Studying While Black

Studying While Black

What It Means to Be Read as Criminal on Columbia's Campus

Published on November 6, 2014

One Saturday every April, Columbia undergrads lose their shit—not all of them, but easily over a thousand. The stoops on Frat Row are awash in puff-painted tank tops, the smell of weed, and kids drunk on a mix of beer and jungle juice. You can hear basslines sounding from the steps of Low, somewhere out of sight on other side of Butler. There is always a student opener who sings to a few dozen friends while everyone else is pregaming indoors, then a techno artist who no one is passionate about and, finally, a B-list headliner like Macklemore who everyone who hasn’t blacked out crowds to see at the last minute. There have been fist fights, girls dancing on top of those two infamously phallic fountains, and, pretty reliably each year, several cases of “dehydration” in the emergency room at St. Luke’s.

There is some seasonal, ritual mass delirium like this at most American schools, and a lot of them are more extreme than ours. But not many others are in New York, one of the most heavily policed cities in the country—and even fewer are adjacent to Harlem, one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods in this heavily policed city. Cops in New York stopped and frisked 191,000 people last year and arrested just over 117,000 people for misdemeanors—28,600 of them for public possession of marijuana (more than any other city in the world).

You’d have no idea you were in this city, and especially this part of it, if your only point of reference were the scene at Bacchanal (the dignified Greco-Roman name we give our own drunkenness, almost sarcastically). Where are the police? Noise, open containers, public intoxication, the possession of controlled substances, rampant sexual harassment: We’ve got it all, and no real trouble with the cops to show for it.

Are Columbia kids not threatening enough? There are brawny, young bros who would beg to differ—did you see how hard they shoved that kid outside of Lion’s Head last week? Do people not think we do drugs? There are even more, much skinnier bros who need you to know that they do—good shit, too. Are we not being loud enough? The raver sweating her spinal fluid out in front of you swore she COULD FEEL THE BASS IN HER BONES.

Bacchanal is by far one of the most brazen exercises of the apparent immunity that so many Columbia students have to the law and to law enforcement, but any weekend on campus is rife with the kind of illicit consumption and “suspicious activity” that the New York Police Department tasks itself with weeding out.

“Some people revel in it (they didn’t come here for nothing), and others shrug guiltily at the thought of it, but most agree that it exists.”

The relative absence of police intervention in criminal activity on campus is even more remarkable when you consider just how present the police, and people closely affiliated with them, are. Vice President for Public Safety James McShane was the executive officer of the Narcotics Division of the NYPD when Columbia appointed him. And before his time with Narcotics, he served as an adviser to former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who brought about a 600 percent increase in stop-and-frisks over the course of his 11-year tenure.

Most of the upper management in McShane’s department are just as connected to the NYPD as he is: Of the eight directors who work under him, five come from the upper ranks of the city’s police force and another comes from the FBI.

Looking at the department’s Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, it’s clear that these higher-ups carry their connections with them to Columbia. This year’s report proudly explains that “the Department of Public Safety maintains an excellent relationship with the local police precincts”—a relationship that, by their own account, includes a “written memorandum of understanding” between the two organizations, Public Safety’s “constant communication with local precincts,” and their collaboration with those precincts to “control criminal activity around University property.”

So it’s not for lack of proximity or connection to the police that so many Columbia students manage to get through a Saturday night without a court summons. It’s tempting to attribute this amnesty to what we so often sum up as our collective “Columbia privilege,” or the privilege of attending an elite college with money, status, and lots of private property—a privilege that, in the terms we use to talk about it, the school’s students are all endowed with in equal measure by email addresses and little royal blue and white ID cards. Some people revel in it (they didn’t come here for nothing), and others shrug guiltily at the thought of it, but most agree that it exists.

There are students on this campus, though, for whom that explanation doesn’t add up, for whom Columbia privilege doesn’t exist in at all the same way: namely, black students. Black students with UNIs and mailbox keys, Columbia sweatshirts and gym shorts with lions on them, meal plans and full-time course loads, who do find themselves regularly surveilled for and accused of the same “suspicious activity” that going to Columbia supposedly exempts their classmates from; black students who are stopped and frisked regularly; black students who are criminalized for trying to do things as mundane as walk to the library or do their laundry; black students who are asked to prove that they go to Columbia when and where others are not; black students who are treated as if they were trespassers on their own campus, and who have learned, many by the end of their first year here, that there’s little they can do to change that.

