Staring at Myself: Clery Crime Alerts and representation

(Sookeun Jung)

(Sookeun Jung)

It seems that Courseworks Updates reminding me about discussion posts, winter weather advisories, RA events I never go to, and countless other Columbia-related emails barrage my LionMail account at all hours of the day.

If I’m being completely real, I open less than half of the messages in my inbox simply because of the overwhelming number I receive. But there is one email chain I find myself opening on a regular basis—the Clery Crime Alerts.

My cursor lingers over the updates for just a few seconds, but my brief encounters feel more like hours as I debate whether or not I want to read the contents of those emails. The answer I consistently arrive at is no, but something always draws me in, like that scab you know you shouldn’t pick at but choose to anyway.

It’s a painful experience. Every time I click the little “read email” button, I am greeted by a grainy snapshot of a young black man or woman somewhere on Columbia’s or Barnard’s campus. Next to the picture in big red letters is the one-word description of their alleged crimes: ROBBERY, BURGLARY, ASSAULT.

As of writing this, there have been a total of 15 Crime Alerts sent out or posted for students this academic year and every single one has centered on a black person. I have come to the realization that these crime alerts are the only time I see my true likeness represented on campus.

Don’t misinterpret what I mean by this—I am in no way a thug or a criminal and I reject any attempt to place any such label on me. And even if I had committed a crime in my past, would that make me undeserving of equitable treatment especially when, for so many Black people, Blackness is criminalized anyway?

I can’t help but notice that these “criminals” look just like my friends and me, wearing the same Air Max Nikes, same colorful silk durags, same hoodies, same puffy North Face jackets, with skin tones ranging anywhere from mahogany to charcoal.  

Maybe this explains my non-Black peers’ judgmental stares through eyes opaque with fear.

What purpose does sending these Crime Alerts really serve? Columbia boasts its ranking as the “22nd safest campus in the country,”  but I refuse to believe those grainy images of black youth, with their faces nearly indistinguishable, are a contributing factor. Is the hope that students will open these emails, read them closely in between their many discussion post reminders, then keep a watchful eye out for these criminals and alert public safety if seen? Maybe so.

Maybe this explains my non-Black peers’ judgmental stares through eyes opaque with fear. I notice the stares. I notice the ways they look at me as I make my way from evening classes to the dining hall or my dorm. I remember the constant questioning. Do you know where you’re going? Are you lost?

I am aware why such questions are asked when I enter buildings on campus as if I do not belong in the spaces at my own school. I’ve had people, my own classmates even, leave an elevator when I enter and say “oh I think I am going to just wait for the next one,” as if I was putting them in some sort of imminent danger.

Many of these acts are unconscious markers of implicit bias. Bias can never be combated, however, with the constant reinforcing of race-baiting imagery. If these crime alerts are keeping the campus safe they are also warping the campus’s perspective of black people enrolled in the university and in the broader community, leading to widespread profiling of black people. My experiences with both explicit and implicit bias and racial profiling are not the rarity but rather the norm—ask any black student. I am willing to bet he or she has a similar experience.

I am not saying that these crime alerts are the sole factor that leads to racial profiling on campus, but there is no way that they are not a major contributing factor to a fear of black people. As a black person, knowing that people that look like me are deemed violent and dangerous threats to campus safety fuels an insurmountable anger deep inside me.

The depiction of black people in these Crime Alerts is by nature inherently dehumanizing and erases the fact that these “criminals” are people too. It is important not to forget what separates the black people shown in the crime reports from the black students Columbia touts as the future. The only difference between us and them is sheer circumstance.

Black people, it seems, are only wholly acceptable at Columbia when adorned with v-neck polo sweaters and Vineyard Vines shoes. And no disrespect to my fellow black people who dress like this, but when you don’t fit this mold, you become a target. A target to be surveilled, followed, stopped, harassed, searched and in some cases arrested.

The only thing separating me from the man arrested is a small piece of blue and white plastic: my Columbia ID.

Early last month, on Barnard’s campus, an unidentified black man was arrested by the NYPD for “trespassing” at 7:25 PM on a Tuesday night. It was said public safety informed him that “[he] was not welcome at that location.” Barnard Campus is open to the public until 11:00 PM. There is no way that public safety checked this man for his ID without racially profiling him. To make matters worse, in what I believe was an attempt at a cover up, Campus Officials did not alert Barnard students that a man had been arrested at all.

The only thing separating me from the man arrested is a small piece of blue and white plastic: my Columbia ID.

I recall a moment last semester, for example, when I had just gotten back to campus from an event in the city and was walking down 114th street towards my dorm. I heard the sound of a car engine near me, looked back and saw a public safety vehicle creeping slowly behind me. At first I was confused as to why the car was inching down the block until the officer inside turned the high beams on.

It became clear to me that he was watching to see where I was going. As I made my left onto campus, the public safety officer stopped to see exactly where I was walking to. Finally, he rolled down his window and demanded to see identification to “make sure I was heading the right way.”

On another occasion, I was walking back to my dorm from an evening stroll in Riverside Park when a white woman walking down the same side of the street took one look in my direction, clutched her purse, and held it close to her chest as she went to cross the street. She was in such a hurry to get away that she slipped on some snow and nearly lost her balance. It was at that moment when I noticed that she was one of my professors, most likely walking home.

Dean Valentini has a saying he uses when advertising Columbia to new students. He says, "Welcome to the greatest College, in the greatest University, in the greatest city in the world." I find it interesting how people could find this to be true when so many of my classmates and peers remain ignorant of the world they are inhabiting.

Much of the student body seems afraid of the Harlem community that Columbia is situated within. In my short time at this school I have overheard or had people tell me each of the following:

Don’t go past 120th. It’s dangerous up there.

Can you believe how close those housing projects are to campus?

Columbia really has to do something about that.

These have come among countless others.

It seems to be easy for people to forget that just because we go to school here, and may call this area our temporary home, we are very much visitors in someone else's community. The Harlem locals have just as much a right to this space as students, if not more so; they need to feel welcome. The only depiction of them on campus shouldn’t be in the form of a Crime Alert.

In tiny red lettering at the bottom of each Crime Alert reads the following “Please note—Crime Alerts are distributed, pursuant to Federal Law, for specific crimes in defined locations. They do not present, nor are they intended to present, a complete picture of crimes on campus.”

This small addendum may seem insignificant at first, as if it is only a formality, but it is a clever way for Columbia to avoid the type of critique I am offering. If the Crime Alerts sent out to students are only a portion of the actual crimes that happen on campus, then where is the information about the other crimes? How is it that the crimes that are sent out only contain images of black youth as criminals?

To accept the belief that the Crime Alerts sent out this year about crimes committed by black youth are a coincidence and not a reflection of a broken system that lends itself to the hyper-surveillance and overt criminalization of black people on the Columbia campus is to believe a lie.

To chalk up these Crime Alerts as random happenings and not acknowledge them as a pattern is to avoid a vital conversation that the Columbia community must begin to engage in: Do we value black people, black students, for who they are and where they come from?

EssaysTyler Campbell