By Jasmine Huang
Standing before a crowd of approximately 30 students in Gailor Auditorium, Chris Hornsby (C’19), Chandler Davenport (C’19), Anna Wilson (C’20), and Cameron Noel (C’21) read students’ stories of their encounters with police.
Each individual represented the gender and race of the anonymous author, with Hornsby reading as a white male, Davenport as a Black woman, Wilson as a white woman, and Noel as a Black man.
The event took place as an offshoot of Sewanee Monologues, one of the biggest programs put together by the Bairnwick Women’s Center. Held annually for students to share their personal experiences, Sewanee Monologues is modeled after feminist activist Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” and features students reading their written pieces before an audience.
Inspired by the original Sewanee Monologues, Georgia Konstam (C’19) wanted to create a similar event that detailed the experiences of students with police.
“Growing up in New York City, walking myself to school every morning from a very young age, I was continuously a witness of the racial biases in law enforcement,” said Konstam. “When I began talking to students about the project and asking for stories, it became clear that even those who have been victim to racism in law enforcement may have not had a platform to share their stories to people outside of their close friend group.”
She added, “I had numerous students tell me that this was the first time at Sewanee they had been asked to talk about their own experiences, on and off campus.”
Sometimes, the stories took place on campus or in nearby cities like Chattanooga, and other times they occurred out of the state. They ranged from getting pulled over by the police for speeding while under the influence to officers treating Black students differently in comparison to their white counterparts despite committing, or not committing, an offense.
One particular account detailed the experiences of a Black male student during the Foam Party at Spencer’s Quad. He was sober and his friend was intoxicated. Once the officer approached them, they took his drunk friend 15 feet away with three to four other officers; after asking what was wrong, the police asked him to back up, and after he asked a second time, threatened to arrest him.
In contrast, another narrative written by a white male recounted the moment he was pulled over by a cop after smoking marijuana and imbibing alcohol while five people sat on top of each other in the back seats. The location of the incident was unspecified. When the officer asked him if they had been drinking, the student lied and said he was the designated sober driver.
“I am unsure if he missed or chose to just turn a blind eye to the five people sitting on top of each other without seatbelts in the back of the car, the blunt that my friends were holding out the window on the passenger side of the car, and the fact that I was clearly not a totally sober driver. He told me to drive safety and let me go without any ticket or warning,” concluded the anecdote.
After the four performers finished reading student submissions of interactions with the police, Davenport, co-director of the Wick, instructed everyone to find a partner and answer the questions projected on the screen before closing the night with an open discussion.
Reflecting on the stories she heard, Tija Odoms (C’21) said, “I thought it really proved something that most Black people assume. They proved that police officers look at Blacks as criminals rather than people. Whites get seen as people in the eyes of law enforcement and are considered worthy of a second chance.”
Hornsby echoed similar sentiments, commenting, “The structure of the event and the use of storytelling conveyed a message, without needing any explicit statement, the disparities and injustices that happen within the intersection of race and policing.”
He continued, “As a reader, I felt in the stories of white students a certain ambivalence and disregard for their lawbreaking. The fear that undergirded the stories of Black students was nowhere to be found.”
According to Konstam, “The purpose of this project was not so much to make people uncomfortable, as issues such as this certainly can do, but to make people aware that this issue of racism in law enforcement is not as distant an issue from our campus as many would like to believe.”
She added, “I wanted to make students aware that this issue is not one that is restrained to the stories that make it onto Facebook, Twitter, or into news articles, but rather one that affects their own peers, the people they go to class with every day.”