Yesterday at lunch, about 40 students wearing black blocked the main staircase of the Usdan University Center in a protest that connected police brutality off campus with issues of racism and racial profiling on campus.
“The goals for our actions today were primarily to raise students’ awareness of Sean Bell’s case, of racial profiling on campus, and secondarily, to issue clear expectations of the administration in how they will respond to this issue on campus,” said Sarah Brown ’10, one of several students involved in the planning of the event.
Students attempting to get to the Marketplace were forced to find alternative routes to the eatery, as the protesters remained on the stairs for the majority of the lunch hour. Accompanied by a drum, the protesters counted to fifty, to symbolize the number of bullets fired at Bell.
Bell was shot and killed in Queens, N.Y. by five plainclothes detectives on the night before his wedding. The three detectives charged were acquitted on April 25.
Posters with information about police brutality, racism and justice covered the bulletin boards and walls of the campus center. Justin Douglas ’08 and Argenys Taveras ’08 performed spoken word pieces.
Douglas’s piece concerned an incident in which he was stopped by Public Safety officers several hours after a University-wide safety report was sent out regarding a mugging on campus. Taveras also spoke about racial profiling. He described the Middletown Police’s unwarranted abuse of a Latino student.
“The spoken word personalized things because it was their words and their experiences,” said Sabine Vilsaint ’10, another student involved in planning the action. “Racism is on campus and it affects students here. The spoken word really brought it home.”
Students who planned the event focused on Public Safety and The RIDE as examples of institutionalized racism on campus and gave out fliers that discussed policing and profiling at the University. The flier called for the elimination of physical descriptions in Public Safety reports, “because they lead to profiling and do not contribute to increased safety for the student body.”
The RIDE has been a source of frustration for many students. According to Vilsaint, The RIDE is less responsive to calls from students of color.
Vilsaint said that she and her friend, another student of color, had called The RIDE and asked to be taken from Usdan to Malcolm X House. The driver said it would take at least 15 minutes.
“My friend called and changed her voice to make it more ’white’ and said that she wanted to go from Hewitt to Clark,” Vilsaint explained. “And The RIDE driver said he would page other drivers and get someone to us in two minutes. We stayed in the campus center and watched The RIDE drive past on its way to Hewitt, without stopping for us at the campus center.”
Vilsaint said that the trend of Middletown residents using The RIDE has caused drivers to ask students for WesIDs before getting in the vans.
“My black and Latino male friends have been rudely asked by some RIDE drivers to present their IDs with no explanation,” she said.
Students who organized the event were also concerned about the racial profiling of non-University students, such as those turned away from The RIDE because they “look like Middletown residents.”
“We want start a dialogue about the treatment of Middletown residents, specifically the Middletown youth of color who come to campus to use the wealth of resources that they don’t have at home, who are harassed, called the police on and turned away without any campus dialogue,” Brown said.
President Michael Roth, who happened to be in Usdan at the time of the protest, spoke briefly to several of the action organizers.
“Thanks for being here,” he said. “I’m sad we even have to have these events.”
After standing on the stairs for nearly 45 minutes, the students left Usdan and marched to the steps of North College, where they stood silently. One participant held a sign that read, “If you’re not enraged, you’re not paying attention.”
The class deans, who were in the middle of a meeting, came out briefly to speak to the protesters.
“I really appreciate the fact that you take these issues seriously and want to make an impact,” said Dean for the Class of 2008 Valencia Rutherford.
The deans said that they could not make any statements on behalf of the administration, but committed to meeting with students and furthering a discussion of race issues on campus.
Students were pleased with the administration’s response.
“Today’s events were definitely a success,” Brown said. “We spoke with administrators and got their commitment to having a discussion.”
She hoped that this discussion will be sustained.
“We expect that this will continue into the summer and years ahead,” she said. “This [discussion] is not something that is just going to go away.”