Over the last few weeks, the area around Washington University suffered from incidents including break-ins, car theft, and even a shooting. Understandably, many members of the community, especially the students living off-campus are rattled. One student wrote an op-ed about the ongoing situation, and provided some reasonable steps that Wash U could implement. However, she also mentioned the need for increased policing in order to “patrol the surrounding neighborhoods.” I disagree; increased policing must be examined within its historical context; and that is a context in which the police have protected its white citizens at the expense of black residents. The police, as an institution have never been a friend of the black community or even black students. Individuals calling for increased policing feel like there are no better options. However, instead of perceiving policing as the best of a set of bad options, we should ask a more fundamental question: When has increased policing ever led to a positive outcome when relating to black communities?
One of the first pieces of advice black upperclassmen told me my first year at Washington University was to be sure at night to always wear a backpack when walking on and off campus, so WUPD does not mistake you for a non-Wash U black resident. This advice reveals two significant points: First, black students had an intimate knowledge and fear of policing, specifically WUPD. And secondly, it revealed that the “otherization” of black residents within our community was so prevalently reinforced by the university that even black students recognized and internalized this dynamic. Five years later, things have changed, albeit in a superficial manner, but in a fundamental way, the same dynamic still exists.
One night during July of 2014, I was walking back from the Loop after dinner. I noticed a WUPD car pass and stop by me. I immediately grew apprehensive, because I recognized the potential for danger. My fears were justified once I walked by the car; an officer got out, and started to follow me. He continued walking behind me for the length of the overpass. I could not tell in the darkness if his hand was on his weapon but four thoughts entered my mind as I grew more anxious after each passing step: Should I turn around and confront him, demanding to know why my black skin gave him license to profile me? Should I try to get away by running towards campus? I quickly realized that either measure would likely lead to a violent escalation of tensions. As I continued to walk, I then wondered if these same thoughts were rushing through Trayvon Martin’s mind as George Zimmerman stalked him before killing him.
Eventually, the officer stopped shadowing me and returned to his vehicle. In that moment I was terrified, not knowing if in an instant, I would need to defend myself. This isn’t a story I care to share, and I didn’t share it with people outside the Ervin community for years, but unfortunately, this is reality for many black students at Washington University who bear the burdens of racial trauma.
There exists a multifaceted explanation as to why there is an uptick of violence surrounding Washington University, but many of its factors have been ever present and are continually reinforced by the university. The stratification of wealth that characterizes the city of St. Louis is clearly seen in the opulence of Washington University, a school with a $7.5 billion dollar endowment that lords over the surrounding area, while past the “Delmar Divide”, residents live in relative poverty with average property values four times less than that of the neighborhood to the south. The university not only maintains this bubble, but also utilizes gentrification to expand its empire via the pursuit of more lands, consequentially leading to the expulsion of our community’s original members. These policies represent the reality of internal colonialism, a term popularized by the Black Panthers. In this system, the police are the illegitimate occupying force, and are an entity influenced by a university that drains city resources without paying income taxes and are used to maintain this oppressive framework. Their legacy stems from the antebellum era and slave patrols protecting whites’ “property”. This is made clear by their discriminatory practices against black residents and more recently, their harassment of black Washington University students at the hands of Clayton PD. WUPD may be its own entity, but it shares in this shameful legacy.
So what can be done in light of this? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. There is much the university can do, including examples mentioned in the op-edand other initiatives, such as reducing prices for on-campus housing and providing subsidies for student housing based on distance to the university. However, these measures do little to alleviate the fundamental inequalities that have led us to this very point. Steps must be taken to reverse the structural inequalities between neighborhoods in the Washington University area, such as guaranteeing a living wage for all workers. Even then, those measures still fall short. The ultimate solution lies in the systematic dismantling of the bubble maintained by this institution and the factors that support it, such as predatory gentrification that reinforces the otherization of the original residents of our community. This means ultimately rejecting the notion that policing will make the community that includes Washington University, safer. This means recognizing that all black lives matter, and by valuing the safety of white students over that of black members of the community, students and otherwise, we solidify the inequalities and exacerbate the problems we see today.
The work necessary to dismantle this system is not easy, but it is necessary. Americans were faced with a similar problem back in the 1990s in the form of a crime bill that white Americans and Black democrats alike thought would solve these systemic issues. This fear, this unwillingness to break from a corrosive cycle, built on institutional racism and fueled by economic inequality proved to be fatal, as communities were ripped apart by state-sanctioned violence. We cannot afford to make this mistake again. We must transcend our fears and start to do the hard work of dismantling this system, work that can be done, because our privilege affords us that opportunity. We are at a crossroads and we have the chance to fight for the collective humanity of our community. In the words of Assata Shakur, We must love each other and support each other.