Following the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, a young man whose spine was nearly severed while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, many of the primarily poor and black residents of Baltimore have taken to the streets to protest police brutality. Gray was but the latest black man whose death at the hands of law enforcement sent the nation—including many students on our own campus—reeling.
The week before they got Gray for a switchblade, they shot Walter Scott in the back for a broken taillight in North Charleston, South Carolina. The week before Scott it was Eric Harris, a suspect in an undercover gun sting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Before Harris, they killed Anthony Hill in Chamblee, Georgia for jumping toward a police officer naked. That same week they got 19-year-old Tony Terrell Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin. Before Robinson, in two separate incidents in Ohio, police shot and killed John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with toy guns. Earlier that week, police shot and killed Akai Gurley in a dimly lit public housing staircase in Brooklyn for startling them. Before that, police in Los Angeles shot Ezell Ford, a mentally disabled man, three times, including once in the back at close range. Before that, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri killed an unarmed aspiring college student named Michael Brown. And even before that, a New York Police Department officer choked Eric Garner to death on the streets of Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes. And on and on.
During Columbia's annual tree lighting ceremony, the national movement to assert that black lives matter came to College Walk with a die-in organized and carried out by more than 200 students. For many students, New York was Ferguson, and now Ferguson is Baltimore. It doesn't seem to matter where you are if you are poor and black encountering the police in America. The die-in ended when Vice President of Public Safety James McShane—former commander of the 47th precinct in the Bronx—called the NYPD to break up the student protest.
The isolation felt by some students, particularly students of color, has been palpable this semester; these feelings are magnified by revelations of Columbia's investment in private prisons. They hit close to home with allegations that the University worked in conjunction with the NYPD to orchestrate the largest "gang raid" in city history on residents of the Grant and Manhattanville houses last June. For too many students, our University can be an alienating place.
In the wake of that die-in, the deans of the three undergraduate colleges—Mary Boyce, Peter Awn, and James Valentini—sent an email to students acknowledging the intense "feelings of distress, anxiety, alienation, and loss" felt by many students in the aftermath of these events. Last Tuesday, self-identified students of color from Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science received an email from Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs Melinda Aquino affirming support from her office. On Friday, Barnard Associate Dean for Student Life Alina Wong wrote a very similar email to Barnard students.
Yet, despite the feelings of outrage, University President Lee Bollinger has remained silent on the many issues faced by Columbians, including those that affect students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and students affected by international catastrophes like the earthquake in Nepal. Given Bollinger's past reluctance to take a stand as the University president, we are not counting on him to speak up; we have come to expect silence from the highest levels of our Alma Mater while those affected cry for justice in the streets.
However, we should expect a leader who played a prominent role in the fight for affirmative action to make statements assuring all students—and particularly students of color in this instance—that Columbia's mission "to convey the products of its efforts to the world" extends to the communities they represent.
In January, Bollinger expanded the mandate of Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg to include issues of race and justice. This was a promising development, but there's room for more progress.
President Bollinger, please be proactive in responding to concerns that students raise with Goldberg on these issues. We insist on a more active response and assertive voice from our University president.