On Saturday evening, the Yale Police Department came a trigger pull away from seriously injuring, if not outright murdering, a member of the student body. Yale administrators responded by telling students that “What happened on Cross Campus on Saturday is not a replay of what happened in Ferguson; Staten Island; Cleveland; or so many other places…” Though the email offhandedly dismissed the notion, it is a question worth exploring: Is Yale Ferguson?
In terms of police procedure, what happened to Tahj Blow ’16 is similarly egregious to the proceedings in Ferguson. None of the reports available to the public so far have indicated that the thief was armed or dangerous. Thus, that the officer chose to begin the encounter by pointing his gun at Tahj has disturbing implications.
By drawing his weapon, the officer indicated that he considered Tahj’s death to be a viable solution to the problem of the alleged thefts. What we now know is that not only was the young man before him unarmed, but he was also uninvolved in the thefts. Yet the officer’s actions in this case did not grant either of these possibilities. If either Tahj or the officer had panicked, the outcome of this incident could have been very different. It could have been very similar to Ferguson indeed.
For many students, this incident is not a reassuring sign of the professionalism of the YPD, as University President Peter Salovey and other Yale officials indicated in the email. Rather it is one more in a string of frightening reminders of our vulnerability as people of color. That this incident occurred in what is our home for four years violates our sense of security in what should be a safe space.
The University’s official responses to the incident have done little to ease our fears. In them, the administration seems less concerned with investigating why the officer’s first instinct was to pull his gun, and more concerned with minimizing the significance of the event. This raises the question: Must we wait until a student has been shot for our anger and criticism of policing on this campus to be justified?
For instance, why did administrators feel the need to emphasize that the officer was black? Stressing the officer’s race narrows the discussion of racism to questions of interpersonal bigotry. It obscures a larger narrative of systemic racism, in which black and white officers are equally capable of participating.
Tahj’s experience is representative of the increasing militarization of the police. This phenomenon often refers to the availability of military grade weapons to law enforcement. However, it also refers to the way that police departments have come to view the communities they police as battle zones full of enemy combatants.
It is no accident that these communities are often poor, urban and filled with black and brown people, just as the average New Haven resident is blacker, browner and less wealthy than the average Yale student. The primary narrative of the relationship between the University and the city is one in which the city’s residents are predators and Yale students their helpless prey. The burglaries in Trumbull clearly evoke that narrative. A New Haven native was piercing the carefully patrolled Yale bubble in order to engage in an unlawful activity that violated students’ property. The actions and attitudes of the YPD reflect that they consider it their sole responsibility to thwart these violations.
Most Yale students can depend on the color of their skin to signal the legitimacy of their place within the bubble. White or white-passing individuals on campus are assumed to be Yale students until proven otherwise. Black Yalies are perceived and treated as New Haven residents until proven otherwise. When that police officer drew his gun on Tahj, he did not see Tahj as a Yale student. He saw him as a part of the dangerous community from which the YPD strive to protect Yale students.
To return to the question posed by the email: Is Yale Ferguson? No, Yale is not Ferguson. In this analogy, the broader city of New Haven is Ferguson. It is a majority black and brown urban space that is policed in order to protect the interests of a majority white elite. The YPD acted like Darren Wilson. They were all too ready to use violence against an individual whom they perceived to be outside of the Yale bubble.
Had Tahj not been a student and the son of a New York Times columnist, would the University still have seen this moment as an opportunity to “reflect, learn, and grow?” Would we even be talking about how the University’s policies impact people of color on and off campus? Would we even know that it happened?
Micah Jones is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com.