Marcus Hunter, a black senior in Columbia College, had come downstairs from his suite in East Campus to smoke a cigarette with a friend on a Saturday night this September. Across the concrete on Ancel Plaza (by his estimation, at least 100 feet away from the dorm’s entrance) he pulled out a lighter, lit the tobacco he’d rolled, and started smoking. Less than a minute later, a Public Safety officer walked those hundred feet across the plaza, over to where he and his friend were standing, and asked what “that” was. He answered. The officer responded by producing a flashlight, and started inspecting the thing between Hunter’s fingers for himself.

“And again, I was just like, ‘It’s a cigarette,’” Hunter says. “‘You can smell it. You can smoke it if you want to.’” The officer didn’t take up his offer and told him that he needed to put it, whatever it was, away. When he refused, the officer’s directives escalated: Hunter was told to evacuate the area immediately, and he did.

“The craziest part of this whole interaction,” Hunter explains a month later at his sculpture studio in Prentis Hall, where I’ve come to hear his account of it, “is that my white friend, who I had come outside with, was literally smoking a spliff right next to me and was not addressed once by this Public Safety officer. Like, he was smoking weed—right next to me—and he wasn’t even looked at while I was being interrogated and told I needed to evacuate for smoking a cigarette.”

“At that point I had just been three months sober,” he remembers. “It just felt invalidating on so many levels.”

Hunter’s is the kind of story that is probably surprising to hear if you aren’t black or brown.  But experiences like this circulate among black Columbia students pretty often, and they start to lose their shock value, if they ever had any. One student was followed all the way from College Walk back to the door of his dorm; another was asked for reasons unknown to open her gym bag when walking into the library. Dissecting this week’s particular injustice, in whatever form it takes, can start to feel like a miserable waste of energy. Many students come to expect the trouble. Some acquiesce, and some come ready to try their luck protesting it.

One weekend night last April (a week before Bacchanal, actually), Justina Walker, a senior in Barnard College, stood outside of Pan African House with a group of four friends. They were all juniors, all women, all black, and busy trying to figure out where to go, since both of the black parties they’d shown up for had been shut down—one before it even got started.

That was when a white Public Safety officer approached them and ordered them to leave the area. They ignored him, and he urgently repeated himself. “We weren’t doing anything,” she remembers. “I looked across the quad, and there were other kids, white kids, who were just standing around talking, also outside, and he wasn’t talking to them. So I said, ‘You’re asking us to leave. Do they need to leave as well?’”

He looked at her blankly and offered an “Uh…” So she asked again. “‘We’re standing here, it’s five of us, we’re talking. They’re standing around, they’re talking. You’re asking us to leave. Do they need to leave as well?’ So then he looked at me and was like, ‘Uh…uh… You guys can go ahead and just…uh…you can stay.’” And they did, until they decided how to spend what was left of their Saturday night.

“I feel like a lot of these experiences, or the way that students react in these situations, are informed by experiences they’ve had just throughout the week,” Walker says. “So this was the same week where my friends were the only two black women in a whole lecture, and their professor called them ‘the entertainment for the class.’ I think that same week a girl said ‘nigger’ to me. I’m not one to get in a fight, but at that point I was just really frustrated.”

“I had to revisit the fact that being black in this country means that I need to carefully police my own tongue, body, and actions, lest someone in authority step in and remind me.”

Indignities like these, which can seem small in isolation, start to add up over time, as students start to see them as connected to a larger social structure and a long-standing pattern that is seemingly impossible to disrupt. Even in every mildly heartening, on-the-spot victory like Walker’s, many black students walk away with the distinct impression of a racist social system that extends beyond the confines of whatever words they exchange with a uniformed guard—the invisible, historical thing that spurred an officer to confront them in the first place, to read them as suspect, to want to remove them.

One student, who asked not to be identified, encountered this sense of powerlessness when he was summoned to a dean’s disciplinary hearing earlier this semester. He’d gotten into a petty argument with a resident adviser in the aftermath of a busted party, and was called in to be reprimanded for it. “I did not appreciate the fact that the charges filed against me labeled me as being ‘threatening, harassing and/or abusing’ and ‘non-compliant,’” he tells me.

While he regretted the argument and agreed that he’d handled it improperly, he found these descriptors problematic in ways that became even clearer to him at his in-person hearing. He says, “These charges were repeated, and it was then explicitly stated that my actions could be viewed as such, not only within Columbia’s gates, but everywhere I go, and that I should be careful when dealing with those in authority such as residential staff, public safety, police, etc.”

