Black Lives Matter- Elsewhere

“I was handcuffed, I paid over a thousand dollars in legal fees, I appeared in court three times missing class, because I reacted to a situation that can only be explained as racist. No one from the school has ever acknowledged this.”

I was arrested on the Mount Holyoke College campus on the first of March this year, after losing my cool at campus police officers who I felt were being racist towards me. After several back and forths to court and with legal help, eventually the charge was lowered to a civil one, which I was assured would not leave me with a criminal record. At the same time the school hired an investigator to look into the matter. The whole process was disheartening, as it seemed the school was only interested in absolving itself of any wrongdoing. So that even though the report shows that the dean for instance did the opposite of her job, there is “not enough evidence” to prove that had she mediated the situation properly the results would have been different etc. Cleverly, the investigation report was hell bent on trying to prove that the intentions of the police officers were not racist despite the fact that my grievance was not about the officers’ “intentions,” but rather that the way the officers treated me produced a valid perception of racism, which warranted my anger. Of course it would be near impossible to prove intention unless the police officers came outright and said that they thought of me as more aggressive because I am black and that they are conditioned to see black people as criminals and white people as innocent. Needless to say, they were not going to say any of that.

On the first of March a noise complaint was called on some friends and I in an unassigned room on campus. My friends left but when I tried to leave the room I was told I could not take my belongings from the room, including my laptop. By the end my boyfriend and I remained and a dean was called to “mediate” the situation. She failed and I got very upset which resulted in my being arrested for disturbing the peace.

Despite the MANY problems in the investigation report, the findings did not deny that my boyfriend is a white male, that I am a black woman, that I was ID’d and my boyfriend was not, that I was questioned for smoking weed and my boyfriend was not, that my things were confiscated while my boyfriend was allowed to leave with his, that I was calm until I thought they were treating me with racism and that thereafter I was arrested for refusing to calm down. The investigation stated that the reason I was ID’d and not my boyfriend was because I am a student and he is not. Yet even while not being able to know who he was, my boyfriend was not asked to prove that what he was taking out of the room belonged to him. I was, and even after proving that my laptop had my name on it, they didn’t tell me I could take my things and leave. My argument was that I perceived this treatment as racist and that this is why I got upset. And of course I got more furious when instead of rectifying their unjust treatment of me, the officers and later the dean on call wanted me to calm down. And in a typically sexist “control-your-woman” manner, they then co-opted my boyfriend to assist them in calming me down.

If the intentions of the police officers were not racist, if I was reading the situation incorrectly as so many people of color are accused of doing, if I am simply pulling the race card after acting out for no reason, I want to know how else I could have read it? What else should I have thought could warrant their heightened suspicion of me compared to the trust they granted the white person who was doing exactly what I was doing? How is an unidentified non-student deserving of more trust than me, if not because he is white and I am black? How was I supposed to rationalize that other than with what we all know and see in our everyday lives? Surely there is valid reason for me to perceive this as being racist when it fits directly into the prevalent racist stereotype that black people are criminals. This is the same perception that makes police officers fire at unarmed black men, and the school’s response is the reason they get away with it.

As a defense, the officers responded that the only reason they allowed my boyfriend to leave with his laptop and other belongings was that they didn’t really notice that he was taking his things. That was enough for the investigator and the hearing officer and college Vice President Sharon Gurek to conclude that the officers’ intentions were not racist. But it is racist. It is the exact same prejudice at play. The fact that two officers and a dean “did not notice” one person pack up a laptop and bag and walk out with it, but would not let the other person leave with a laptop that had her name on it is just another sign that they were treating me with more suspicion. My boyfriend left with a more expensive laptop and a whole bag of things and they did not notice? But when I tried to do the same, I was told that they would have to confiscate my things to verify that they were indeed mine, that I was not stealing them. We have joked since then that if I had let my boyfriend carry my things for me, we probably wouldn’t have been in that mess at all. By his whiteness alone, my boyfriend is unquestioned, unsearched and unhindered by the campus police. Even in a woman’s college in which I am enrolled, a white male is treated with more respect and trust than I am as a person of color.

I was handcuffed, I paid over a thousand dollars in legal fees, I appeared in court three times missing class, because I reacted to a situation that can only be explained as racist. No one from the school has ever acknowledged this. After I wrote about my arrest the school became involved in a dodgy game of chess trying to avoid litigation, I am sure. I was urged by the Dean Davis to file a grievance report. An internal investigation was conducted under the guise of coming to the truth and all it did was absolve the school of wrongdoing and give them false legitimacy. Two deans told me that they would come to court and tell the DA that an internal investigation into the behavior of campus police was underway. That probably could have swayed the DA to consider the possibility that my arrested was unnecessary or at least in question. Instead, Dean Davis and Dean Banks came to court late and told the DA that they were investigating me.

My only support and comfort came from the many alumni of color who wrote to me in solidarity, my friends, family and schoolmates and most importantly the students who came together and formed the movement #Mohonest. To them I am eternally grateful, humbled and in awe. I still haven’t found the right words to express my gratitude to all the members of Mohonest for having stood by me and for the rights of all students of color on this campus. The first campaign we did was print and put up our written experiences of racism on campus.

After that, some more students joined the movement. But from outside of Mohonest, the only response I ever saw from other students was that Mohonest was aggressive. Students of color simply putting up their stories and experiences was read as an aggressive act. At one college senate meeting, several white students spoke up saying they felt attacked by the movement, but made sure to clarify that they were not racist, of course. Not seeing that the very fact that they characterized a non-violent movement as aggressive was deeply rooted in the same racist tendency that got me arrested and that gets many other black people harassed and even killed. If queer students posted stories of the homophobia they face, would those “non-racist” students feel attacked? Would that be seen as an aggressive movement? I doubt it. It seems that it’s only people of color who are characterized constantly as aggressors even when we are the victims of aggression.

At the first meeting that Mohonest members had with college president Lynn Pasquerella, the only thing she had to say was that she feared the movement marginalized “the other students.” Just to clarify that statement; her first response to a movement where people of color spoke up about being mistreated was that white students would feel marginalized. Her response was not shock or dismay at the racism perpetuated on her campus, it was not remorse that we have lived these experiences, it was concern about white students’ discomfort, which far outweighs the discomfort of black students, or the perpetual marginalization of students of color. And she saw no irony in this.

Today she sent an email about the various things that would happen on campus in response to the verdict that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. Meanwhile officers on this very campus also get away with racism with her approval. Just like in her convocation speech after a semester of racial tension, she said one thing about race here and then talked about racism in Cambodia before burying it all under the good and sudden news that Mount Holyoke would now accept Trans students. It seems far easier for Mount Holyoke to deal with issues far away from home even if it suffers the same ailments. If you believe black lives really matter, they should matter on this campus also. The admin wants to channel and organize our anger and quieten any discomfort against itself. Go, says Mount Holyoke, change the world. But don’t you dare start here.

Maya Wegerif