WWU Not Exempt From Racial Discrimination

- Anonymous
(This letter is the product of a collaborative effort by several concerned members of the WWU student community.)

Dear students of Western Washington University,

Let's take some time to reflect on this place in which we engage in higher education. Bellingham, a nice-sized, liberally progressive, friendly town is home to the equally progressive Western Washington University: our beloved liberal arts school that prides itself on its commitment to creating a welcoming, diverse campus community.
Racial profiling, a concept that is dismissed as a fabricated, conspiracy-theory by those that have the utmost faith in our law enforcement authorities, is for many white people, like me, a phrase only associated with the New York City and Los Angeles police departments of over twenty years ago. However, allow me to recount to you some disturbing recent events.
On February 15, 2007, Western held a Career Fair in the Viking Union Multipurpose room. As usual, this event included recruiters from the U.S. Army, Navy and Border Patrol. Upon discovering this, approximately six students, including myself, decided we should hand out brochures encouraging people to consider some important questions before they hastily enlist in the military. Several arguments ensued between some of the students and the military and Border Patrol recruiters. To make a long story short, one of the students passing out brochures was arrested by campus police and charged with “disorderly conduct.” He was the only non-white student engaged in distributing the brochures. None of the rest of us (all white students) were so much as warned by the police or Career Fair organizers.
Then, barely two months later, at another WWU Career Fair (April 26), students wanting to hand out brochures were barred from entrance. So, securing a table on Vendor's Row, from which to distribute information on military recruitment, racial profiling, and as a means of relating the story of the previous Career Fair, students attempted to make the story of racial profiling known. Two students, one, a white woman, and the other, the same student who was arrested in February, stood near the stairs leading to the Viking Union. Here, they held signs reading “End racist Career (un)fair practices” and “Stop racial profiling.” After a time, a woman, apparently organizing or working at the Career Fair, aggressively approached the student of color, grabbed him on the shoulder, and informed him that if he did not leave, she would call the police to come arrest him. Interestingly, she said nothing to the white woman standing right close by.
Shortly after this, Jim Schuster, the Director of Viking Union Activities, addressed this same student of color. Citing some vague rule about the use of Vendor's Row tables, Mr. Schuster informed this student that if he did not stand behind the designated Vendor's Row table, the campus police would, indeed, be contacted. After looking into this largely-unknown rule, it was discovered that there is a written regulation, (written in a way that makes it very open to interpretation) which suggests students are to stand behind the tables on Vendor's Row if they are distributing information. This was news to me, as in my three years at WWU, I have distributed information countless times on Vendor's Row, while standing in front of the tables. This activity occurs on a daily basis, and I know of no other time when students have been warned that they are violating code. Furthermore, the regulation states that if a student is found to be in violation of stated code, they may be at risk of losing their right to use a Vendor's Row table for that day. Nowhere does it make any mention of police officers being involved.
Outraged at these three incidents of racial profiling, all directed towards one student, several of us decided that we should speak up and demand some sort of change in the University's practices. Even more outraging is the fact that university officials, in addition to police officers, were involved in these racist threats of force. Meanwhile, there have been no apologies from those involved, nor have there been any public statements from the University administration deploring racial profiling or outlining a plan to deal with this very severe problem.
After a not-so-extensive, student-led search for other incidents of racial profiling at WWU, several more lamentable accounts turned up in little more than a week. Therefore, it is evident that the events of the past couple of months are, by no means, isolated occurrences. Rather, it is an ongoing issue that, unfortunately, is embedded in this institution. Because of this, we have realized that a simple reactionary response to these events, one that is short-lived and short-sighted, will not be sufficient. While public apologies are absolutely necessary, there also needs to be a formal, student-approved plan, which is designed to prevent future racial profiling. A student oversight committee or office, which oversees the actions of the campus police, would be a good step in this direction. Another idea is the development of a student-policing program, in which students are responsible for ensuring the safety of the campus community, monitoring student activity, and determining the appropriate action to take when rules are broken. This would promote student accountability, management, and create a stronger, more unified campus community, effectively removing our reliance on police officers and their punitive techniques. Whatever plan is created, it is absolutely essential that it be developed by students, and that it is officially instituted into the WWU procedures.
To provide some context for how ridiculous the University's actions are, we need to examine another contentious issue at WWU. Last year, an anti-abortion group, the Genocide Awareness Project, was brought to campus by the club, Western for Life. On May 23rd and 24th, the GAP will again appear in Red Square. The First Amendment Right to Freedom of Speech is the most commonly used defense of the Genocide Awareness Project's right to be at WWU. Disturbingly, this argument is supported by the majority of students and school officials. What is not taken into account is the psychological stress and/or damage potentially experienced by young women, who are the primary targets of the Project's display. In addition, the comparisons that the GAP draws between abortion, the systematic lynching of African Americans, and the devastating genocide of the Holocaust can be very offensive to African American and Jewish students.
Another oversight in the freedom of speech argument is the fact that the GAP display is, likely, the most disruptive and distracting activity that occurs on campus. There are all sorts of restrictive university rules about what can go on in Red Square; basically, anything that is distracting to students taking classes in the buildings surrounding Red Square is prohibited. But, ask almost anyone who attended Western last year, and they will tell you about the extremely disruptive presence of the GAP. Personally, I know I missed classes when they were on campus, as I stood staring, dumbfounded at the ridiculous and offensive display. Also, I know over thirty students who missed classes because they felt it was imperative that they participate in the tremendous, spontaneous student-led acts of resistance to the racist, sexist images of the GAP.
So, while the GAP's freedom of speech has and will be protected and enforced by university police, the previously mentioned student of color, armed with little more than a brochure or a hand-written sign, was determined, by the University, to be more disruptive (even dangerous to the point of needing to be removed from campus by the police) than the Genocide Awareness Project. Clearly, our university is not nearly as progressive and welcoming to diverse populations as it claims to be.
Part of the problem is that there is a lack of education among the police and administrators about student's basic rights. Either that, or they have no intent of recognizing student rights. In either case, if authorities think it is appropriate to call the police on students who are holding signs denouncing racial profiling, then we, as a whole student body, are faced with a grim problem. What happens when the police unlawfully enter and search your dorm under “suspicion” of marijuana possession? As students, we must acknowledge that every one of us could be victims of breaches in our civil liberties and human rights. It's past time we collectively stood up and demanded an end to the harassment and dehumanization that our fellow students are being subjected to: mass letter writing expressing outrage over these abuses, public declarations speaking out against the University and the university police department's racist practices, boycotts of various sorts; in short, whatever it takes. Just as importantly, we need to support, through various means, our friends and community members, who have been targets of discrimination. If these people feel it is necessary to take action addressing racial profiling, it is our responsibility to listen to their needs and follow through with support. If you have an incident of racial profiling to report or have any comments on this issue, please email wwuracialprofiling@gmail.com.

Sincerely,

- Anonymous
(This letter is the product of a collaborative effort by several concerned members of the WWU student community.)