“That comment was particularly distressing because it immediately made me recall Michael Brown,” he offers. “Since someone perceived me to be threatening, I was to be blamed. Although I disagree with the statement that was made both explicitly and implicitly, it’s a stark reality. I had to revisit the fact that being black in this country means that I need to carefully police my own tongue, body, and actions, lest someone in authority step in and remind me.”

As his hearing made painfully clear, the rules are no different in Morningside Heights. And reminders to that effect are all too frequent.

While the Public Safety officers and other figures of authority in these instances were all white, many of the students I spoke with made sure to point out that the officers with whom they interact on a daily basis are predominantly black and Latino. But this knowledge didn’t detract from their feeling persecuted by the department—it only made it harder to explain.

Beulah Agbabiaka, a senior in Columbia College and the socio-cultural chair of the Columbia chapter of Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI), draws a comparison to urban police forces that are also predominantly staffed by people of color. “I think the use of police officers of color helps to make structural racism and inequality more subtle,” she offers. “You can’t point the finger at an individual racist cop because that cop looks like you. It’s harder to make a claim that the police are targeting one group, because they can say, ‘No, look, we have this representation on the force, so obviously we’re not targeting them.’”

Representation of black and brown people, though, is less impressive among those in positions of real power within the department. Public Safety and the police department with whom they collaborate are still largely under the control of white management. The majority of Public Safety’s directors are white, the majority of the NYPD’s 10 chiefs are white, and the highest command in both offices belongs to a white man. In that sense, nonwhite officers aren’t as responsible for the racist policing they carry out as it might seem on the ground.

Some students at Columbia, like Walker, also point to the distinct possibility that even if Public Safety as a department were run by black officers, they would still be employed to cater to the sense of safety of a student body that, according to current class profiles from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, is roughly two-thirds white and Asian—a student body that is predisposed to read them as threatening or generally undesirable, even when they’re going about the most basic chores of college life.

“So the fact that even the people of color who work for Public Safety cannot, or find it difficult to, imagine that black students and certain other students of color are actually Columbia students, in my opinion, points to a much, much larger understanding of who a Columbia student is.”

One student who identifies as Dominican, and who asked to remain anonymous, had brought a load of darks downstairs to the laundry room in Woodbridge Hall when he realized he’d forgotten his Columbia ID and couldn’t swipe to pay for a wash cycle. In a bind, he asked another student (who was white) for a favor: He explained what had happened, and wondered if that student would swipe his ID at the machine, charging $1.25 to his Flex account in exchange for two dollars in cash—he did this, he says, “with the money very clearly out and in my hand, ’cause you know how it is on this campus. You know what they’re gonna assume.”

Simple enough. The other student obliged, made 75 cents, and our student loaded his washer. He was waiting for his cycle to finish in the computer lab down the hall when a Public Safety officer walked into the room and asked for his ID—which, he explained, he didn’t have on him. “Whatever we need to do to clear this up,” the student said, “I’m fine with it.”

Upstairs at the front desk, where his identity checked out, he asked the officer why he was being checked for his ID in a residence hall that he couldn’t have entered without one. “He was like, ‘Basically, we got a call saying someone was downstairs in the basement begging for money.’ Like I was panhandling. Or some bullshit,” he says.

This student, like many students of color, says that getting stopped like this is routine to him. “The general context is: it’s dark, I’m walking through campus—in a building sometimes, outside sometimes—and it’s just like ‘Can I see your ID?’ Just like that. I’ll be sitting down studying sometimes, table set up with my books, they’ll come over. ‘Hey, I just need to see your ID.’ And I show them, and they go off,” he says. But the student said this encounter felt so egregious that he decided to visit the Public Safety office in Low for the first time to complain about what had happened.

“The dude was like, ‘Maybe you just need to have Flex on your card next time.’ And I cut him off. I was like, ‘Wait, wait, stop right there. Listen. I’m coming here to talk to you about how somebody, obviously on the basis of prejudice or racism, made a false allegation and is making me pay the price of inconvenience to accommodate his prejudices. And you’re trying to talk to me about some technicality?’” he says.

The hardest part of the argument, he says, is that he was having it with a black man. “That’s what was the worst, not for anything other than the fact that you should know,” he says. “You should be privy to this. You don’t have an excuse not to know about racism.”

Imani Brown, a black graduate from the Columbia College class of 2014 who spent her time on campus organizing with Agbabiaka as a member of SAMI, says that she nurses this sort of disappointment by reminding herself of the overarching, structural forces that can lead so many people who “look like us” to participate in anti-black policing. “In terms of the interests of Columbia,” she offers, “there’s an interest in keeping outside people—the people of Harlem—out. So the fact that even the people of color who work for Public Safety cannot, or find it difficult to, imagine that black students and certain other students of color are actually Columbia students, in my opinion, points to a much, much larger understanding of who a Columbia student is.”

