There’s been a recent, yet not new, trend in people calling the police on black. Whether it be for falling asleep in their own dorm, brushing their backpack up against a white woman in a store accidentally, waiting for a business meeting in Starbucks, or having a barbeque at the lake — black Americans have had the police called on them for many reasons.
The latest example: last week at Virginia Commonwealth University, an associate professor in the School of the Arts called campus security on artist and visiting professor Caitlin Cherry.
Cherry was invited to teach a graduate critical theory seminar course and conduct graduate studio visits for painting and printmaking grad students during the fall semester. She commutes from New York to Richmond every two weeks to teach at VCU. Last week, she was beginning her day by sending out emails, sitting in the adjunct lounge of the Fine Arts Building. The room is code-access only, for faculty, administration, and graduate students.
As Cherry was working, an older, non-black gentleman entered the lounge.
“I say hello and he sort of comes in, doesn’t do anything, doesn’t verbally acknowledge me and walks back out of the room,” Cherry said.
Minutes later, campus security arrived to ask Cherry to show her VCU identification card. After providing it, Cherry began to absorb what had happened.
“I left the classroom to walk around, and I saw the same gentleman in a classroom. I realized he was a fellow painting and printmaking professor,” Cherry said. “I didn’t know his name, so I looked at him to make sure I could say who it was. I was going to send an email to the chair of my department and tell him what happened.”
Cherry sent an email to Painting and Printmaking Chair Noah Simblist, who apologized for the incident and said they would look into the matter.
After giving security the name of the man she thought made the call, Simblist confirmed it was associate professor Javier Tapia. The reason why Tapia, a Peruvian-born Associate Professor in VCU’s Painting & Printmaking Department, called campus security is still unknown at this point. Tapia did not respond to RVA Magazine’s requests for comment.
“If I didn’t have my ID on me at the time, it would have been possible that I would have been removed from my own classroom — or removed from the building until somebody identified me,” Cherry said.
“It’s a greater issue of what Javier Tapia had to have thought… To think that not only did I not belong in this locked classroom — but that I wasn’t even given the privilege of looking like a graduate student, or any student in the building. I think he was shocked to find out that I was a visiting professor.”
While Tapia is of Peruvian heritage, there is still a bigger racial issue of non-black people calling law enforcement on black people that must be dealt with. When George Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, many people tried to write off his act as racially motivated because Zimmerman is Hispanic. However, acts of oppression and anti-blackness can be perpetrated by anyone.
After posting about the incident on her Facebook, the response from students, other faculty and friends was swift. Many have e-mailed VCU Equity and Access about the occurrence, demanding that action be taken.
“Later that morning, I started my studio visits and felt like I had to suck up a little bit to continue doing my grad student visits,” Cherry said. “Probably the saddest thing is that I had to walk past the man who called security to go to the bathroom, so there was a moment where I had to use the restroom, and I tried to hold it in so that I could avoid him.”
Cherry is taking this experience as an opportunity to not only foster a dialogue about racial tensions in the School of the Arts, but also put measures in place so that this doesn’t happen to any other professor or student. In a political climate hostile to many minority communities, this is an opportunity for a bigger conversation to take place about the power that other people feel over marginalized groups.
Entitlement over spaces and who can be in them is an issue that America needs to address: because it’s not new, and it’s getting black people killed. While it’s a more extreme version of these situations, the shooting of a black man, Botham Jean, in his own apartment in Dallas, Texas is a perfect example of power and entitlement. If someone can have such a strong sense of ownership that they can claim someone else’s home as their own, then kill them, where are black people safe?
“I think that’s why the response is so strong — not because of what could have happened,” Cherry said, “but the fact that there is anxiety around people in positions of power feeling possessive of spaces that they feel are theirs.”
An email was sent out internally by VCUArts Dean Shawn Brixey informing VCUarts students and staff about the situation at hand. It read:
“In light of a recent event involving individuals in one of our departments, which was reported to the School of the Arts administration on Thursday, October 25, we have asked VCU Equity and Access Services to conduct an inquiry into the matter.”
Cherry is making her formal complaint this week with VCU Administration, and says that both the Chair of Painting and Printmaking and the VCUArts Dean have been supportive.
Top image by Jeff Auth at English Wikipedia, CC by 3.0/via Wikimedia
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect new information regarding the race of the VCU professor in question.