Saturday night, after reading Times columnist Charles Blow's account of his son's detainment at gunpoint by Yale campus police, I was transported back to my own run-in with UCLA campus police in 2009. It was a typically relaxed Sunday evening, and I was headed home from the library. As I passed Ackerman Student Union nearing the bus terminal, I was stopped by an officer. "Do you mind if I check your bag?" he asked. "I do, actually," I said.
There had been a string of bike robberies on campus recently and, as the officer explained to me, he wanted to check my backpack for "tools" because I "fit the description" of the thief. I was reluctant, but ultimately gave in. I knew the alternative, and it was not an option. While searching my backpack, I asked the officer for his badge number and said something along the lines of, "If I was stealing bikes, why would I be taking the bus?" The officer detained me for a few more minutes, but eventually let me go. "We just have to be sure," he said.
Once I arrived home I phoned my mom. "What did he think he was going to find?" she said, trying to shroud her obvious worry with laughter. "Tools!" I exclaimed, nervously chuckling along. But we both knew the seriousness of the situation and what could have been.
This is difficult territory to navigate. On the one hand, all students want, and have the right, to feel safe on campus. But it is another thing altogether to have a gun pulled on an unarmed student or, as a black professor, to be viciously accosted for crossing in the middle of the street because construction obstructed the crosswalk.
Being profiled is not an uncommon experience among people of color at predominantly white institutions. I want the incident Blow's son endured to be an outlier, but it is not. That a gun was pulled on him is. That he was detained by police for something he did not do is not. Writing for the Times, Blow made note of the horrifying reality many black men and women face when placed in prejudiced situations, and of what James Baldwin termed "the price of the ticket":
I am reminded of what I have always known, but what some would choose to deny: that there is no way to work your way out—earn your way out—of this sort of crisis. In these moments, what you've done matters less than how you look.
Below are true stories from former college students that were presumed guilty in the eyes of campus police—of lying, stealing, or causing trouble—when, in fact, they were not.
Antwi Akom, San Francisco State University, 2005
It didn't happen to me but it happened to my professor. Dr. Antwi Akom had his two girls in the car as he rushed into the Ethnic Studies building to get a book. Two campus police officers stopped him on his way out and demanded he put his hands up. He told them he was a professor and that his two daughters were in the car waiting for him. The cops grabbed him and as he resisted he was handcuffed and the cops left his children in the car. He spent the weekend in jail. You can read the full story here.
Brandon, Yale University, 2007
It was Halloween at Yale my freshman year, and everybody was in costume and generally drunk and out of control. I had gotten out of my costume and put on normal clothes. In the process of the night, I had lost my wallet, so I didn't have any identification on me and thus couldn't get into any of the residences. There was a gate that closed at 10pm every night (for safety reasons) that was the closest to my room. I decided to scale the gate so I could get back to my room. Someone from campus security caught me doing this and stopped me from the other side of the gate. I could have just ran away, but being the upstanding, if slightly delinquent person I am, I stayed and talked to him. He immediately thought I didn't go to Yale, and that I was trying to break in. He then called the real police. By this point I had a bunch of friends around me (mostly white) including my red-haired Irish roommate who, was just confused as to what was going on. He kept telling them, "Brandon and I sleep in a bunked bed here." The police come and are equally unconvinced that I attended Yale. There's this whole ordeal about checking my social security number since I don't have my license/school id, and finally they figure out that I am, in fact, a student at Yale. Long story short, I had clearly done something wrong by scaling that gate, but what could have been a short reprimand, turned into an hour-long debacle because I'm a black man.
Richard, University of California-Los Angeles, 2009
While at UCLA, I was a lead organizer of the protests around fee hikes and was subject to being struck by an officer in the chest with a baton at a rally. When encouraged by mentors to file the police report, I went through the formal process of filing, but didn't want to pursue further for fear of personal harm at their hands.
That semester, I would ride my bicycle back and forth from UCLA to my apartment in Culver City. I would ride past the station twice daily and often saw the officer that attacked me. I feared eye contact, because his smug expression communicated a lot of negative feelings to me. I would see him patrol on foot, in his car, and was once even stopped on my bike by him and his partner. On one occasion, they flashed their light at me to stop and dismount my bike, and asked me to stand against the wall to question me. The officer that struck me stayed in the car, but taunted me with statements about the protests, and that we were "wild", "reckless" and that we risked hurting ourselves and others by organizing rallies. He also accused me of charging him at the rally and that I was "lucky" that UCPD isn't like LAPD, suggesting that I would have gotten worse abuse. They mentioned that bikes were being stolen and that they needed the serial number.
Then they gave me two tickets, for my helmet light and for riding in an undesignated area. I was too fearful to really respond, so I took it all in and accepted the ticket, hoping not to have to interact with them again. For the rest of the year, I rode down Hilgard [Avenue] just to avoid the office altogether. Eventually, the UCPD video popped up online (before being removed), where I was identified by an anonymous commenter and harassed online via e-mail, phone, and through racist comments, calling us "monkeys" for protesting. I can't for sure link the two parties, but my gut feeling told me I was identified by the UCPD.
Jonathan, Rhode Island School of Design, 2006
During my first year at school, I had gone out for a long run and didn't bother bringing my ID keycard. Once I got back to the freshman quad (which is walled in with locked gates) I waited at the door until a classmate walked up and let me in (a pretty frequented practice for most freshman). I was then stopped by two campus police officers. There had been a string of burglaries on campus and they wouldn't let me go until the white classmate who had let me in vouched for me.
Jacqueline, University of California-San Diego, 2004
I went to school in the city I grew up in—San Diego, CA. Although born and raised there, my community seemed light years away from the very wealthy community of La Jolla where my college is located.
Unlike other colleges, UC's typically do not have curfews and such confining campus policies, thus making my encounter with campus police all the more suspicious. During my freshmen year at UCSD I invited friends to campus to hang out. It was between 9 and 10PM and my friend Henry and his two brothers came to campus to visit me. It was a nice night so we hung out in the quad area outside of my dorm. No one was loud or out of order, and at no point did we make any ruckus. Not even 20 minutes after their arrival a tall white campus cop approached me and told me that my Residential Advisor said that we were too loud and that my guests needed to leave campus. I immediately became suspicious as RA's don't typically call the police about such matters. He mentioned that there were reports that we were too loud and that it is too late to hang out outdoors and thus they needed to leave. I had never seen this man and his mannerisms told me he meant business.
I was so confused and angry. After feeling the hostility of the situation I walked my guests to their car. We bid our farewells and they left campus. I ran upstairs to my RA and asked her if she called the campus police and she said she had no idea what I was talking about. I told her about my encounter with the police and she was left stunned. She said she had never heard of such an encounter and that there is no real curfew. It became clear to me that three black men on campus after dark was too much for a predominantly white and Asian campus to handle. At that time, black students made up about 1% of the UCSD student population. Encounters such as these with campus police happened to many of my black colleagues; it made for a very isolating and often hostile experience. One in which you were not protected or completely accepted and treated as a student on campus like everyone else. At one point, nooses were even found in our main campus library. I can guarantee you that didn't make local headlines. Since 2004, the number of black students attending UCSD has increased and the environment has changed a bit. I am just not sure how quickly the system is changing to actually serve and protect the black students in attendance.
[Photo via Getty]