States of Fugitivity: Policing and Anti-Blackness at Vassar

Photo Credit: http://america.aljazeera.com/content/dam/ajam/images/articles_2014/12/doj_police_reform_120814.jpg (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

“Black rights, in other words, are not revoked. Rather, I take punishment— or state sanctioned direct relations of force— to be primary and foundational to black subjection, while the production of discipline provides a type of popular theater of cruelty that enters public debate under the terms of “emancipation,” “enfranchisement,” “integration,” “multiculturalism,” or other verities of a strained nationalist project. Punishment, on this account, represents neither a breakdown of the strategies of containment, assimilation, or social control nor an excess of entrenched power threatened by the prospect of change from below; it is not reactive or strategic.”  -Jared Sexton

Jared Sexton’s Racial Profiling and the Societies of Control meditates on notions of policing, discipline, and violence in a way that drastically informs our understandings of the dangers that arise when we take the recent increase in police presence on campus seriously.  His essay makes use of a conception of the Black subject that posits them as non-human; that being whose ontological positioning demarcates a space of absolute dereliction, one of fugitivity, fungibility, and excess. He outlines the genealogy of policing, emphasizing the role of slave codes as the genesis of contemporary policing methods and metaphysical biases. By bringing into question conventional quasi-legal notions such as probable cause and the regulations outlined by the Fourth Amendment concerning rightful search and seizure, Sexton interrogates contemporary discipline and its purposes, as well as the potential metaphysical dispositions that may [and we contend, do] crucially permeate the mindset of the discipliner.

Critically, Sexton’s piece fleshes out an understanding of how Blackness serves as probable cause qua definitione.  The anti-black impulse of policing materializes such that by virtue of simply being Black, one is fungible and subsequently subjected to constant and seemingly excessive methods of policing. Routinely, Blackness is grounds for suspicion and search within the realms of discipline and surveillance. Sexton cites Ira Glasser, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), quoting, “On our highways, on our streets, in our airports, and at our customs checkpoints, skin color once again, irrespective of class, and without distinctions based on education or economic status, skin color once again is being used as a cause for suspicion, and a sufficient reason to violate people’s rights” (200).  While association with Vassar may provide respite for some Black people, most cite experiences in which their Blackness was basis for racial profiling by security and police. Sexton emphasizes, “In the contemporary United States, the police operate as the unaccountable arbiters of lethal violence” (198), and worse still he notes, “there is simply no legal recourse against the violence and violation of the police” (199).  If we take Sexton’s diagnoses seriously, we can accurately connect increased police presence on campus to structures of antiblackness.  Invited on campus to investigate robberies, patrol for hunters, or for any other reason, cops enforce the boundary between the protected, and those who must be examined, monitored, policed and punished.

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The findings of Sexton’s studies are not far from the consciousnesses of Black students on campus.  One Rising Black Scholar (RBS) linked the recent escalation in robberies to the possibility of more police on campus (conversation shown in photo).  As these two Black students condemned the increased police presence, they simultaneously criticized Vassar’s request for the integration of police into campus surveillance and safety practices.  RBS Two’s sarcastic commentary about police protecting deer questions the explanations administration and safety and security provide for the necessity of cops on campus. RBS One built on his cohort’s analysis, pinpointing Black students as targets for both cops and possibly wayward hunters.  Although Black students are theoretically incorporated in the institution via their status as students, RBS One dispelled any fantasies that all Black students are wholly naturalized as part of the student body the police are purportedly here to protect.  It is clear, then, that police on campus, while here to protect property and peoples assigned to Vassar, simultaneously surveill and discipline those bodies navigated as Black, or, at times, of color.  RBS Two’s provocative retort echoes Sexton’s description of police as the “unaccountable arbiters of lethal violence.”  For Black students, the structural imperative of police permeates their lives despite the boundaries of the university.

Moreover, the college’s grounds render Black students further susceptible to police invasion because students are divested from means of ownership, and the legal privacy protections such ownership might normally entail.  While we know Black people within and outside of academia are still not materially enfranchised and consistently protected by such legal measures, Black students’ vulnerability to police surveillance and searches is further enabled by the college’s right to consent to, invite, and support such activity.

As students living on campus are not entitled to such protective rights, rented or owned their living spaces, Black college students are defenseless when faced with police surveillance and searches.  

This punishment and surveillance that is the work of police and policing, which Sexton has demonstrated to be integral to Black subjection, is intricately connected to the proliferation of police on campus.  Even when cops are called to campus because of crimes against students, they retain their role as purveyors of discipline and caretakers of antiblackness.  If we need an example of the theatrical and entirely unnecessary productions of discipline by police, we need only remember their harassment of young Black boys outside the library during spring semester of 2014, or the threat of the drug canines they were lately rumoured to have brought to campus in response to a robbery in the TAs.  And yet, such excessive drama is perhaps necessary for the functioning of the police, in their roles as protectors of white students and property, as an extension of the capacities of force available to Vassar — all the while at the expense of those identified as Black.

Of course, there is some resistance within the student body to increased police presence, even among non-Black students. Particularly in the apartment areas, the recent increase in burglaries and subsequent desire to expand security within the administration has forced students resistant to police presence to pursue seemingly alternative modes of ensuring safety for themselves and their property.  Some students propose to undertake greater surveillance through ameliorative remedies such as a “neighborhood watch” program. (We assume their argument finds basis in the assumption that we are less policed and subject to harm, harassment, or force, and, generally, less in danger if members of the student body are implementing and enforcing these ‘alternative’ and ‘safer’ methods of security.) However, we know Black bodies are policed even when the police don’t come, and that the punishment meted out to Black people is characterized by its gratuity and proliferation in excess.  Although cops come with guns and the right to the application of discretionary lethal violence, Black students have and will be disproportionately targeted by safety and security practices regardless.  

As we condemn increased police presence on our campus and around our living spaces, so too do we highlight the myriad ways disciplining practices that necessitate Black subjection manifest even without cops.  In place of programs that might empower students to more actively participate in surveillance and punishment, we might instead push ourselves to imagine new means of visualizing, defining, and achieving safety.  If in our hasty search for solutions after meditating on policing and Black subjection, we find ourselves hard pressed for remedies which don’t inevitably target Black people on campus, perhaps we can ruminate further on Sexton’s notes on the inherent anti-Blackness of contemporary disciplining methods, and the roots of policing in slave codes.

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