Students at Columbia University demanded last summer that the police be defunded, even abolished. Now that students are getting killed, they’re demanding an increased police presence. Sadly, this sequence was entirely predictable—and preventable.
Located in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, Columbia is bounded by the Upper West Side, the Hudson River, and Harlem. Because of its proximity to some high-crime areas, the campus traditionally maintains tight security. Columbia has its own department of public safety and is within the jurisdiction of the New York City Police Department.
After the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent national protests, student groups at Columbia advocated a reduction in police services at the university. A group calling itself the Mobilized African Diaspora (MAD) accused Columbia of “a deep history of anti-Blackness.” MAD demanded that Columbia defund the university’s department of public safety and cease all support for the NYPD. More recently, another student group, the Young Democratic Socialists of America, has cited a “history of racist policing practices” at Columbia. A year before the Floyd episode, Columbia’s law school had already sounded a call against mass incarceration, declaring that “it is imperative that we remediate bias and inhumanity when it encroaches on our system of criminal justice.”
The university’s response was equivocal. In July 2020, Columbia president Lee Bollinger dodged the issue by asserting in a Commitment to Anti-Racism that the school’s “deans are deeply committed to addressing issues of anti-Black racism and each has an active agenda of antiracist work.” Columbia did keep its public-safety department intact, claiming that its “commitment to antiracism . . . is being carried out at all levels of the University,” and taking such steps as improving shuttle service and creating a “Friend Walk” program. Barnard’s side of Columbia was more indulgent of student demands, canceling its search for a new director of public safety and converting its public-safety department into a social-services organization called Community Accountability, Response, and Emergency Services (CARES). The timing for all this could not have been worse, with the city’s political leadership pulling back security across the city, and Mayor Bill de Blasio disbanding the NYPD’s anti-crime units.
Last week, Davide Giri, a Columbia graduate student, was stabbed to death by a gang member with a lengthy prior record. The unprovoked killing took place only a block from where freshman Barnard student Tessa Majors had been stabbed to death in 2019. Students and parents are now insisting on increased security both on-campus and surrounding the campus. One tweet demanded that Columbia use “some of the university’s multibillion endowment to increase security around the park and the projects.” The university and NYPD boosted security patrols. Bollinger solemnly declared, “On behalf of all of us at Columbia, I extend my deepest and most heartfelt condolences to each and every one of you. And from us I send our love and support to Davide’s parents and family.”
It would be easy to mock the Columbia students. They wished for law enforcement to disappear, called the police and university racists, then demanded more cops the moment the students perceived that they might be in danger. But college students can’t be blamed for being idealistic and ill-informed. The educational experience involves intellectual experimentation and engagement with social institutions.
The blame instead lies with the adults in the room. While students indulge their unruly intellectual passions, it is the duty of academic and political leaders to point out when those inclinations are unwise, foolish, or downright dangerous. No parent in his right mind would see a toddler about to stick a screwdriver into an electrical outlet and say, “Hey, let’s see what happens.” Yet the collective response of university leadership and the mayor to students calling the police racists and demanding to defund law enforcement has been the equivalent of a negligent parent.
In today’s world, it’s worth asking where the adults have gone. The country needs people in positions of authority who are not afraid to point out when some members of the community are acting recklessly and who don’t ignore common sense when crafting and implementing policies. Such leaders would have told the Columbia students: “We support your right to express your point of view. But you’re wrong, and we’re not going to let you endanger yourselves and others.”
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