ID, Please

By Zachary Block '99 / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007
The front page of the March African Sun, Brown's African-American student newspaper, features a Brown ID with a blurred-out face. The name on the card reads Male, Black. Under the picture, where student would normally appear, is the word target. The image was a clear reference to an incident earlier in the month in which two black students were arrested on the Green and then claimed to be the victims of racial profiling by campus police.

Just what happened on that late-winter afternoon remains in dispute. What is certain, however, is that the students, Michael Smith '05 and David Williams '05, were walking on Waterman Street near Leeds Theatre at about 2:30 p.m. on March 8 when a campus security guard asked to see their Brown IDs. The students refused and exchanged words with the officer. By the time Smith and Williams reached the Green, several Brown police officers had gathered. When another verbal exchange culminated in a physical altercation, Smith and Williams were handcuffed and held briefly at the Brown police station.

University police say the students were stopped because a number of factors - their age and attitude, the time of day, and the route they were taking - fit the profile of local high school students who allegedly have been vandalizing Faunce House after school. The entire incident could have been averted, the officers claim, if the students had produced their IDs when asked, as required by University regulations. The students, however, say they were selected to show their IDs for one reason: they are black. "From our experiences at Brown," the editors of the African Sun wrote in March, "and testimony from those in our community, it is obvious that racial profiling is a serious problem on this campus."

As the rumors and recriminations mounted, President Ruth Simmons quickly found herself faced with her first true taste of campus upheaval. Hoping to prevent tensions from rising any further, Simmons took the unusual step of sending an e-mail to all students, faculty, and staff. In an interview the morning the e-mail was sent, Simmons said she was saddened by the incident. She said it would soon be clear whether or not the incident fit the racial profiling definition, but until then she asked the campus community to withhold judgement.

"As someone," she said, "who has been victimized by profiling for all of my life, including now - every week of my life I endure some kind of profiling incident - it's particularly encouraging to me that Brown has an explicit policy against profiling. Now making good on that commitment is important." The administration has hired a pair of consultants to investigate the incident.

While the University has ruled out criminal charges against Smith and Williams, who have yet to speak publicly about the incident, the pair faces disciplinary proceedings. Citing federal privacy laws, student-life officials declined to discuss the issue. In the meantime, other students have filed complaints against campus police, charging racial profiling and the use of excessive force.

However the administration ultimately deals with Smith and Williams and the complaints about the Brown officers, the incident has prompted at least some students to link the behavior of the arresting officers to the ongoing debate about arming campus police. "The incident on [March] 8 amplified our concerns," says Christopher Banks '03, cochair of the Organization of United African Peoples (OUAP), an umbrella organization representing black student groups at Brown, "because if BUPS [Brown University Police & Security] had been armed in that incident, it could have escalated, it could have been a greater tragedy."

African Sun editor Langston Dugger '04, who is also a cochair of OUAP, is even more emphatic: "The general feeling on campus among the black students is that [the Brown police are] not here to protect us. They're harassers."

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 2002