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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

USC And LAPD Respond Disappointingly To Community Racism

Ashley Yang |
May 9, 2013 | 8:40 p.m. PDT


Racial profiling has been a persistent concern of black and Latino members of the Trojan family. (Ashley Yang, Neon Tommy)
Racial profiling has been a persistent concern of black and Latino members of the Trojan family. (Ashley Yang, Neon Tommy)
USC has a race problem.

I noticed it when I first visited campus last spring, as a prospective student. Even with the high percentage of international students, the racial homogeneity within student groups across campus was shocking to me. As someone who has always maintained a close circle of friends of many ethnicities, most different from mine, I found it very strange that white students, Asian students, Latino students and black students would mostly hang out in insulated circles.

I was also very offended when I discovered that others assumed I didn’t speak English. Weren’t we all supposed to be American, to be Trojans? When did race turn from a marker of cultural diversity into an obstacle to social fluidity? 

But as the past few weeks have proven, the obstacles erected by USC’s “race problem” are more acute and more alarming than mere social insularity. USC’s and LAPD’s security policies have de facto relegated black and Latino students to second-class citizens. As an Asian, I've had it easy. Pervasive stereotypes about my race didn’t result in 79 LAPD officers in riot gear coming to shut down my house party and drag my friends away in handcuffs.  

The incident in the early hours of May 4 was not the first clash between LAPD and students of color. On April 12 , nine squad cars arrived with officers dressed in riot gear to shut down another house party, also hosted and attended by students of color. Black and Latino students also report being faced with extra scrutiny by campus security at night, who question the legitimacy of their presence on campus. I have never witnessed, nor heard, accounts of such behavior by campus security towards white or Asian students, nor can I recount an instance of when a large number of non-DPS officers arrived to shut down a party on Greek Row or coordinated by white students.

Not only do all of these experiences demonstrate selective enforcement of security measures against students of color, the fact that USC and LAPD believe encounters with students of color necessitate the presence of heavy force insidiously reveals an entrenched notion of racial profiling. By this view, black and Latino students are somehow just more prone to aggression and violence, and heavier crackdowns on their social gatherings are thus needed to “keep them in line.” Evidently, California is not as progressive as I thought.  

On Monday May 6, students of multiple ethnicities participated in a sit-in at the foot of the Tommy Trojan statue in the center of campus, in protest of the racial profiling and excessive use of force. Students from the party across the street, comprised of mostly white attendees, appeared in solidarity, one of whom carried a sign that read, “Partygoer on 23rd street. Arrest me.”

Many protesters spoke eloquently about how this incident made them feel about the Trojan community and their place in it, in addition to what shifts in perspective they would like to see come out of its resolution. The afternoon rain did not prompt the crowd to leave their place; the protestors, as well as their audience, impassively remained before the statue, signs held high. 

On Tuesday, USC hosted a joint Dept. of Public Safety/LAPD panel discussion intended to address student concerns about racial profiling and police force against students. The event had been planned by student leaders after the first profiling incident occurred last month, but it was clear that this more recent event attracted the crowds. Although there were 700 seats in the Tutor Campus Center ballroom, there was standing room only for anyone who arrived less than fifteen minutes early. A good portion of people were kept out of the room because the event had reached capacity.

I, as well as the rest of the crowd, expected to hear some admission of responsibility by the LAPD officials onstage, perhaps even a promise by the Vice President of Student Affairs, Michael Jackson, to make security policy and cultural reform a priority at USC. But we were to be sorely disappointed

After the compilation of photos and videos of the police response that brought tears to many members of the audience was played, the moderator presented some structural questions to start off the discussion. The panel of LAPD commanders and chiefs were asked about their standard procedures for addressing noise complaints and dispersing private gatherings, as well as the relationship of LAPD with USC. The answers given were vague at best, evasive at worst: the speakers claimed that riot gear and heavy force were standard in responding to any incident in the area surrounding campus and that, at first, only one squad car had arrived at the party to respond to the noise complaint. Apparently, the officers peacefully asked the host and the DJ to quiet down and control the premises, and only when partygoers began throwing things at them did they send out a “help call” for more officers. That’s when the riot gear and the helicopters showed up.  

In response to a subsequent question regarding the extent of the LAPD’s measures to combat racial profiling, the only response provided was that officers lacked sufficient sensitivity training and have not sufficiently adjusted their policing tactics to the demands of a college area, versus the rest of Los Angeles. And to questions specifically addressing the incident on May 4, the panel replied that there was “no indication that [LAPD’s response] was race-based,” but did speak extensively about the alleged responses of the students to police presence that escalated the encounter. There was disproportionately less talk about the impact that this event has had on the student body than inflated assertions about “moving forward” and “achieving progress.”

I left the talk profoundly disappointed, not because I did not hear an admission of racial profiling, but because I thought it was a transparent effort by LAPD and the administration to placate student activists without offering any information beyond what students had already seen, heard or predicted. Nothing specific was discussed about the incidences of profiling experienced by students of color on a daily basis. No explanation of why gatherings attended by students of color have regularly received such heavy police scrutiny was offered. It seemed that by focusing the discussion on the shutdown of the party, which was the most immediate concern of the audience, the panel was able to frame the police confrontation as instigated by unruly students rather than discuss the broader issue of persistent racial profiling at USC and within the surrounding community. 

The letter by President Nikias, sent out Wednesday May 8 to the entire student body, only aggravated students’ disgruntled sentiments. A meme featuring the Dos Equis man stating “I don’t always send emails to USC students... but when I do, they’re pointless” as well as a post on the “Things USC Students Don’t Say” page that reads “President Nikias put so much time and thought into his email to the student body, definitely addressed all the issues” have gone viral on Facebook, attracting 400+ “likes.”

Not only was the timing of the message severely tardy, its cursory content and vague remarks about being “very concerned” and working to mitigate the impact on the affected students’ “studies and finals” exacerbated student disillusionment with the administration’s response to matters as serious to the community as racial profiling and police brutality—especially in the face of popular disapproval that Nikias was not personally present at the panel discussion. To myself and evidently many other Trojans, the letter was sent only as a formality and only to appease student demands for some manner of response by President Nikias to the campus-wide outcry for change.

As I near the end of my freshman year at USC, I can honestly claim that these events, however disquieting, have been more effective in connecting me with the rest of the Trojan community than any other occurrence. I am proud to have stood in solidarity with other scholars to combat the common enemies of racism and bureaucratic inertia. But I can only hope that the schisms that have been starkly revealed in these past weeks will not leave lasting divisive scars in the family that I have just now found my place in. 


Read more Neon Tommy coverage of the May 4 incident here.

Reach Columnist Ashley Yang here.



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