First of all, I don’t purport to speak for all black people, all black college students or even all students of color at Portland State. However, I think what I have to say will resonate with many.
This debate about arming Campus Public Safety Office officers has raged both on campus and online, but for a city and a university that pride themselves on inclusivity, the concerns and issues of minority people of color are getting short shrift, as is usually the case with our school and Portland in general.
Phil Zerzan, the chief of CPSO has already been quoted in an Oregonian article on Oct. 10 stating, “How about not having racist cops? How about having a culture and an organization that doesn’t allow that?”
Well, Chief Zerzan, I have a newsflash for you: Your currently UNARMED campus security officers are already racist, and demonstrably so at that. Personally, I have been profiled and accosted on campus numerous times, and it’s always some variation of the same conversation.
“So what brings you to PSU?”
“I go to school here.”
“You sure? Do you have any ID?”
At which point I’ve always wanted to say, “Go fuck yourself,” but ultimately I decide not to escalate the situation partly out of fear, but also because I’ve become resigned to this experience as a black man in Amerikkka. I thought that CPSO were cops and I didn’t want to get shot dead, which is something white police officers are wont to do anytime there’s any melanin involved.
The truth is that anytime I see campus security I don’t feel safe, I feel nervous, which is pretty much the same reaction I have when I see cops. Maybe if I had been wearing a football or basketball jersey, or pushing a mop even, I wouldn’t have been subjected to this type of behavior from CPSO. The anger and dismay I feel at this everyday reality is beyond articulation. But having spent half of my PSU career paying an out-of-state tuition rate, this essentially means I’m paying obscene amounts of money for an education where I’m made to feel that I don’t belong, or even worse that I’m some kind of menace.
And that’s just me. I have friends who have been profiled up to six or seven times, and some have been fucked with so frequently by CPSO that they’re pondering pursuing legal action against the university. And lest it become an assumption that this is somehow just a “black thing,” I know of Arab students who have not only been profiled by CPSO but detained while the Portland Police Department was called. For what crime exactly? Smoking a cigarette with a homeless person in front of Ondine.
The message is clear: If you’re not white there’s a good chance you “might” be up to no good, and you don’t belong here unless you’re playing sports or a member of the janitorial or service staff.
In the whitest major city in the country, where many people of color struggle everyday with covert and overt racism in this “progressive” Mecca, it’s appalling that some who choose to attend this school have to deal with a prison-industrial complex mentality. This is the mentality that drives what Michelle Alexander so eloquently dubbed “The New Jim Crow” in which people of color are over-policed, prosecuted and penalized in numbers that are overwhelmingly disproportionate in comparison to whites. Not because we are more inclined to commit crimes, but because the system is more inclined to engage in racist and discriminatory patterns, i.e. institutional racism. I could regale you with all the statistics in the world comparing arrests, prosecution and sentencing but perhaps the fact that is most salient to this debate is that according to federal data, young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white peers. Let that sink in for a minute.
Before there was ever a Mike Brown in Ferguson, Portland had Keaton Otis and Aaron Campbell (both unarmed young black men) who died at the hands of the Portland Police Department, execution style. These are by no means isolated incidents and they, along with the countless others who don’t get media attention, speak to a culture of lawlessness, racism and white supremacy applied with deadly force with virtually no accountability for the officers involved, all of whom should be behind bars as we speak. You have to forgive me for not believing Zerzan’s assertions about not having a racist police force when, under his watch, I and other people I know have endured their atrocious behavior when they don’t even have guns yet. They’re really already acting like cops, but they can’t kill us…yet.
Mos Def said on Black Star’s classic song “Thieves in The Night,” “The length of black life is treated with short worth,” and in this so-called post-racial world that has become painfully more apparent. This drive for an armed campus security is nothing more than a power grab, and to be honest I’m much more likely to be shot by a member of an armed police force on campus than a marauding psycho. I rue the day when I cease to identify myself as a student at PSU, but as an unarmed black civilian.