Rethinking arming: safety or protection

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

I once asked Sgt. Stephen St. Jean how he knew that the man rushing towards him in a virtual reality weapons training for Brown police was coming to “kill” him.

“What, do you think he was coming to play a game of Parcheesi?” was his response.

While I hear that Brown’s Department of Public Safety is working hard to build trust with the campus community in anticipation of having an armed police force, my interaction with St. Jean a month or so ago incited much more anxiety than comfort.

I had just sat down to dinner with my partner when St. Jean asked if he might join us. After 20 minutes of uncomfortable silence and awkward conversation, I finally asked him what was on my mind: What was going on with the arming of the Brown police?

He told me that DPS will be armed by September at the latest – “just in time for school to start” – and that weapons trainings are well underway. I cringed. It was one thing to hear the administration’s decision last year, but another to be confronted with the reality of a timeline. St. Jean delighted in sharing virtual reality scenarios from the weapons trainings. In one scenario, a man holding a baby rushed at him with a knife to “kill” him.

Hold up. How did he know the man was coming to “kill” him?

Upon further probing, I found that St. Jean had seen only two options in this scenario: either die or shoot. So, many of his scenarios ended with him shooting the “killer.”

I probably should not have been surprised. Brown contracted the Rhode Island State Police to provide all weapons-related trainings for DPS, I learned from St. Jean; of the six state police agencies included in a 1991 Department of Justice report on police brutality, Rhode Island’s was cited with the highest number of complaints for excessive force, according to Human Rights Watch.

When I asked St. Jean my next logical question, “What trainings are you receiving from the Office of Institutional Diversity?” he was slow to speak.

“You know, diversity stuff,” he replied. No mention of how black people tend to magnetize cops’ bullets.

Something he did recall enough to articulate was his surprise at learning that foreign students are often shocked to see uniformed campus police, because campus police abroad frequently are not uniformed. DPS’s response – that international students need to work on that – seemed odd, yet highly reflective of U.S. culture. We would rather convince foreign students to be more comfortable with militarized campuses than take the opportunity to seriously reflect on their surprise, and what it might illuminate about the way we do things in the U.S.

In particular, how we think about safety: The media and politicians often tell us that weapons, police, prisons and the war on terror will keep us safe from scary people and “criminals” (read: black and brown people). Yet these measures seem less about safety than about protection. They are dependent on harmful power relations, building barriers and isolation. Creating true safety means building healthy relationships based in trust and mutual accountability, by examining likely root causes for things like Sept. 11 (U.S. imperialism), domestic and sexual violence (rape culture) and poor people mugging Brown students (Brown’s relationship with local communities).

Maintaining long-term visions is difficult, particularly given the restraints that often arise from our funding sources – for the U.S. Congress, multinational corporations; for mainstream anti-violence groups, state funding; for Brown, the Corporation.

Yes, it’s easier to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s easier to build more prisons. It’s easier to arm campus police.

But none of these responses to a need for safety make any sense. As with the world outside of Brown, it seems that legitimate safety concerns have been used to perpetuate racialized fears driving our increasingly militarized communities. This can have deadly consequences, and more likely than not, these consequences will disproportionately harm black and brown students and black and brown local community members.

As a campus community, we should be seriously engaging the differences between safety and protection, and encouraging campus administrators to do the same. Rather than buying weapons and training Brown cops to use them, we might instead expand the SafeWalk program and seriously examine – and rectify – Brown’s relationship with local communities

Why not invest in true safety for all students – including students of color and female, trans and queer students – and develop genuine accountability processes when we are targeted by hate crimes, sexual assault, or by campus and local policing?

Protection – war, weapons, prisons, police – can harm and kill us. True safety will not.

Vanessa Huang ’06 can imagine a safer world without policing and prisons.

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this column incorrectly cited a lack of state funding as a funding source for mainstream anti-violence groups. In fact, state funding is a funding source for these groups. The Herald regrets the error.