Above all, we want you to be safe and have a great time! Homecoming is meant to be an enjoyable event for everyone. Don’t allow fear of danger to prevent you from having a memorable experience and soaking in all that the Mecca has to offer. Every year provides new experiences, filled with memories that will last a lifetime.”
This generic and vague yet oh-so-familiar email from the Department of Public Safety is right. The sound of laughter, the warmth of the sun and rattling bass that can be heard at the bottom of the hill by the bookstore. Vibrancy, familiarity, belonging, welcoming — that is the true spirit of Howard homecoming.
But as I rode up to Georgia Avenue on the shuttle from my dorm, the sea of red, white and blue made me wonder if our definitions of safety and fun were the same. There they were, Howard colors, bold and true. But this year, they arrived as identical decals on the doors of half a dozen or more cruisers from the Metropolitan Police Department.
I had heard the rumors about what was in store for this year’s homecoming festivities, but I had been convinced that they were just that: rumors. The school wouldn’t dare follow through. And, more importantly, our spaces and traditions would not be disrespected.
I quickly realized this was not the case. From being scrutinized while passing around a water bottle to make sure that my loved ones were hydrated to an officer confiscating liquor bottles from card-carrying adults while a fight went on just feet away, my Yardfest had far more surveillance and conformity than spectating and celebrating.
As the sun started to set, I looked for a place to settle. I was separated from my group, dehydrated, and my feet were beginning to swell so badly that the straps on my heels were disappearing. (As much as I hate to admit it, I am a heel novice.) By the time DaBaby took the stage, I was in too much pain to stand and I was tired of fending off groping from men who wanted to “get through the crowd.”
I waddled behind a tent, running into an officer stationed there. He glared at me, obviously thinking that I was drunk. Ignoring the men, who were his age (which means twice mine) that stood shoulder to shoulder with him leering at me, the officer locked eyes with me. He gave me a stern and suspicious look.
I really appreciated his support and guidance in that moment.
The following day, I woke up and watched as people were stopped at the security checkpoint outside of the parking lot where the tailgate was being held. I noticed the tall fencing that was erected around the area, creating only one entrance and exit. I watched as people were herded down the narrow street, being corralled in and patted down before being allowed their fun.
Young children with their families had their bags searched. Members of prominent organizations were forced to chug water or anything in their hands. Other students and alumni simply had their bottles confiscated and dumped in front of them without discussion in the name of the no-liquids rule.
A few hours into the festivities, I stepped into a puddle of vomit. Hunched over it was a young woman, completely unconscious. Her friends were unsure of how to help her, so she had been propped up on a curbside at the feet of an officer who didn’t even seem to notice her.
One of her companions handed me a half-empty six ounce water bottle, asked if I could give this to her and then disappeared into the crowd.
After a few minutes of trying to speak with her and lift her head, we began to ask others around us for help in locating her friend. The officer ignored us.
When we clearly told her friend that she needed to go to a hospital, the friend said that they wouldn’t be able to transport her on their own. The officer looked the other way.
Eventually, we convinced the group to at least take her home — or so we thought. Nearly an hour and a half later, we found her propped along a fence, alone with her shirt lifted. She had no memory of the day’s events and still could not walk on her own. She agreed to be taken to a hospital.
When I went to search for help, I was stopped by an officer who told me that I could not re-enter if I left through this exit and that I could not bring my male friend through since he was already outside the barrier — a mere 5 feet away. I began to explain the situation to her, and she told me to “respect her” and “stop yelling.” I tried to explain that it was loud and I was not yelling, but that I was in a hurry. She repeatedly told me to calm down, instead of trying to listen to what I was saying.
“Well, that’s not really your job,” she finally responded. “What you need to do is go find an officer down there.”
“What good would exiting to get an officer do if I will not be allowed re-entry, as you have already explained?”
“Well they could call an ambulance for her,” the officer replied.
“And how would it get to her? Both ends of the street are barricaded, and you won’t allow us to get the help we need to carry her.”
“Well, you could take her to the corner and call it from there.”
“How if you won’t let us in?”
Nearly 10 minutes of debating later, we were allowed to pass with the vague threat that we “better not be lying about this girl.”
By this time, her friends had already been contacted but were in the same situation: They were on the other end of a police barricade and could not come to meet her. Getting the woman to her feet was going to be a challenge enough. Fighting through the crowd was another beast. But convincing the officers to allow us to take her, completely covered in vomit and, at this point, belligerent in her confusion, was the greatest barrier to making sure that she got home safe.
We were stopped repeatedly, traveling only a few feet at a time. This happened not because we were carrying someone who was clearly extremely ill (and still in need of medical assistance), but because we were disrupting the flow of traffic and preventing the evacuation of the parking lot.
I have never seen campus police officers more present and communicative than they were during the homecoming weekend. And while I appreciate the effort, truthfully, the real protectors were not in uniforms. They were in Howard Alumni shirts. They were in brightly colored wigs and booty shorts. They were in chains and grills. And yes, sometimes, they were holding Crown Royal bottles and blunts. This weekend, I saw the black community do what we always do best: look out for our own.
In the same email above, campus police warns: “Unfortunately, not everyone will come to campus with the purest of intentions. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) is certainly increasing campus security during homecoming week. However, DPS is asking that we all take part in a united and proactive front for this year’s homecoming safety and security. While everyone looks forward to the good times, reunions and, of course, the football game, it’s imperative that we practice caution and think responsibly to put your and others’ safety and security first during this highly populated time of year.”
The community held up its end of the bargain. And from where I sit, campus and D.C. police did not. I challenge them, and us, to interrogate the intentions that they held while on our campus this weekend. I did not see responsibility. I did not see proactiveness. I did not see that we were a priority. I saw that rules and regulations and appearances came above all, including the safety of those who are supposed to be protected under this new status quo.
Police presence on campuses has real-life consequences for black and brown students. Schools that have police on-campus are more likely to refer students to the criminal justice system for situations that other schools handle internally. (You can read more about this here, here, and here. For more college-specific info, read this.) This treatment is a threat to our education, our peace of mind and our freedom.
I ask everyone to consider what safety looks like to them. Is surveillance safety? Is sobriety safety? I, for one, did not feel safe this weekend. I felt stressed and scrutinized at best. When I needed someone, I was left out on a limb every time. I was interrogated and made to feel like a troublemaker. I was constantly treated like a suspect instead of a student. I had a long semester. And Howard is my home for eight months of the year. This is my space. And I should be allowed to laugh and to dance without being sniffed and scolded.