Race, Police & Justice: Voice from the Colgate Community

A few years ago a student and advisee of mine had a run-in with an officer from the Hamilton Police Department (HPD). The experience left her feeling violated and ashamed, so ashamed that even though she was close to me she did not tell me of it until she was forced to take a leave of absence the following semester and nothing could be done about it. In this experience and in others – almost always having to do with Black and Brown people – silence and shame have attended the many negative interactions with the police and with Campus Safety. I speak here specifically about policing in Hamilton, N.Y. and on the Colgate campus, and I speak as a Black woman who is connected to the lives and experiences of students of color on this campus. 

Black and Brown faculty, staff and students alike, in close quarters, often report feeling out of place, like aberrations. There are integral parts of this institution and organizations supported by the university that remind us of our aberrant place daily (and many of us would remember without prompts or reminders). Our skin makes us guilty, lesser. It makes us on financial aid, or on affirmative action; it makes us ugly, invisible and hyper-visible even in the eyes of many good, liberal white folks. Who we are here is historical, deep-rooted and still always on trial. And we cannot just tell it or feel it; we must also prove it.

There were aspects of the encounter between my student and the HPD officer that would, for me, disqualify the officer as someone whose judgement I should trust. Frankly, they disqualify him as someone concerned with justice. In fact, when I spoke to my student’s administrative dean about her case and mentioned these details, the dean suggested it might be the same racist officer who is known to give people of color a hard time. So my student was silent, the dean silent about this detail when it might have mattered, and these recurring troubles by a bigoted policeman have been largely silenced.

This is not the only story. I have heard them over and over in my office, in brown bag conversations and on the paths that stories take on campus and in town: more police in your grill than chicken on the grill at “Black” Spring Party Weekend events; the reports of driving while Black, walking while Black, riding while Black, heck just being Black; and even the notion of keeping the Black and dangerous Morrisville students out of Colgate events and policing these events so heavily that the patrons feel as though they are the ones on stage.

To talk about these experiences is to remind your audience that you are guilty in their eyes. Because even when wrongs have been done to us, even when we have paid with our lives, the caveats unfurl on the red carpet of American justice: were you selling cigarettes illegally, looking suspicious in a gated community, playing with a toy gun that looked too real? Could you not better silence your incredulity, did you nervously jab your hands in your pockets, forget to put your hands on the steering wheel? For me, even a most cursory intellectual or emotional understanding of this implicit guilt is arresting.

After the noise of the sit-in, there are still silences on our campus and in our community. Please consider resisting the narrative that we have righted all wrongs and trained all bias out of our offices, our rooms, our houses. Please consider joining the conversation. The articles in this special feature of the Maroon-News will give us plenty to talk about.