Once again, Twitter and social media outlets are aflame this week with images of affluent college students in handcuffs, frat boys face down on the curb, and lecture halls raided. The photos are grim, disturbing, and sad, but not for the reasons that Social Justice Warriors (who are having a field day) would demand we believe.
Yes, reports of SWAT teams careening down the sides of dorm buildings in the dark of night, busting through doors, rounding up co-eds, and ushering them to jail in military-style convoys are without a doubt harrowing and alarming (even worthy of some concern), but their current proliferation once again ignores the larger context of campus life. I find myself in a state of déjà vu, drumming for the umpteenth time the tired beat of reason amid a cacophony of narrow-minded fervor. I’m tired of saying it, but: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
The news outlets, celebrities and activists disseminating photos, videos, and anecdotes of college students bleeding in police cars, spread eagle on the quad lawn, or cowering in their common rooms – without addressing the broader social concerns of collegiate life – do a grave disservice to the longstanding plight of our troubled college youth.
At the center of the current maelstrom is the story of Jacob Alhearn, a white Art History major arrested recently for his alleged part in a “massive campus amphetamine ring.” In the course of his arrest (a routine hallway stop), Jacob protested, resisted, and was subsequently subdued and ultimately injured. A lot has been made of Jacob’s wounds (which, it must be noted, are only superficial – most head wounds produce a lot of blood, even for small abrasions, and the fact that Jacob was covered from face to belt in a red gloss is an aesthetic shock rather than a medical dilemma), but these particular concerns serve only to obscure and ignore Jacob’s own culpability in the situation. If we do not acknowledge his role and responsibility, then we have not addressed the problem at the heart of university violence and crime.
The fact of the matter is that Jacob is not a good student. He is, according to teachers and peers, often late to class, only rarely participates, and has a subpar GPA. (His choice to study Art History is a red flag in itself: what should we make of a man pursuing such useless pabulum?) And, like so many other men his age on campuses across the country, he is unemployed, self-entitled, and carrying a long record of previous infractions: open container tickets, public urination, bicycling on the sidewalk, and at least one case of assault (though this never went to court, but was settled instead by internal campus authorities, a rare bit of extreme leniency that those same authorities are no doubt now regretting).
Whether or not police were right to stop him between classes, slam him into a wall, and briefly render him unconscious (leaving aside the issue of whether or not he was maybe carrying enough amphetamines to grievously injure up to two of three of his peers), we have to ask ourselves if Jacob is really the symbol of police brutality that activists want to rally behind. In fact, we have to ask ourselves if police doing their jobs in a harsh environment like the modern university system should be the focus of our national antipathy. What will that accomplish?
There are more important issues at stake.
Namely, personal responsibility. It’s the elephant in the classroom, and we have to talk about it.
Until college-attending (often white, upper class) men stand up and take pride in their studies, the controversial “tough on campus” policies will remain necessary. The American college system is awash with corruption, drugs, violence, rape, and – above all else – a sense of apathy and laziness. This is not the fault of campus security or local police. They do not supply narcotics, foster cheating on exams, ply students with liquor, or push them into pointless avenues of study. Rather, these authorities are doing everything they can to curb the seemingly endless decline of our once great centers of academic life. Their so-called brutality is but a symptom of the root disease: declining responsibility among college attendees, especially young white men in the liberal arts. When we address the latter, the former will abate, just as a rash disappears when the underlying infection is appropriately treated.
I am not, as some detractors would have you believe, an anti-intellectual. It is no secret that I myself once attended college. As did my parents before me. My time on campus informs my work and advocacy every day. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. I am also the first to admit that it wasn’t easy.
I studied physics in the “bad ol’ days.” It was the heart of the college crisis, years before an amped up police force would begin to rectify decades of blight. Like so many others, I fell for that old myth of the safe, engaging, and rigorous temple of learning; what I found instead was a concentration of criminal activity and lavish disrespect for knowledge and civility.
