Studying While Black at UPenn: Four White Police Officers Confront Two Black Femme Students While Studying
Early Wednesday morning, December 4, we were studying in Fagin Room 207 when a Penn employee called the police reporting that multiple people were in the room resisting the employees’ orders to leave. The communication center for the Penn Police asked for no further information before dispatching four white male officers. They arrived at the scene, surveyed the rooms, and made no real effort to find the individual who reported us. The police then confronted us. Two officers entered the room, one standing in front of us and one blocking the exit while the other two hovered outside. The officer speaking to us did not identify himself by name, nor did he state that he was a Penn Police officer. He told us to leave, and then asked us if we were Penn students, even though we were in a building that requires Penn card access in the evening. We showed the officer our Penn IDs, and as though he doubted the veracity of our form of identification, he wrote down the ID number, date of birth, phone number, and home address of one of us. When asked why he needed this information, the officer vaguely answered that it was for both his and our protection. The next day, we met with the Superintendent of Penn Police, and she reluctantly admitted that his statement was untrue.
The superintendent noted later that we were well-behaved and left peacefully without any struggle, so the situation did not need to escalate. We packed up our belongings slowly making sure not to make any sudden movements. We were keenly aware that any sudden movement on our part could be viewed as justification for use of deadly force as has been the case in other situations. We squeezed past the officer posted at the door and left with our heads down as we walked by the other two officers outside. They did not offer any assistance or apologies to us as we walked alone at 1am in the morning.
These are the facts of December 4, 2019. However, they in no way encapsulate the context of racial profiling in this institution or adequately capture the depths of our terror, helpness, frustration and rage. When speaking with the Superintendent of Penn Police, who also serves as the Vice President for Public Safety, she rationalized the officer’s behavior by stating that he is introverted and felt uncomfortable. We, as two unarmed black femme students confronted by four white armed police officers were not just uncomfortable, but terrified, fearing for our lives because we know black people have been killed for far less. Little thought was given to how these exact circumstances have culminated in tragic endings for black youth. Because the truth is to the police our lives are worth far less.
Who’s to say we wouldn’t be just a few more dead black bodies? History and recent news reports have shown us that ‘escalate’ is just coded language for us ending up dead while the officers involved are on paid leave. Sitting in that room, shoes off and books spread in an effort to study for finals, we know that to them our very presence was a threat. In departing the room silently and peacefully, we weren’t simply being ‘well-behaved’ but acting out of an instinct for self-preservation.
After watching our own body cam footage, the Superintendent noted that one of the police officers smiled at us as we were leaving, as though a police officer’s smile as he kicks us out of the warm safety of the Fagin Building into the frigid night air is a source of comfort. As though the police officer’s smile ensures our safety. The Superintendent assured us that this footage would be used in the future to train officers on what not to do. But how does this help us now? Feeling as though we are constantly surveilled and policed, this mistreatment means that we must now add “Studying while Black” to the long list of things black people aren’t allowed to do.
Some may read this account and see this situation as a fluke and not as a very real threat to black lives. However, we are not the only ones. We asked some trusted friends to share our story and ask other people of color to share their experiences with Penn Public Safety Officers and Penn Police. Penn Public Safety Officers are defined by Penn’s Division of Public Safety website as a “vital component to the Division of Public Safety’s program.” Some students shared how they are racially profiled, with officers asking for their IDs more than their white counterparts or kicking them out of student buildings that they have every right as Penn students to enter. Some students have even been accused of possessing a fake Penn ID. One student shared that they “always get anxious and enraged by police presence on campus. [They] just know [Penn Police] look at [them] differently as a Black person walking on campus.” Another student recounts that “While walking from Du Bois to Hill at night, [they were] followed by a Penn security guard. [They] never asked for a walking escort and were followed from 38th and Walnut to the drawbridge outside of Hill.”
Some argue that Penn Police “need to be disarmed. There’s no reason for them to patrol campus with guns on their holsters. That’s very anxiety-inducing for [them] as someone who has a family member who was stopped and frisked and racially profiled.” Others demand “stringent bias training and screening” explaining that “there needs to be a bar set for if they have a strong bias against people of color, [so that] they cannot be employed by the Penn Police.” Others advocate for more racial sensitivity training. It’s not just issues of racial profiling that students shared, but these students also gave examples of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. One student reports being cat-called by a Penn Public Safety officer, while another shared that she was continuously sexually harassed by her walking escort after telling him that she was underage.
These grievances go beyond discrimination as well. Other students report that they felt aggressively interrogated as victims and witnesses to crimes. Penn Police Officers have also been identified by several students as responding poorly to students experiencing suicidal ideations, making them feel criminalized for their actions. The list goes on, with many students asking not to be quoted in this article for their protection and safety from Penn Police.
This incident however, and many others like it, make students of color, especially black students, feel unwelcome on Penn’s campus. This compounds the impressions sometimes reinforced by the actions of some professors, administrators, and general staff. The day after our encounter with Penn Police, we entered the Nursing School, had panic attacks, and broke down. For the rest of the year we intend neither to work as research assistants nor attend classes there. After this experience, we no longer feel safe on this campus. Every police officer we see gives us cause for panic. Every Penn building now comes with a warning. Who is here to protect us from those armed with guns claiming to have our best interests in mind?
Thank you for respecting our anonymity. This incident could have happened to any black students on campus, and identifying ourselves only serves to individualize a problem that is much bigger than us.
If you would like to share your story, feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out this form: https://forms.gle/15oqtzfeHLmAU2qeA. If this article resonates with you, please urge Penn’s administration to meet with us and create Police reform.