This article has been revised to reflect the version that appeared in print on Jan. 26.
Amid a national conversation about race and policing, a series of Twitter messages posted Saturday have thrust Yale into the spotlight.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow, one of the country’s leading speakers and writers on race and American identity, said on Twitter Saturday afternoon that his son, Tahj Blow ’16, had been held at gunpoint by Yale Police officers. Blow is an ecology and evolutionary biology major in Saybrook College. He declined request for comment Sunday evening.
“He was let go when they realized he was a college student and not a criminal (he was leaving the library!)” one of Charles Blow’s tweets said. “He’s shaken, but I’m fuming!”
Charles Blow added the hashtags #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter, rallying cries associated with the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the no-indictment in the case of Eric Garner, who died from a police chokehold in Staten Island, New York.
Blow’s first tweet, which said his son was held at gunpoint because he “fit the description” of a suspect, has been retweeted more than 5,000 times.
Early Monday, a column by Charles Blow published in the New York Times outlined the events of Saturday evening, as relayed to him by his son. Tahj Blow left a campus library Saturday evening and noticed a police officer following him. The officer then raised a gun at Blow and told him to get on the ground, asking where he went to school.
“My son was unarmed, possessed no plunder, obeyed all instructions, answered all questions, did not attempt to flee or resist in any way,” he wrote.
The Yale Police Department is conducting an internal review of the incident, according to Karen Peart, a spokesperson for the University. The incident recounted on Blow’s Twitter page occurred during a search for an intruder suspected of multiple attempts of theft last week in Trumbull College.
Without naming Tahj Blow, Peart said a “Yale College student, who closely matched the description of the suspect, was briefly detained and released by Yale police.” The suspect, described in the police report as a “tall, African-American, college-aged student wearing a black jacket and a red and white hat,” was arrested shortly thereafter in Berkeley College, adjacent to Trumbull. The suspect is currently in police custody.
Peart declined to comment on whether the Yale College student was held at gunpoint. She also declined to provide a physical description of the suspect in custody.
A Yale Security officer, who wished to remain anonymous to protect his identity, said the YPD and Yale Security were strictly informed not to talk about the details of the case.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said in a Sunday email to the News that he “does not deny that the student who was stopped was stopped at gunpoint.”
“That is a serious and unsettling issue that is being investigated by the YPD,” he said.
However, Holloway added that Charles Blow’s statement that his son was “accosted” was “deeply inaccurate.” He said the student had matched the description of someone else who was intruding on campus, but that he was not accused of being an intruder on campus.
Charles Blow wrote in his column that Holloway and YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins have apologized.
“But the scars cannot be unmade,” he wrote. “My son will always carry the memory of the day he left his college library and an officer trained a gun on him.”
Trumbull Master Margaret Clark hosted a gathering Sunday evening in the Farr Room of Trumbull College to allow students to discuss the security breach.
“I called the meeting to provide time for Trumbull students to discuss two issues about which I knew there was considerable concern — the intrusions themselves and also an African-American Yale student being stopped in the aftermath by a Yale Police Officer,” Clark told the News after the gathering.
Holloway said he wanted to stress that the administration and the YPD are taking the situation seriously, adding that both parties place the highest priority on campus safety and that they want to make sure every student feels safe on campus.
Holloway said he has full confidence in Higgins and his officers.
“I am not naïve, I know that students have different levels of confidence about how much they fit in at Yale and how the differences in their specific identities have real implications about their lived experiences,” Holloway said. “At the same time, I feel that we have an incredibly professional police force and I have always found the officers very committed to the highest standards of police practice.”
Ryan Wilson ’17, a member of Yale’s Black Men’s Union, said he was upset yet not surprised by the news. He said that often when walking into a residential college at night where the security guards do not recognize him, he is stopped by Yale Security, who ask about his whereabouts and check his Yale ID to verify that he is a student.
“I’ve never seen or heard of it happening to other white students, but for black, Native and Latino students, I hear about it,” he said.
Dara Huggins ’17, an African-American student, has not personally experienced being racially profiled while on campus, but said she anticipates that it will happen eventually. She said Yale students often try to create a clear delineation between the “Yale bubble” and the rest of New Haven, which she added is full of people of color.
Her status as a Yale student will not protect her from being racially profiled, she said.
“Without my ID card, I would probably just be ‘someone from New Haven’ to many students, and probably officers, on this campus,” she said.
David Rico ’16, a Native American student, said he sympathizes with African-American men because he has also had a number of run-ins with the police that he believes were provoked by his race. Last year, he was standing outside his entryway talking on the phone to his parents when police officers demanded to see his student ID, threatening to confiscate it, he said.
“I feel a lot of solidarity with the black community, but I acknowledge that I’m a Native American and that it has a different narrative,” he said. “I do not know the black experience, or what it is to be an African-American in this country. I just know how it feels to be discriminated against by the police. It’s not the same, but it’s similar.”
Even though the conversations raised by the events on Saturday may raise difficult questions, Michael Sierra-Arevalo GRD ’18 — a sociology student whose work concentrates on police, legitimacy and police-community relationships — said he hoped the Yale and New Haven communities would be open-minded and allow both the student and the officer involved to tell their stories.
The biggest issue, according to Sierra-Arevalo, is that the Yale and New Haven communities are “woefully ignorant” of what the police were told when they were looking for the suspect, in terms of who and what they should be looking for. Therefore, he said he thinks it is important not to jump to conclusions about the professional and moral underpinnings of the YPD.
“The only people who in fact know what happened, and that can tell us what happened, are the officers and the student,” he said.