It’s a tragedy: “According to a Columbia University study, almost half of full-time college students binge drink or abuse prescription drugs, and almost a quarter of those college students meet the medical definition of having a problem with substance abuse or a dependence. That is three times the rate of the general population.” In other words, illegal use of drugs is more common on college campuses than almost anywhere else in the country. According to CNN, citing one of the largest ever studies on the subject of sexual assault: “Among female college students, 23% said they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact – ranging from kissing to touching to rape, carried out by force or threat of force, or while they were incapacitated because of alcohol and drugs… Nearly 11% said the unwanted contact included penetration or oral sex.” And, in the five year period during which I attended college, over half a million crimes were reported in our university system, with offenses ranging from vandalism, theft, assault, credit card fraud, embezzlement, and prostitution, to incest, extortion, larceny, arson, intimidation, kidnapping, rape, negligent manslaughter, and murder. The numbers increased every year. It was bad, and getting ever worse. I am often surprised to have emerged with my life, let alone with a completed degree.
So it was that I felt great relief when the police enormously increased their presence on college campuses across the country, with greater force and severity than has ever been seen anywhere on our nation’s (or any nation’s) soil. It was a natural and logical conclusion.
Today, when I see a row of MFA students leaning with their hands against the wall, legs spread and awaiting a search, I don’t see an invasion of privacy or abuse of power, and I don’t see the erosion of 4th Amendment protections. No, I see a government doing its job to protect the other students, the ones holed up in the library, studying quietly and orderly, trying to achieve their dreams against all odds. (Also, luckily, I don’t usually have to see these things, because the police handle this under cover of night or with such speed and efficiency that it only rarely enters public scrutiny). When I hear about squadrons of police breaking down doors and dragging stoned anthropology students into the street (and, as I said, actually hearing about this is rare, because of the efficiency of our hard-working authorities — who politely manage ne’er-do-wells without disrupting the lives of everyone else. I know that it literally happens every day, all across the country, but I am thankfully shielded from the anxiety of that fact, as we all should be), I am not reminded of the civil rights movement. I am reminded of the young people trying to keep their heads up high, to stay out of trouble and just get through the day, unseen. In other words, I am reminded of myself, a scared kid in a world of trouble. When I hear that we are party to the greatest mobilization of police forces in world history, I am not scared but proud. When I read that 7 out of 10 white liberal arts students will serve time before completing their degrees, I know that it is because 7 out of 10 white liberal arts students have broken the law. The relevant laws may be new and only recently adopted, but that hardly matters – because they have changed to reflect an undeniable fact about most college students:
They are criminals. And always have been. And legislation has finally caught up with them.
If they want the police to “leave them alone,” then maybe they should show some self-respect. I hate to say it, but that’s what it comes down to. Not politics, not money. If they think it’s a “class issue,” maybe they should try showing up to class on time. Maybe they should look at what they’re doing to each other before looking at what others are “doing to them.”
And, by the way, it’s hard to ignore the fact that most kids who end up doing nothing with their lives are the very same kids who study useless subjects. Before we think about “mass incarceration,” maybe we need to think about the academic courses that glorify a long history of Western violence. Instead of the demoralizing effect of constant policing, maybe we need to think about the fact that the literary canon is filled with abuse and sexism. Instead of decrying the naturally turbulent nature of police altercations, maybe we need to think about the fact that our classics majors read about the constant bloodshed and ethnocentrism of the Greeks and Romans. Instead of the lasting impact criminal convictions ultimately have on degree completion and subsequent employment rates, maybe we need to think about the fact that nobody can take themselves seriously or have self-respect if they are constantly immersed in poetry. Is it any wonder that so many have turned to drugs and crime? By its very definition, history is over; are we surprised that the lives of those who study it are over too? Why aren’t more people turning to video games or film, technical works that require new skills and modern innovation? These are serious cultural concerns that we have to look at straight in the eye if we really want to make change happen.
Which brings me to a major sticking point. A lot of activists are up in arms about the fact that Jacob faces a mandatory minimum of thirty years in prison. Though it is quite a long time, what else can we do when we know that Jacob has proven himself a repeat offender? We didn’t give him a long sentence when he drank an open can of beer on the main lawn, and we didn’t give him a long sentence when he peed on the university library, and we didn’t give him a long sentence when he rode his bicycle on the sidewalk – how long can this go on before we admit that someone like Jacob is a problem that can’t be rectified through appeasement or leniency? Is it any surprise that his offenses have only increased in severity? How many more times should we allow his sense of entitlement to hurt those around him? How much worse should it get? Can we truly separate him from the larger network of entrenched criminality that plagues our universities? Enough is enough.
So here’s the bottom line: college campuses have the highest rate of militarized police presence in the United States, second only to affluent suburbs, because that’s what we need.
It’s as simple as that.