On the night of April 11, 2019, Columbia University student Alexander McNabb entered a library on Barnard University’s campus. Students at Columbia — with which Barnard is affiliated — are permitted to freely access and use Barnard’s campus buildings and resources. Despite having done nothing at all to indicate himself as a threat of any kind, McNabb was stopped by campus police and physically restrained. A Barnard student captured the encounter, which many described as an incidence of racial profiling because the school library’s ID policy after 11 p.m. is unevenly enforced. McNabb is Black, and he wasn’t bothering anyone.
Toward the end of the video, one of the five campus security officers that convened around McNabb for no apparent reason can be seen wandering off with McNabb’s ID, imploring McNabb to come outside with him. The ID clearly identified McNabb as a Columbia student. Clearly and understandably distressed, he can be heard asking, “You saw my ID, what else do you need to see?”
While this might seem like a one-off occurrence at another institution that can be explained as an unfortunate incident where mistakes have been made, it very clearly isn’t. Due to the demands of the Graduate Employees’ Organization demands — in particular its call to cut the University of Michigan’s funding to its Department of Public Safety and Security in half — stories about students of color at U-M experiencing horrifying treatment by DPSS have been surfacing. One in particular, that of Justin Gordon, is beyond appalling. He was held in limbo, in a jail cell, as punishment for going to the campus gym without his ID.
His entire life has been stained by that injustice. For example, Gordon was hired by the National Football League, only to have his job offer rescinded due to his criminal record, despite his University of Michigan degree and letters of recommendation from his professors. Gordon was stopped because he was Black, and that a confluence of biases which permeate through both policing practices and society caused his life to be upended. My rage is directed at not only the racist systems held in place by entities such as DPSS that have severely impacted his life, but also with the administration here at the University.
Although Gordon was promoted to impressive positions within the University and continued to be an honor roll student even after his incarceration, the school arguably created yet another permanent barrier to students with a prison record. On Feb. 1, 2019, the University implemented SPG 601.38, which requires faculty, staff, student employees, volunteers and visiting scholars to report all felony charges, even if not convicted, to the University.
Instead of removing possible instruments for discriminating against individuals such as Gordon, based on preconceived notions held about criminality that can have an indelible, lifelong influence on someone’s interactions with society, the University has created another. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that criminal history information in general admissions decisions improves public safety.
Seeing the University step in to assist a smart and ambitious alum and enable him to thrive in the long-term, rather than only promoting him to positions of visibility in service of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the short-term would be the right thing to do. The University has not done the latter, but they did do the former while Gordon was still a student, even after his incarceration. What does that tell you about a school’s commitment to equity?
The University is being confronted with the acknowledgment of public health disparities for people of color due to the presence of militarized police forces. Recently, these disparities were detailed in an op-ed written by the School of Public Health’s faculty members — with the article and other discordant truths made readily accessible through the internet. Rather than correcting this, the University has continued to uphold the illusory security of campus police. For example, the University recently brought a diverse group of student organizations to the table but then muted them to implement the Michigan Ambassadors program, which is effectively a snitch program of enhanced policing.
While University leadership would likely respond to these allegations by asserting that U-M has a rich history of activism and stands with marginalized groups on campus, it has clearly shown the multitude of ways it doesn’t prioritize the well-being of our community’s most vulnerable. While many University community members seem to believe that a call to divest 50% of the school’s funding to its DPSS is excessive, I disagree that it’s a reach. I trust that students would use other resources that could be either established or enhanced by divested funds. For example, the University could hire counselors that specialize in issues facing marginalized student groups, including inter-generational trauma.
In yet another example of how divesting from its DPSS aligns the University with statements it has made in the past, University President Mark Schlissel reacted to the idea of young college students not knowing what’s in their best interests by declaring incredulously that he was “offended.” If this was President Schlissel’s reaction to the public’s concern about whether college students can be trusted, then what if we trusted students without the theater of military-grade weapons and campus-wide policing?
Arguably, such theater constitutes reckless endangerment rather than protection. If the premise for future action by University administrators is rebuilding trust, then this is the place to start. What if we instead employed social workers, trained in de-escalating conflict, to approach students with non-urgent concerns on-campus? Trusting someone implies you will be met with their willingness to engage in dialogue, rather than violence.
Instead of treating its student body as a group of trustworthy adults, it seems the administration is willing to assume a high likelihood of violence by students — it is important to point out the well-researched, overwhelmingly negative ramifications of that approach. This runs contrary to Schlissel’s proclamation of incredulity and blanket statements about trustworthiness and isn’t conducive to a productive environment.
Even before this pandemic, individuals who are Black, Indigenous and people of color were being apprehended for their very existence in academic spaces and shuttled through the Kafkaesque layers of inhuman purgatory that comprise the carceral state as a result — all for unfathomable crimes like going to the campus gym without a school ID. Rather than stepping in, institutions have been making passive statements in support of a movement as Black bodies are positioned dangerously in harm’s way. Beyond ensuring emotionally safe workplace conditions for all, a redistribution of funds can be restorative if the funds create more accessible, affordable housing and medical care. Defunding a police force with origins in antebellum slave patrols, an unbreakable link to the slave trade that also creates greatly elevated public health risks specifically for people of color, is the bare minimum.
Even before the pandemic, in this age of the New Jim Crow, students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color were afraid to go to the library or gym, lest they be treated as if they didn’t belong and violently wrenched from their routine. In the middle of a pandemic and in spite of awareness raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, University campus police have already firmly established a dangerous and terrifying precedent: They may stop and arrest students who don’t appear white without due process and at any time. Any decisive steps made toward institutional equity must begin by breaking with this precedent.
Perhaps more worryingly, this precedent of stopping and frisking, one of an assumed burden of risk for daring to be in public, hasn’t been challenged by implementing restorative justice processes or revising harmful public policies. Academic, abstract narrativizing on behalf of oppressed groups is a limited form of engagement — while it can become the animus of meaningful change, it does little to curtail the systems of racist hungers that create concrete suffering on the ground. While the University is more than willing to tout its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion summits, it has thus far taken no real action to prevent future harms.
What would that look like? While parading a community member in front of largely white audiences might create the illusion of progress, real progress would look like taking steps to prevent students of color from needing to endure the possibility of traumatizing encounters, with armed on-campus police or ICE, in the first place. Real progress would look like University lawyers making sure talented students and alums like Justin Gordon get the jobs they deserve, that they’ve earned, but can’t currently get because of the University’s police force. Awareness isn’t action.
Freedom and ease of movement should be a given in academic spaces and in any community space committed to ensuring the safety of its members. While this should be a given everywhere, the very least the University administration can do is file down the teeth of its inherently racist policing institutions. Defunding policing as an institution is so much more than a symbolic gesture because the police state in America isn’t merely an arm of this country built by-and-large of historical white supremacy: It is its violent core. Representation and hope aren’t enough; real, lasting change will require institutional courage and bold action. In this historic moment, we have the chance to clarify the difference between them.
Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.
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