WUPD should be better, but so should we

| Senior Editor

As I walked past the police cars outside of Shepley, I almost didn’t stop. I figured someone had been ESTed or gotten injured while running. Whatever it was, I figured that I would be no help. Unfortunately, there were no scraped knees to be bandaged or twisted ankles to be hobbled on. A cop was talking to six black teenagers who had been playing basketball on the Swamp. Another officer (in a separate car) was sitting and talking on his radio. As a black man going to school in a city with a troubling racial past and present, I’m deeply suspicious of St. Louis police and Washington University’s Police Department (WUPD). So, I approached the officer in the car to see what was happening.

He told me something about a female student leaving a water cooler near the basketball court. I don’t know all the details around the cooler, but I saw the kids drinking from it. It sounded to me like she saw six black men playing basketball around her cooler and called the police. I understand that I am privileged as a man to not have to worry about being sexually harassed – or worse – by groups of men. Still, it left me uneasy that the police were called.

One of the people on the court had also asked if he could go into a building to use the restroom. I was frustrated at that point because it seemed asinine to call the cops on some teenagers for drinking water, playing basketball and having to pee, but WUPD was just doing their job at that point. According to the officer in the car, two officers are required for responding to every call, no matter how small. He claimed he stayed in the car because he thought one cop was all that was necessary for dealing with the situation. Optics aside, I was about to leave the situation until I heard what his partner was saying to the kids on the court.

“You might not be welcome back here,” the WUPD officer said.

That seemed excessive for responding to a call about water. I stayed to tell the officer that I thought the response was a bit harsh. To some extent, I get why WUPD acted the way they did. As the officer was quick to remind me, the South 40 is private property and it’s their job to “serve” the people who live here. However, that service shouldn’t come at the expense of menacing St. Louis citizens who want to come here to play basketball. The officer told me that in the past, they’ve found people with warrants out for their arrest on the court. I asked him if the teenagers he just stopped had warrants. They didn’t.

The situation was not helped when a third officer arrived. This officer tried to assuage my worry by telling me that if it was I who had called the police on those black kids, the response would have been the same, so I should feel safe. That didn’t help at all. We’re only five years removed from the shooting of Michael Brown and less than two years removed from the Stockley verdict. My mom’s biggest concern when she sent me here wasn’t whether the police would keep me safe. It was whether I was safe from the police.

I told the third officer that. I told her that when I see people who look like me being harassed by the police, it makes me feel unwelcome.

“I don’t see it like that.” She told me. “I have a mixed family.”

I wanted to tell her to ask her mixed-race son how he felt when he saw the police antagonizing people of color. Or to ask her mixed-race daughter if she felt uneasy when she learned about what happened to Sandra Bland and realized that it could just as easily happen to her.

But I didn’t. Angry and flustered, I left the conversation and went back to Wheeler.

Does Washington University care about its image with black St. Louis residents? WUPD clearly doesn’t. Surrounding communities, especially communities of color, are skeptical of Wash. U. This is a microcosm of why.

It starts with students who see black kids playing basketball on a hot Tuesday afternoon and choose to call the police. This is a college campus, but it acts like a gated community. It is paranoid in the name of “safety.”

It continues with police who are quick to perform their roles as gatekeepers, eagerly slamming the door shut on people who visit our exclusive club without an invitation. It is the physical and verbal saying of “you are not welcome here.”

And it ends with an unwillingness to acknowledge that there’s a problem. It’s the evocation of black family members, colleagues and friends. It’s far-out hypotheticals that mask the immediate terror being afflicted upon people who are just trying to play a game of basketball.

The profound sense of unwelcomeness that permeates the campus towards outsiders of color is felt by people of color in Wash. U. as well. If the boys on that court had been Wash. U. students, maybe the interaction would have been shorter and less hostile. But the message is no less clear: this place is not for you.

WUPD needs to be better, but they ultimately do serve the students. If our demands of them are problematic, then their policing will be problematic. Tuesday, April 16, was a disgrace, and we should all be ashamed for it.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.