Last spring I had what I can only call a “difficult encounter” with a police officer. I cannot describe the full situation, as it also involved other students, but the level of aggression by students in the encounter was nonexistent. Nevertheless, the police officer was threatening and verbally abusive. She was a Yale police officer, not a New Haven police officer, but her view was that police are the same everywhere, at Yale or not. So as student stories of Friday night filtered out, I was reminded of how much authority walks a fine line between aggression and abuse. Even more so, I was reminded of my own failure at negotiating the encounter with the officer.
The first step is always establishing what happened. In the hours and then days following the Elevate raid, “What happened?” was the question on every student’s mind. But the real question, lurking behind the requirements of finding justice, is “Where do we go from here?”
Within the Yale community, there are questions about strategy moving forward. My question, for myself and for Yale students, is first: How does one respond to authority when it miscarries into abuse?
When I began my encounter with the police officer last spring, I did not expect the interrogation to end the way it did. As a child, I had learned to see police officers as protectors from “the bad guys,” and when I grew a little older, I saw them as saviors when my father acted as an abuser. Yet, as I stood in front of the officer and listened to her berate me — “You’re going to get expelled,” “Your life is ruined” — I got angry.
My response, at first, was silence, a refusal to engage. But after a while, I lashed out, overwhelmed by helplessness and rage: “You’re such an asshole!”
Unsurprisingly, this was a bad decision. And not just because of the negative consequences in the immediate aftermath. When I reciprocated her language, her threats, I lost the power of attaining any kind of effective response. The leaders of the student response to the Elevate raid have been more thoughtful: almost uniformly calm and considered in their reactions. Right now they ask only for the chance to be heard and respected.
Protests have a long history in response to power abused, to injustice enacted. But the variety of approaches to forming protests shows how difficult it can be to know how to react. As students negotiate and discuss various approaches and engage the many sides, I know that they will be thinking about how best to achieve dialogue, and how, through dialogue, to achieve results that benefit Yale and New Haven together.
But students should also think about how their responses will affect them. After I yelled an abusive name at the police officer last spring, I realized that however much I justified my own response by saying that I was scared and angry and intimidated, I had still lost some part of myself.
It was not just my own sense of control, though that was part of it. Nor was it only my idea of myself in relation to an authority figure, though that had to be reconceived. It was also my relationship to language. As a writer, I am a firm believer that what we say is intimately connected with what we do. And I believe that language has power, that words constitute the self. So my conclusion is a hard-learned one, reckoned by personal failure: as you fight back against abuse, think about your words. The language of authority can be grave and official, or, when abused, aggressive and provocative. The language of response, carrying as it does the burden of maintaining the self and proving the worth of the complaint, must be measured, thoughtful and never wrong.