MoniQue Rangell-Onwuegbuzia, CC ’22, stood alone outside of the entrance to the John Jay Lounge for two hours last Friday night.
As a party in honor of Columbia College Days raged on inside, Rangell-Onwuegbuzia said she wanted to force students to confront the history of racialized policing and its effect on black students on campus. She wore a sign that read, “Student: Do not pin down this negro.”
“I wanted to do something that would have to make people that weren’t affected care about this,” Rangell-Onwuegbuzia said. “Everyone who talks about these issues is black, but the people who need to hear us weren’t sitting in that room. Students were going to go to this party and pretend like this wasn’t happening. I needed to force them to be confronted with this the way that I’m confronted with it every day.”
The night before, Barnard Public Safety officers had restrained Alexander McNab, CC ’19, inside the Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning after he failed to show his ID at the front Barnard gates. Viral videos of the incident showed McNab pinned to the counter in Peet’s Coffee, surrounded by six officers and a group of onlooking students.
When Rangell-Onwuegbuzia found out about what happened, she, her twin, and a few of their friends organized a protest on Low Steps on Sunday titled the “Anti-Blackphobia Protest,” specifically meant to elevate the voices of black students and their concerns regarding campus safety.
“It was meant to be a big statement, telling Public Safety that if my blackness is enough to criminalize me, I’ll wear a sign saying that I’m a student if that’s what’s required to feel safe on my own campus,” Rangell-Onwuegbuzia said.
Public Safety defines itself as a body independent from the New York Police Department, dedicated to maintaining the safety and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and campus guests. Much of its work centers around crime prevention, which involves partnering with other organizations on campus to hold workshops on sexual assault, crime prevention, and drug and alcohol abuse, according to its website. Columbia and Barnard also have separate Public Safety offices, though both have largely similar procedures and policies.
“Public Safety is a non-sworn department, and what that means is we are not police, we don’t have police officer power,” Antonio Gonzalez, executive director of Public Safety, said at a Barnard Student Government Association meeting earlier this March. “We are security professionals with the same authority as a civilian.”
But interviews with students of color show a fundamental distrust of and disconnect with Public Safety in regard to its role of protecting the well-being of a campus community. Because policies about the powers of Barnard Public Safety officers seem inaccessible, nonexistent, or inconsistently applied, many students said they believed that the distinction between Public Safety and NYPD is largely irrelevant, even if it exists in writing. And citing a number of anti-black incidents over the past few months—as well as years of systematic racism, discrimination, and violence—black students in particular fundamentally question whether an entity created to protect their safety does more harm than good.
“They really don’t care about us. They care about policing us,” Phanesia Pharel, BC ’21. “I talked to black Columbia students; they don’t feel comfortable coming to Barnard.”
In 1968, Columbia sanctioned the NYPD to forcibly and violently remove students, most of whom were black students and other students of color, from occupying buildings in protest of the University’s expansion into Harlem.
In 2014, Columbia responded to an NYPD gang raid in Manhattanville housing projects in West Harlem, advocating for the involvement of Public Safety. NYPD infiltrated the neighboring Grant and Manhattanville projects, arresting 40 suspects in the murder of multiple gang members. After that incident, Columbia’s vice president of public safety at the time released a statement pushing for increased NYPD and Columbia Public Safety patrol of the Manhattanville area.
Though no student arrests have occured since 1996, police presence at campus demonstrations has remained constant from year to year, Spectator reporting revealed. Public Safety says that it communicates regularly with the NYPD, but in contrast, Columbia has emphasized that it has not been aware of the NYPD’s presence on campus during multiple protests, including at a Columbia Divest for Climate Justice protest in 2016.
On the other hand, students have also questioned Public Safety’s role when officers don’t seem to take strong enough of a stance. Last December, when Julian von Abele, CC ’21, harassed a group of primarily black students outside of Butler Library and followed them into JJ’s Place, the students approached an off-duty uniformed security guard who attempted to de-escalate the situation, according to a University spokesperson. However, many criticized Public Safety because it did not force von Abele to vacate the premises or institute immediate sanctions.
