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Experts have long researched the ties between modern policing and the enslavement of Black Americans by white civilian landowners. Columbia and its students have played a part in this history.

Updated July 29, 2020 at 9:44 p.m.

In 1917, Columbia community members presented a united front against a common enemy as they answered national calls to join the war effort. However, Columbia students did not only find opponents in foreign powers and enemies abroad. While Uncle Sam enlisted hundreds of students in the armed forces, Spectator promoted a number of vigilante groups that urged the community to fight against “invaders” at home in Morningside Heights.

“A northward [Black] movement had begun as early as 1914. By the early [1930s,] these migrations added to the housing and school problems,” Spectator reported in 1957, noting that the wartime unity coincided with an increase in crime so high that “women and children feared to walk the streets at night.”

Prior to the formation of professional police forces, white communities attempted to shield themselves from the perceived threat of Black people through vigilante policing. White vigilantism has manifested itself in many forms of anti-Black racism throughout American history—through lynchings of Black men in the post-emancipation era, through race massacres in the 20th century, and today, through 911 callers who report their suspicions about Black individuals to officers who then engage in police brutality.

“Policing and property ownership go hand in hand. Buy as much property, and then police it,” Stefan Bradley, professor of African American studies at Loyola Marymount University, said, noting that protection of property “engineered” a means for Columbia to assume control of the community.

By the time police forces were instituted during Reconstruction, it was common for communities to have watchmen volunteer their time to guard their property against theft. Originally, these groups functioned as slave patrols that sought to prevent the escape of enslaved people, and they later served to protect white property from the perceived threat of Black people.

In concept, professional policing was intended to replace earlier vigilante policing and to monopolize the use of force for the state. However, white Americans have continued to use patrols to supplement the police forces they kept close.

Spectator combed through all reports of crime documented in Spectator archives since 1900. While students commonly called upon the police to protect Columbia’s campus, the coalitions of crime-fighting civilians continued the long tradition of vigilante policing, the archives showed. During the “War on Crime” era of the 1970s, students pleaded that if the University did not occupy land in Harlem with the backing of police, Columbia would weaken and be ultimately destroyed. Even today, Harlem continues to be over-policed, under-funded, and over-exploited while Columbia has grown into an institution with a nearly $11 billion endowment.

According to Adam Malka, a historian of the 19th-century United States whose research includes policing and punishment, uniformed police officers and white vigilantes in many forms have worked “arm in arm” throughout these eras. He cited a “disturbing, perverse intimacy between men in hooded gowns and uniformed police officers, sometimes the very same men.” This collaboration invested white supremacy with the power of the state, manifested through selected allyships with police to guard property—such as Columbia’s campus—against the perceived threat of Black communities.

“The creation of organized police forces didn’t always replace informal policing, but rather heightened and amplified their power over people of color,” Malka said.

To “clean up” the community surrounding Columbia, residents of West Harlem were subject to over-policing that backed the interests of wealthy white students. In a 1990 op-ed, a Columbia College first-year wrote, “But now few voluntarily venture to 125th Street during the day, let alone at night. Not only is Harlem far away, but it is also a scary place. And yet it doesn’t have to be so. … Concentrating police patrol there would bring a sense of security to the area, which the city could emphasize and promote.”


Building an urban haven

In order to become more competitive with its Ivy League peers, in 1897, Columbia acquired property in Morningside Heights—the closest neighborhood in New York City that could compare to the “havens” of Harvard University, Yale University, and Princeton University.

As it grew, the University came to brand itself as the “best that is the human heritage,” and students who benefitted from its prestige would volunteer to protect the identity of the overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and elite community.

One article described that the student volunteers would be required to “aid the police in quelling riots, mobs, and otherwise defending lives and property in emergencies.”

Meanwhile, Harlem and the low-income housing complexes surrounding campus, which were described as “a filthy jungle” and “a breeding ground of poverty, disease and crime,” would become targets of policing.

In the early years of its founding, Columbia was predominantly financed by wealthy families whose wealth was generated from the profits of enslaved labor. The idea of property rights—which spurred the University’s accumulation of wealth as it became one of the largest real estate owners in New York City—assured white lenders that the strength of their will would drive the economy forward despite the low value of American soil.

