Lux, veritas … and securitas?
Perhaps that should be the University’s new motto if the recent actions of the Yale Police Department and administrators are any indication. In their cancellation of a rap event at the Af-Am House, Yale administrators and police officials allowed tentative security concerns to trump all else and seemed to lack any willingness to work with the event’s organizers to find a middle ground between safety and free expression.
As the News reported on Monday, the Af-Am Center, WYBC and the undergraduate organization Middleman had invited nine area rappers, four of them Yale students, to perform at a showcase at the Af-Am House this past Saturday night. The event, which organizers started planning in February, seemed to be proceeding smoothly until Saturday, when Assistant YPD Chief Michael Patten called one of the organizers, Ifeanyi Awachie ’14, to tell her that the event’s request to use the House had been denied. Fifty minutes later, Af-Am Center Director and assistant Yale College Dean Rodney Cohen emailed organizers to tell them that the event had been cancelled “by order of the Yale Police.”
That was untrue. Patten told the News that police only recommended that the event be cancelled. So either Cohen made the decision to cancel and foisted responsibility onto the big, bad YPD or he interpreted their recommendation as an order that the police do not have the authority to give. Cohen did not respond to a request for comment for the News’ Monday story and did not answer the question in a comment for this column.
In his email to the News explaining the decision, Assistant Chief Patten first cited the fact that the event was advertised, free and open to the public — heaven forbid! — and the overcrowding and loitering it might cause. If you think this was the real reason for the cancellation, I’ve got a residential college to sell you. The real reason, as Awachie told me Patten made clear in his call to her, was increased gang activity in the city and the potential for violence at the event. The YPD judged the presence of four local rappers at an on-campus event so chaotic that it would spark a violent incident that the presence of Yale Security and police officers would be powerless to deter. Highly improbable? Yes. But not without reason.
One of the New Haven rappers scheduled to appear was shot at a rap showcase at Toad’s a year ago. But there were no official security personnel at Toad’s that night. Yale Security was already planning to monitor the Af-Am House showcase. According to Alan Sage ’14, Middleman’s president, YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins only found out about the planned event the day before — and was very unhappy that he had not been told about it sooner. Judging from his reaction, he did not trust Yale Security to be able to contain the violence that the local rappers and their entourages might unleash, and didn’t want to use YPD resources to do so. Police never suggested an alternative date, venue or that certain rappers should be uninvited. The YPD’s knee-jerk decision to quash an event trying to build bonds between Yale and New Haven speaks ill of its attempts to follow a model of community policing. We should expect better, and we usually receive it.
Still, the YPD’s officers’ primary mission is to provide a safe and secure campus environment. If they feel an event carries a chance for violence, they are not inclined to weigh that danger against any potential artistic merit. They may have exhibited poor judgment, but they were still only trying to do their job.
The same is not true for administrators such as Dean Cohen, whose job is to maintain Yale as a place where intellectual and artistic expression can be safely expressed. That means protecting it both from violence and from overzealous protection that turns into a form of censorship. Cohen seemed to be on board as late as March 19, when he let Awachie use his name to request Yale Security for the event. But when police came to him with the message that a rap showcase was too dangerous an art form for Yale University, he did not challenge them and stand up for the hard work of the students who organized the event or were planning to perform.
The event’s organizers are reasonable people. As Sage told me, they just wished that there had been more communication from the administration so that security concerns could have been addressed without needlessly indicting the whole event. Cohen said in an email to the News on Tuesday that “the decision to cancel this recent event is not a reflection on the New Haven community or its residents.” Actions speak louder than words, Dean.
Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.