“Which,” she clarifies, “is white, and privileged, and so on. And that understanding isn’t being generated by the individual officers on Public Safety. That popular and that public imagination of what a Columbia student is, I think, points to a failure on an institutional level to incorporate people of color into the University in any meaningful way.”

And so stories will continue to surface of black students being asked to prove an affiliation to Columbia that their outward appearance doesn’t confirm in the eyes of Public Safety officers or the students who call them on suspicion. One student told me he was woken up—twice—while napping in a residential lounge just to be asked for his ID (first by a black guard, then by a white one). These patterns start to border on the absurd and irrational. Another student, up at the medical campus in Washington Heights, is consistently asked to show her ID to a seated guard before entering a library that she needs to swipe to enter anyways, all while she watches other students walk by without incident.

Of course, there are plenty of black students who walk by without incident, too. Some have never run into trouble with Public Safety; others, only every now and then. There are ways that certain students have learned to carry themselves to avoid trouble: One Columbia junior says to make sure your hair is done. A sophomore at Barnard suggests wearing sweaters. “A fucking sweater,” she repeats to me, vaguely indignant that it took a piece of knitwear to win a basic level of respect for herself that other students could elicit in sweatpants. These small claims to status, simulations of privilege meant to confer the real thing, make practical tools for survival. But they’re predicated on an understanding that certain students’ bodies carry dignity in the eyes of the Columbia community that others’ do not.

When I reached out to James McShane, his assistant took my phone number and showed me out of his office. I was emailed a few hours later by Daniel Held, Columbia’s director of communications (or head PR guy), who offered to answer my questions. Neither he nor Public Safety would confirm specific or general complaints of bias, and insisted that “Public Safety prohibits the use of racial profiling in all of its interactions with the Columbia community.” He did, however, tacitly acknowledge the occurrence of bias on the force. “When violations are found to have occurred,”—when, he clarified, students are found to be profiled for any aspect of their identity—“appropriate measures, including training and discipline, are expeditiously taken.” Public Safety being the impenetrable organization that it is, these measures aren’t visible, even to the students who report the incidents that warrant them. Of the six students who told me they’d filed formal complaints with Public Safety (some of them, more than once), none of them had heard anything back from the department.

“Whatever measures the department is taking, they don’t seem to be changing the experiences of black students in a meaningful way.”

“Students’ experiences and their accounts haven’t changed,” sas Kai Johnson, a Columbia College senior who reported a series of physical threats made by a Public Safety officer to a group of black visitors waiting to enter a dorm. “The ones I’ve heard, they’re just the same. The way students feel is that they’re still being approached in a biased way,” she says. Whatever measures the department is taking, they don’t seem to be changing the experiences of black students in a meaningful way.

Held also directed me to a brochure that Public Safety distributes to incoming students, titled “Your Rights and Responsibilities When Interacting with Public Safety Personnel at Columbia.” Among the directives it gives Columbia students to follow when stopped by an officer are: “be polite,” “stay calm,” “don’t argue,” and “conduct yourself in a mature and respectful manner.” That’s, conceivably, a lot to ask of students who feel they’re experiencing the profound and upsetting disrespect of systemic racism. But these suggestions, they offer somewhat menacingly, will help ensure “that a police encounter does not escalate into a more serious incident.”

What black students experience at Columbia is bigger than a series of inconveniences. It goes beyond Forest Whitaker being followed around Milano Market, which every good white liberal on campus could agree was just awful, to a larger system that privileges every one of those white liberals over him. It’s the same practice of understanding black people as aggressive or transgressive that makes black New Yorkers 8.4 times more likely than white city dwellers to be stopped by police when walking home (or back to campus), according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s statistics on stop-and-frisk targets for 2010 and the New York City census for that same year. It’s what makes black New Yorkers, when stopped, 10 times more likely to be frisked, even if cops find drugs or weapons on white suspects twice as often. It’s what makes them 4.5 times more likely than white New Yorkers to be arrested for marijuana possession, even when studies show that both groups use the drug at similar rates. It’s what makes black youth five times more likely to be prosecuted for selling drugs when white youth are actually 30 percent more likely to do it.