In reality, this wealth was created through forced labor and extended through credit systems that used enslaved people as mortgage collateral. Legalized slavery would write Black Americans into the nation’s history as a tool only valuable for the production of white wealth. Property owners were able to grow in wealth so long as the profits of the goods came back to the owners and not the Black laborers whose labor stimulated the growth of American corporations.

White Americans received an almost 400-year head start on property ownership—a precondition to obtaining more land in itself—that would never stop giving. Now, discriminatory banking policies disproportionately prevent Black people who do not own property from receiving loans.

Columbia is New York City’s seventh-largest landholder and its campus continues to grow. Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion project, slated to finish in 2022, has placed economic stress on the Harlem businesses its construction has displaced.

As the University expanded, it leveraged its power of eminent domain, claiming that the nearby predominantly Black neighborhoods were uninhabitable while gaining legal access to their property under the guise of serving the public good. Columbia accumulated the wealth denied to poor residents through segregation—and soon turned its efforts to protecting that wealth as best as it could.

Leslie Harris, CC ’88, professor of history at Northwestern University, said that policing is a way to “selectively” recognize police officers’ involvement in the community, noting that those most vulnerable to policing are targeted to later be displaced by the University.

“Columbia as a real estate operator has taken land and used it,” Harris said. She added, “It’s more than gentrification,” noting that the criminalization caused by policing devalues Harlem communities and allows for the University to obtain more property through academic pursuits.


Student fears create an image of criminal neighbors

In October of 1974, the Columbia campus found itself rattled by two back-to-back assaults on students. On the night of October 13, a Barnard sophomore was raped by four men in Morningside Park. Earlier that day, a football player was mugged and held at gunpoint by a group of nine youths. He walked away from the incident unharmed, but the University was criticized for campus security’s absence on College Walk at the time.

In letters to the editor later that same month, students accused the University of not prioritizing student safety and suggested that students themselves take on the responsibility of protecting their campus community.

“We would all feel better if we knew someone was always watching, not just glancing around and disappearing,” one such letter read. Recommendations included stationing students on the fourth floor of Butler Library to monitor College Walk and in the International Affairs Building to watch 120th Street and parts of Amsterdam Avenue.

According to Malka, the outcry of student concerns for safety against Black and Latinx communities appears to be “entwined with the racial panic of the 1970s urban crisis.” While law enforcement over-policed Black communities, popular culture also constructed and popularized the archetype of the Black criminal. Following the incident, law enforcement told Spectator that Morningside Park was “a drug-infested, crime ridden area” that “no one should attempt to cross.” In both incidents, the impacted students were reported to be outnumbered by groups of young Black men.

During the perceived crime wave of the ’80s and early ’90s, candidates for state and federal assembly on both sides ran on tough-on-crime agendas, including Republican candidate Marta Varela, who later became the chair of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Her platform for the 1992 New York State Assembly election featured a goal to block the move of the Beth Israel Methadone Clinic to 110th and Broadway, claiming the area was already “saturated” with criminals.

Rudy Giuliani’s term as mayor of New York, which began in 1994, was characterized by one of the city’s most forceful agendas to combat crime. While his administration championed an aggressive response to petty crime, also known as the “broken windows” method of policing, that police force was reciprocally justified by perceptions of Black people as “criminals.” The zero-tolerance program was accompanied by the introduction of CompStat, a technology designed to analyze likely crime hotspots for targeted officer deployment and enforcement.

In 2013, the same idea of “perceived threat” led to the acquittal of George Zimmerman by a jury who defended his right to use lethal force against Trayvon Martin.

In 2019, the harassment of Alexander McNab, CC ’19, by Barnard Public Safety officers attested to the same anti-Blackness produced by the University’s policing of surrounding neighborhoods.

Despite the growing diversity at Columbia, the racialized notion of belonging is reinforced through students’ active call to guard their university experience against “outsiders.”

“We need more policing for safety. My friends and I see people who are definitely not Columbia students smoking I-don’t-know-what on campus,” Andrew Lothian, GS ’21, told the New York Post following the death of Barnard first-year Tess Majors in December 2019.

Following the incident with McNab, community members noted the disproportionate number of claims of harassment from Public Safety and Columbia peers based on race and questioned if protection from the “outsider” could be removed from the targeting of Black people. Though many Black students at Columbia have no ties to the surrounding Harlem community, they are treated as such by Public Safety officers in these instances.

Although the review found no evidence of racial bias, it did note that Barnard had failed to provide clear guidelines for its officers.

