Why I don’t want increased policing on or near campus
On Sept. 10, 2019 Chancellor Andrew Martin wrote in a statement to students, “Immediately following the armed robberies, our university police (WUPD) and the St. Louis City Metropolitan Police Department increased patrols in the affected areas. There are other more intensive law enforcement-related efforts underway, as well.” Martin went on to write “Please know that Washington University Police Department is here to support anyone in our community who needs help.” Sure, these people are meant to protect civilians, but what do you do when you fear those who are supposed to protect you?
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man, was choked to death by Daniel Pantaleo. I was only 13 at the time, but I still remember the horror I felt when I watched the video of his murder. Watching Garner sob “I can’t breathe!” 11 times, my heart fell to my stomach. Garner’s death was later ruled a homicide, but Pantaleo still wasn’t indicted. At a shy 13 years old, I realized that in the United States, my skin color put me at risk.
There have been numerous other instances of police violence against unarmed Black people, and I remember those moments almost as vividly as I remember Eric Garner’s death. April of my senior year of high school, I was stopped by a police officer for cutting him off at a stop sign. As soon as the officer got to my car, I began to cry. I didn’t think my mom would overreact about me getting a ticket, but rather, I was focused on a more pressing issue.
Here I was, alone at a traffic stop, with no one to witness whatever was to come. I wanted to get out my phone to record, but I didn’t want the officer to think I was being belligerent. Was this police officer going to shoot me? When I went to reach for my registration, would he think I was lunging for a gun? Philando Castile was murdered at a traffic stop, his girlfriend recorded the aftermath, and the officer still wasn’t indicted. Would I end up like him?
Physically, I left that encounter unscathed; the officer let me off with a warning because it was my first offense. Emotionally though, that traffic stop is ingrained into my memory. When the officer asked why I was crying, I said I was afraid. I didn’t say that I was afraid he was going to shoot me. I didn’t say he’d probably get away with it if he did.
I often think about the juxtaposition between my recent acceptances to elite schools like Washington University and the vulnerability I felt during that moment. I was a 4.0 student, at the top of my class, and I was headed to a top-20 university. When I was pulled over, I was even wearing a college hoodie.
But in the moment, none of that mattered. No matter how many elite universities I got accepted to or attended, no matter how good of a student I am, that won’t change the fact that as a Black person, I do not feel safe around the police.
Whenever I see police officers on campus, I am reminded of that time during my senior year. I am reminded of the history of police officers harming Black people. There was the beating of Rodney King in 1991, the murders of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice in 2014, and the murder of Atatiana Jefferson just last month. I cannot feel safe around the police force when I am also afraid that I’ll be the next name attached to the Black Lives Matter hashtag.
Off campus, my fear of the police is heightened. At least on campus, I have the privilege of saying I am a Wash. U. student, which grants me and other Black students at least a minimal layer of protection. Off campus we lose this protection, and are thus more likely to be stereotyped as “ghetto” or “bad” Black people, which may make police officers feel more justified in doing whatever violence they choose to enact against Black bodies.
I know that the police theoretically exist to protect us, but every time I hear about another murder of an unarmed Black person, I begin to wonder who this “us” is. I become afraid for my brothers, myself and everyone who looks like us. How can I be sure the police will protect me if I’m also deeply afraid that they’ll murder anyone with my skin color?
Increasing police presence on and around campus is supposed to make the student body feel safer, but with the trend of police brutality against unarmed Black people, this will inherently make me feel unsafe.
I appreciate Wash. U. for all of the good opportunities it has granted me, but attending this University does not and will not make me feel safer around armed forces. I am a Wash. U. student, but I am first and foremost Black. I believe we should make efforts to make Wash. U. and the surrounding community safer, but I don’t believe these efforts should be made at the expense of Black students’ comfort.