Opinion: Imagining an un-policed St. Kate’s

“I am not welcome here!” proclaims local activist John Thompson’s to a packed Rauenhorst Ballroom. The room at the heart of the campus is packed with students, community members and visitors for the Sept. 20 event, Dismantling Systemic Racism: a Community Conversation, hosted by St. Peter Claver Church, the Myser Initiative, and the Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS) office.

President Roloff’s opening statement, which extolled the campus’s beauty and complete with canned, liberal anti-racism mantras, was interrupted by Thompson after she said “all are welcome here”. Thompson was stopped on his way to the ballroom by campus public safety and searched for a firearm. Thompson’s statement is captured by attendant Thao Xiong via cell-phone video.

Dismantling Systemic Racism: a Community Conversation, was held eight days after the now infamous on-campus shooting. Though the event had been in the works since before the Sept. 12 shooting, it provided a convenient platform to again announce the university’s stance on racial discrimination.

Thompson returned to his seat, encouraged by a white woman saying, “Can you just let her speak?”

President Roloff continued with her remarks, informing the audience of St. Kate’s long tradition of social justice. The silencing of a black voice in a “community conversation” about race, by an administration that employs a campus-police department is disappointing, but unsurprising.

President Roloff declined The Wheel’s request for interview.

Dismantling Systemic Racism wasn’t the only opportunity for St. Kate’s students to air their concerns regarding the Sept. 12 incident. On Oct. 11, Student Senate sponsored a discussion between students and Public Safety supervisors, Listening Circle: a Conversation with Public Safety. Both the assistant director and vice president of the Department of Public Safety, Victor Juran and Mark Johnson, were present. According to Juran, the focus of Public Safety at St. Kate’s is to serve the community, less about law enforcement and security.

This idea, while optimistic, does not quite make sense. Public Safety officers are not our peers, community members, or counselors; they are law enforcement officers. For many of us, no matter how friendly officers are, or how “soft” their uniforms appear, a police presence in our homes and at our school will always be a threat to our mental and physical safety.

According to Juran, the solution to students not feeling safe around Public Safety is to hire more officers. Juran would like to see officers at more student-led events, like Listening Circle, to improve outreach and interactions with the student body. While Johnson and Juran seemed open and receptive to student grievances and suggestions, they were unwilling to name the problem, or see the racism within their department. Through the hour and a half conversation, neither Johnson nor Juran said the word “racism”, and instead of saying black students or students of color, they referred to “certain subsets of the student population who may feel under-served by Public Safety”.

When prompted about the stop-and-search incident on Sept. 20, Johnson said that, according to state law, Thompson had to be searched because another patron of the event reported that he had a gun. Johnson described the interaction, which Thompson called an injustice, as a “conversation”.

Thompson’s request to, “Tell your security staff to stop harassing black people,” is probably easier to swallow than mine will be: remove public safety from campus entirely.

Campus-police units were introduced in the 1960s and ’70s to quell, often violently, protests of the Vietnam War, and have become ubiquitous since the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. According to Melinda D. Anderson for The Atlantic, only 38 percent of private colleges and universities employ some kind of police. Although police presence does reduce violence and property-related crimes, police presence and jurisdiction on campuses continue to rise. St. Kate’s has a long and proud history of social justice. A police presence, even unarmed, seems counter to that mission.

The events of the first weeks of this school year left have left all of us with questions. Should an institution that claims a social justice-driven mission be policed? Is a private institution that claims a dedication toward social justice an oxymoron? Is it a time for a change in leadership, or an end to public safety on campus all together?

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