In a 2019 interview with the New York Post, Danielle Mikaelian, CC ’21, said she welcomed cops on campus, adding that she cares about her safety.  

“I care about my safety and I believe there are methods of policing without discrimination,” she said.  

Calls of “alternative” or reformed policing have long been debunked. By promoting this narrative, students effectively reject the idea that policing targets Black people. 


Fraternity-fueled violence

Spectator examined incidents in which students called for increased police force in Harlem in response to crime. Many calls were made by fraternities to protect largely white, male-dominated spaces, and some even resulted in collaborations between students and police.

In December 1971, the New York Times reported student demands following the robbery at the Alpha Delta Phi house, where nine fraternity brothers were held up by “polite and friendly” Black men and robbed of $450.

The then-president of the fraternity council penned an open letter to then-University president Dr. William J. McGill demanding that the University “recognize its obligation to patrol not only the immediate campus, but also those surrounding areas containing large numbers of students and faculty.” The fraternities would “accept no longer the dictum that [they] are responsible for our own safety,” the letter said.

In response to these demands, some 26th Precinct officials urged the fraternity brothers to become auxiliary policemen. After a 10-week training course, they could be issued uniforms and walkie-talkies to patrol in groups of two. Spectator could not confirm how many, or if any, students took the 26th Precinct up on this offer.



According to Malka, both the letter and response from the New York Police Department “fit into a historical pattern of white supremacy rippling through the policing function,” pointing to 20th-century race massacres that took place across the country “under the auspices of formal policemen.”

“It doesn’t seem like the city is advocating for a race massacre when empowering fraternity brothers, but it’s hard to separate that history out from the other history of mob violence,” Malka said. “It’s hard not to see the latent and even not-so-latent white supremacy in that action.”

Fraternities in particular have promoted anti-Black violence on college campuses, even modeling their organizational structure after one of the most notorious white vigilante groups, the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 1900s, fraternities promoted Black caricatures and cross burnings as an ode to the KKK.

[See: Racist Fiji messages are part of a long history of sexual, anti-Black violence protected by brotherhood]

In 1998, fraternity members from the Columbia chapter of Zeta Beta Tau took justice into their own hands when a homeless Hispanic man was caught stealing from their residential brownstone. Four members threw the man outside and chased him down the street, culminating in a “scuffle” on West 115th Street before police were finally notified and redirected.

“To the perception of the person being chased, what is the difference between the white skin of the ordinary citizen versus the uniformed policeman who does the beating?” Malka said. “In the end, the man is the man.”

In being tasked by white communities to protect against purported Black criminals and burglars, police also became an instrument in protecting white wealth through the proactive patrolling of private properties. During a 26th Precinct Community Council meeting in 2001, attendees were encouraged to advocate for the Trespass Affidavit Program to their buildings’ management. Enrolling in this initiative would permit officers to perform “vertical patrols,” allowing them to patrol inside apartment buildings.

Just three years later, a routine vertical patrol resulted in the death of an unarmed Black resident of the neighborhood, 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury Jr. Following the incident, there were calls to ban officers’ unholstering of their guns during routine patrols. Nonetheless, a similar vertical patrol measure was instated at Barnard at the end of 2008, requiring Public Safety officers to patrol inside Barnard dorm buildings once per shift.

The growth of hate crimes during the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests indicates that civilian violence is not moderated but encouraged by the growing power of the police. Although police are armed with the same weapons used in the Iraq War, Black resistance is seen by many as a powerful threat to society—much like the numerous murderers who defend their innocence by convincing others that a Black person wearing a hoodie, holding a phone, or standing outside of a store warranted enough suspicion to kill in fear for their own lives.

“If you start to look at the policemen as vigilantes themselves, then some of this begins to make a little more sense,” Malka said. “All of a sudden, we start to see how Ahmaud Arbery fits into the same story as George Floyd and how the racial panic that led to the drug and crime war in the 1970s and 1980s is part and parcel of the same process by which Columbia fraternity boys are empowered with the authority of the state.”

News Editor Valeria Escobar can be contacted at valeria.escobar@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

Staff writer Abby Melbourne can be contacted at abby.melbourne@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

Staff writer Dia Gill can be contacted at dia.gill@columbiaspectator.com. Follow her on Twitter at @_diagill.


Manhattanville Harlem Crime New York Police Department Vigilantism
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