This is an open letter written by the executive board of the Women of Color Pre-Law Society in response to the tragic loss of Barnard first-year Tess Majors and the ensuing investigation. The Women of Color Pre-Law Society strives to support women of color and other people of color on their pre-law journeys. Its statement has garnered 1,247 signatures from 56 faculty members, 661 Columbia and Barnard students, 414 Columbia and Barnard alumni, 17 Harlem community members, 13 staff members, 49 family members, and 37 student organizations.
Dear President Beilock, President Bollinger and the Larger Columbia and Barnard Administration,
As members of the Barnard and Columbia community, we are continuing to mourn the devastating and tragic loss of Tessa Majors. A musician, feminist, and life-long learner, Tess was a valuable member of our community and impacted countless people on our campus and in Tess's home city of Charlottesville, Virginia. The painful loss of Tess has had an insurmountable impact on our community as we have tried to find ways to come together and support one another. This loss has rattled our community and will continue to impact all of our experiences here as we honor Tess’s memory. Tess’s death has reminded us, as a community, of the value of human life and how devastating it is when one is lost.
Part of the healing process and an important way for us to honor Tess’s memory is to ensure a just and fair investigation. Further, we want to emphasize that it is essential that the Harlem community we reside in, and actively engage with on a daily basis, is not isolated from this process and that Tessa’s death doesn’t further divide our campus from the surrounding community.
We are writing to urge Barnard and Columbia to communicate with the NYPD and officers investigating the tragic loss of Tess Majors that, while we value swift and efficient investigations and justice, we also want to ensure that the timeline does not implicate the wrong individuals. We are requesting that Barnard and Columbia ensure that the Harlem residents currently being targeted as suspects in the police investigation are represented by adequate counsel. Recent media reports have indicated that the 13-year old boy who was initially questioned by the NYPD was questioned without a lawyer present, with only the oversight of his uncle. Given the long history of unjust policing and surveillance of young black and brown people in the surrounding community, attention to a fair process is even more important. As we have seen in the past with highly publicized cases, like the Central Park Jogger case, NYPD has been accused of mishandling cases especially in high profile and horrific acts of violence. For example, in 2014, New York City mayor Bill De Blasio acknowledged that the original arrests and convictions of the Exonerated Five were an act of “injustice.”
As members of the Barnard and Columbia community, we are also concerned about the impact of the university's historical and recent gentrification and policing policies and their impact on residents in Harlem. For example, incipient gentrification efforts in the late 1940s were marked by the creation of Morningside Heights, Inc. (MHI), a coalition of fourteen institutions including Columbia and Barnard that aimed to “improve and secure” this neighborhood. The MHI tracked the use of Morningside Park by “undesirables” who used the park to gain access to the Morningside Heights Area and attempted to restrict access to the park by individuals deemed “undesirable.” Recent scholarship has further demonstrated that Morningside Park, in particular, has been labeled as dangerous.
Ensuring that no one is mistreated during the process of this investigation and that the investigation results in a response that is not limited to just criminal prosecutions will make the Barnard/Columbia community and the larger Harlem community in which we reside in feel safer. It is essential that the response of this investigation engages in a form of restorative justice that focuses on the root causes of why anyone, especially middle school-aged children, would engage in this kind of violence; justice must include actively interrogating and correcting the roots and effects of institutional oppression, gentrification, poverty, and other structural forces. A just and fair process will also ensure that both communities have a better sense of trust in the School and New York City policing, which both groups have had fraught relationships with in the past as demonstrated by BSO’s police report. We are also requesting that Barnard and Columbia work with community organizations, like Street Corner Resources and Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E, to ensure that systemic and community-based change is enacted to make Harlem a safe area for all of its residents. Our solution must be to unify with the surrounding community, to protect everyone and ensure all of our safety.
It is essential that in ensuring our students’ safety, we do not make others feel unsafe. Working side by side with community-based organizations and partners will help to ensure that we do not exclude certain members of the Morningside Heights community. We need to increase staff that engages with Morningside Heights and Harlem residents to make sure we hear and advocate for their needs. Further, it is essential that our institutions engage with scholars and resources that engage with methodologies of restorative justice on our campus, like the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the Columbia Center for Justice, in addition to community organizations that exist outside of campus, as outlined above.
Morningside Park should be a space that everyone can use at any time without fearing for their safety. Tess Majors’ senseless death is a tragedy that must not be repeated. Tess was an amazing individual who was a loved member of the Barnard community and whose death has left a void in our community. It is up to us as a Morningside Heights community to strive to improve upon the community which we all value and cherish by ensuring that we address what caused an individual to do such a horrific act.
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