. The saguaros on campus, the majority likely transplanted (displaced) from the university’s founding, making way for surveillance systems laboratories and the like—are older than, say—the “state” of Israel. In fact, the average lifespan of saguaros is 150-175 years. Adult saguaros in the neighborhood are older than the University of Arizona, too (founded, 1885), and are revered elders of the O’odham.

Scenes of UA respectfully acknowledging the land and territories of Indigenous peoples means that they gas the elders. Students, elders, caliche, nopal, Gila woodpeckers, adobe homes built by the Black, Mexican and Chinese migrant laborers who forged the Union Pacific railroad and brought this city into so-called modernity. They cleared an encampment—insistent on life, on living, on opposing genocide—in the interest of preserving donor relations and unfettered flows of capital contingent on munitions manufacture and ceaseless war.


Shortly, temperatures here in Tucson will exceed 110 degrees. It’s the season when the O’odham harvest bahidaj; when the saguaro’s slender shade offers nary a reprieve from summer’s sun. When the heat and terrain of Sonora are weaponized and the scarcity of water and life-giving pathways to safety—are key to la migra’s cache. It’s a prime time for “field-testing” devices honed here, then exported to the IOF (and vis versa). It is also when the University of Arizona Hillel has the gall to invite (and deeply subsidize) students for a 2024 Birthright Israel trip, and when the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies runs its “Arizona in Israel” Study Abroad Program.

This, despite every university in Gaza bombed to obliteration, in addition to the assassination of more than 5,500 students and 95 university professors—by the weapons researched, developed, and praised on this campus.

The blockades and barricades, sit-ins and teach-outs and all of the visions and motions towards liberation—as they stand on the shoulders of previous anti-war and anti-colonial movements—are brilliantly illustrating how another university is indeed possible. Haidar al-Ghazali writes to us:

Today / is the Intifada of the free youth in the universities; they send their cries to the wind. Today, we see hearts wounded/slaughtered like ours, weeping for mothers who had not time to weep. / Today / is the Intifada of the free youth in the universities; no-one will pass / who fails the Humanity Test.

But I lean into you, compa, because I need your help showing the way, when the diplomas on my walls are receipts of Tucson’s investment in genocide. Presently, Arizona is one of 38 states in this country with laws prohibiting state agencies’ divestment from Israel. First signed into law in 2016, “the bill [prohibits] state and local governments from divesting…with an update in 2022 that specifically bars the state’s public universities and community colleges from divesting.” The University of Arizona so set on investing in war, and fossil fuels more broadly, that our foremost task is to upend the reality that makes this horror permissible—to globalize the intifada— and we must lock arms not only while envisioning an end to this genocidal economy—but across this desert, against these walls; towards liberation and return.