In light of Thursday’s incident, Barnard President Sian Beilock sent an email to the student body outlining a number of changes the college intends to undertake regarding Public Safety. Among these include the hiring of an independent firm that will investigate the incident, and the formation of a Community Safety Group to be comprised of chair Molree Williams-Lendor, the executive director of equity, students, faculty, staff, and outside experts. The group will also facilitate a “thorough review” of the entire public safety officer training process and will work to ensure that all policies are being enforced consistently.
But regardless of Barnard Public Safety’s defined policies and the college’s steps toward improvement, students said they feel a clear trend emerges—campus safety, defined by institutional conceptions of policing and outstanding historical evidence, is a privilege often guaranteed to an elite few.
“There is a culture and a desensitization to black bodies by the police in general, and I don’t think that the typical centrist response of ‘we care about all of our students’ works here,” Pharel said. “If you’re supposed to be protecting students, if you are policing, you need to pay attention to how you’re policing certain bodies that are policed a certain way on campus, right?”
In light of last week’s confrontation of McNab, students have been demanding answers and clarity in terms of concrete Barnard Public Safety policy and procedure. But since Thursday, students said they all received the same answer: Much of the college’s Public Safety policies are internal, and cannot be released to the public.
The most accessible form of Barnard Public Safety’s policy is the Annual Security and Fire and Safety Report, intended to outline “information on security procedures, services, and resources available” to students and guidelines that students must abide by in order to “cooperate in crime prevention.”
However, students maintain that they are unaware of what rights a Public Safety officer has in de-escalating an incident or imposing sanctions and view officers as people whose role on campus is to surveil rather than protect.
SGA Representative for Campus Affairs Chelsea Sinclair, BC ’21, who in her role interfaces directly with Barnard Public Safety, said she receives little clarity outside of information available to students at large.
“I have heard that Public Safety has a lot of internal ties to the NYPD … [But] there is no transparency, no understanding of what their ties are to police,” Sinclair said.
On the other hand, SGA Representative for Academic Affairs Solace Mensah-Narh, BC ’21, critiqued the apparent inaction of Public Safety officers in light of racist harassment. Specifically, Mensah-Narh said, at the March SGA meeting, she believed that Public Safety officers did not do enough to de-escalate the situation involving von Abele. Mensah-Narh was not aware that the students had approached a security guard rather than a Public Safety officer.
“There have been many cases where I have not understood why a Public Safety officer has made the decision that they did,” Mensah-Narh said. “In an instance last semester, a Public Safety officer did not do what was needed. Barnard Public Safety has said nothing in response to being notified about the [McNab] incident and said nothing about how they would protect students in that scenario, even when administrators said what they would do.”
Gonzalez responded by saying that if in the future any student has a problem with a Barnard officer’s actions, they should go to him so that he can address this issue.
Due to the racism historically prevalent in policing, Pharel said she would not feel safe without having all available information regarding the policies, procedures, and training of Public Safety officers.
“There’s a huge lack of transparency, and I truly don’t think they care about serving us,” she said. “If they cared, wouldn’t they be completely transparent? Wouldn’t you tell us everything?”
Students have also largely pointed to Barnard’s method of notifying the community of campus crimes as racially biased. As mandated by federal law, Barnard Public Safety places posters in residence halls detailing the type of crime and with a photo of the alleged criminal. In contrast, Columbia’s Public Safety Department sends emails to the students as opposed to posting photos around campus.
According to Sinclair, who said she has brought the concern to Barnard Public Safety officials, Clery Crime Alert photos—which are largely of black faces—exacerbate feelings of discomfort and fear between black students and campus safety officials.
“This is the criminalization of black faces,” Sinclair said. “It could be me, as a black student. It could be my friend. It’s so pixelated; it could be any of us.”
In the past few days, all of the Clery Crime Alert posters have been removed from all bulletin boards on Barnard’s campus. A spokesperson for Barnard said that the posters were not removed by any Barnard employee, but that the college is actively reviewing its communication process with students.
In light of these decisions, Rangell-Onwuegbuzia questioned why any student of color should have faith in a system that seems inherently based in bias.
“There are black officers too, but it’s not about the individuals. It’s about the broader institution,” she said. “Since its inception, the institution of policing is meant to suppress black people. … The system wasn’t designed for us to be here; we are supposed to be kept out.”