It’s what makes young black men about 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than young white men, and what makes black Americans overall four times more likely to die during an arrest than white Americans. If they survive arrest, they are 30 percent more likely to be imprisoned than white defendants charged with the same crime, independent of prior criminal history. This is a sampling from the extensive body of scholarly and federal literature that, for those who insist on seeing it, speaks clearly: Black Americans, despite no evidence that they are more criminal than white Americans, are heavily predisposed to both search and subsequent arrest, much less likely to survive arrest, and more likely to be sentenced to prison if they do. In the simplest legalese, they exist in a system that disproportionately criminalizes and imprisons them with no probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

This kind of system has lethal implications—implications that are made clear to black students every time they’re gratuitously “checked” on campus at Columbia. One of these implications, among many, is that while Michael Brown was shot dead by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri, a week before he was meant to start classes at Vatterott College, someone who looks like him could just as easily be killed by the police a week after graduating with a B.A. from Columbia.

But Columbia doesn’t just happen, by virtue of its social and historical positioning as an elite university, to be a site of racist policing. Our school is actually, very literally, invested in this system. As the organizers behind Columbia Prison Divest have brought to light since they began campaigning last year, the University owns $8 million worth of shares in the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private corrections company in the country (as well as $2 million more in shares of G4S, the world’s largest private security firm and the proprietor of prisons in South Africa recently accused of routine torture).

Prisons, both public and private, are populated with the people caught in the same racist system of policing that Columbia re-enacts on its own campus, but private prisons are more deeply embroiled in it than their publicly run counterparts. While black people already make up a disproportionate percentage of the country’s incarcerated population, they are specifically more likely than white inmates in the same state to be incarcerated in private prisons, where reports of violent abuse by guards are more common and inmates are routinely underfed and malnourished. Most private prisons enter into contracts with the state that guarantee them 80 to 100 percent occupancy—meaning that even if crime rates fall, the state is incentivized to keep up arrests in order to avoid paying a fee to CCA and other private prison companies for empty cells.

“Under what rationale does Columbia’s administration congratulate itself for matriculating and graduating black students whose communities it directly profits from policing and imprisoning?”

In calling for Columbia to divest from these firms, supporters of the campaign have rallied around a pretty airtight ethical logic: It is wrong for us to profit off of the pervasive, inequitable imprisonment of other communities.

But there are even stronger arguments for it than that. “With the idea that prisons, like the police or Public Safety, automatically lead to the safety of the wider community, there’s the exclusion of a very specific community within Columbia of students who literally have family members in prison,” explains Imani Brown, the graduated SAMI organizer who worked with Agbabiaka. “There are Columbia students who literally come from communities that have been destroyed by the prison-industrial complex.” Students who, it should be said, are at risk for incarceration themselves, and find themselves situated in two communities (Columbia’s, and the communities whose imprisonment Columbia is funding) that are supposedly separate.

Columbia’s investment in the prison industry, then, is not just an ethical conflict but a stark conflict of interest (at least, if it has any interest in the well-being of its black students, faculty, and employees). President Bollinger has made something of a name for himself as a champion of affirmative action, and the school he heads publicly prides itself on the diversity of its student body. But what good is inclusion in this institution to people of color whose safety and dignity are explicitly compromised by the investments and the policing practices of the people who run it? Under what rationale does Columbia’s administration congratulate itself for matriculating and graduating black students whose communities it directly profits from policing and imprisoning?

If Columbia seems immune to police, it’s arguably because most of its students and faculty, by virtue of not being black or brown, actually are pretty immune to them. And their sense of safety, the public safety that Public Safety is tasked to uphold, often comes at the direct expense of people of color, both on and off campus. Everyone on campus gets blasted with emails describing bike and laptop thefts by “male blacks,” but no one sends out a crime alert when Columbia takes 17 acres of property in Harlem without its owners’ consent by exercising “eminent domain.” Even if the system that produces such glaring contradictions is bigger than James McShane, the NYPD, or the board of trustees, all evidence suggests they have a moral imperative to start dismantling their part in it.

In the meantime, there are students who have found ways of fighting back. “I definitely just call Public Safety on white frat parties and large groups of white people,” confesses one senior, who asked that I not give her name. “I just hate that we can never get together and have it be okay.”

“When these other parties full of white people have access to way more alcohol, way more drugs—’cause they usually have more money to do these things—who I hear playing music all the time, but no one cares. Because they’re not seen as threatening,” she says. “So a few of us just went around, and every time there was a white party, we just called Public Safety on them.”

“We were like, ‘We feel unsafe and threatened,’” she laughs. “Which, honestly, we do.”


Dunni Oduyemi recused herself from the editing of this piece because of her involvement with Columbia Prison Divest.


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