Police state school
Approaching brightly lit orange flashing LED lights, I set the cruise control exactly to 20 miles per hour and ambled down University Drive toward the Recreation Center. An officer entered into the traffic and raised his hand motioning me to stop my vehicle.
Still yards away from him, far enough to barely make out his hand signals, I inched slowly closer to what I deemed a sensible point from which to obey his orders. His face cringed in exasperation. “Stop the car, stop!” he began yelling, waving his arms frantically – all the while, there was no present danger to either of us or any individuals nearby. Confused and a little bewildered by his reaction, I sat motionless in my car and waited for further instructions. Glancing to the left was another set of flashing lights, this time blue and red, as a policeman was speaking to another student through the window of his car – bummer, I thought, bad luck.
I was instructed to continue moving, slowly of course. As I passed the intersection at the Recreation Center, two policemen were bravely maintaining the peace up the road. I drove up around the bend by the engineering department and there was yet another car pulled over being reprimanded by an officer. Five police in one mile? This couldn’t be a coincidence.
Ok, so perhaps it was just a bad day, with lots of disobedient students – who knows. I gave the police the benefit of the doubt and allowed their presence to slip my mind.
The next day, while driving down Massachusetts Avenue, I passed a police car to my right, one to my left and then took a right turn into a parking lot where two officers stood in waiting. As I passed these two, I peered to my left where on foot, an officer clad in a crisp dark uniform paced ominously forward – in the distance stood another, not on foot, but on horseback.
Everything seemed cold and gray, the Brutalist architecture even more brutal than normal in the distance. Despite the legality of my actions I shuddered, feeling a police presence that I can seldom remember in my four years on campus. This definitely wasn’t my imagination. There were significantly more police posted on campus, and everywhere I went I felt as though I were under increased surveillance.
So, here is the University of Massachusetts – home of dorms modeled after public housing projects, school buildings that resemble fall-out shelters, and now numerous police officers on campus roads and walkways. Great.
The aforementioned elements were not the qualities of a school from which I was seeking to earn a degree. In fact, these attributes are the polar opposite of what I wanted in a university. When I arrived here four years ago, several words echoed out of nearly every professors’ mouths in each of my classes: “The goal of this course is to transform you into a critical thinker.” I like to believe that they have been effective in promoting just that.
A university setting, its education, and the resulting critical thinking are all about emerging out of a rigid structure of understanding towards self-expression, challenging the status quo and becoming truly invigorated by personal and academic interests in a system which can help students flourish, intellectually and personally. Such a notion becomes directly compromised by the institutionalization of a rigid power structure that monitors students to an unnecessary degree. Increased police presence doesn’t promote comfort on campus for me, but represents a troubled method of control from a group of people who hardly represent the demographics of a diverse campus community.
In recent weeks, I have found myself more aware of the increased police presence and a feeling of internal guilt for which I can discern no reasoning. An uneasy feeling dawns on me when I approach campus at the end of my commute, as I count the officers whom I pass by.
I can recall my first and seemingly only interaction with campus police – nodding to red cheeked cadets stationed in my freshman dormitory on my way out for the evening. Ok, so they weren’t exactly what I would call threatening, but their presence did impact the dormitory climate. Very few students at that time were aware of their rights as students and residents in a dorm, many of which became subject to police search without understanding their rights, consenting to searches, or being presented with a warrant. While the resources and funds spent on police appear to have increased substantially, information on students’ legal and personal rights is harder to come by.
As I walk to class today and pass numerous officers and vehicles parked on the side of the road, I think back to several weeks ago, as I watched the student and police interaction during ‘The Riots’ from afar. I have never seen a Southwest riot and the post-Super Bowl setting seemed like a decent opportunity to get a better grasp on them. Despite grave recollections depicted on news stations across the country, students seemed to pose a pretty insignificant threat to police, or even to each other. Police responded by dawning battle gear, mounting horses, carrying batons, and shooting shells at a few bright-eyed drunken stragglers fleeing Southwest. Adorned with smoke and sirens, the scene emerged like a screen shot out of Arcade Fire’s video “The Suburbs.”
While a Super Bowl riot is hardly justifiable, nor of any value to a major percentage of the UMass community, the news hype and the police’s riot gear was undoubtedly excessive.
The degree to which police were prepared to handle ‘The Riots’ and the increased police presence around campus on a daily basis is emblematic of the shifting baselines for campus security. The more police we see on campus, the more complacent we become with their presence. I have heard very few students comment on increased patrolling or even the outrageous funds and resources that we have dedicated to new police cars, buildings, and equipment, for a school with seemingly insignificant crime rates.
A college campus is a location in need of measures promoting student safety, especially in a setting of over 20,000 students. And yes, increased police presence around a work zone for the protection of students and construction workers is sensible. There is a difference, however, between preventative security measures and constant or over-ambitious police intervention. For now, we are no UC Berkley, but I fear we are well on our way.
Kimberly Ovitz is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.