I didn’t think it could happen to a student of mine. I know the statistics: the United States incarcerates more people than any other country on the planet, both per capita and in total numbers. There are nearly two and half million people behind bars in our country; currently 65 million Americans have criminal records. These shocking numbers are further intensified if one is poor, black, trans, and/or Latinx. African-Americans, for instance, are 10 times more likely to be arrested in Berkeley, CA than white people; African-Americans are 5 times more likely to be in prison than whites; in African-American suburbs such as Ferguson, MO, there are more arrest warrants than people.
One can know these things, and yet, when one of your own students is arrested and brutalized by the police, it is a gut punch. I spent finals week, poring over papers and exams in a daze, wondering what, if anything, the novels and films I discuss in class do to protect students from the night sticks of police or other slow, and often more subtle violences of class and race.
I know, the idea that I might shed a special tear for a college student over anyone else might strike one elitist — after all, everyone has the right to be safe. And yet, I teach first-generation students, working-class students, students who may have known precious little safety or security as high schoolers. For every daughter of professors or lawyers who want an affordable education closer to home, I have students who are former sex-workers, ex-convicts, students returning to school after bouts of unemployment, students for whom college is their one chance to escape poverty and violence.
That a university should serve not only as a place to learn but as a safe place to experiment, grow, even play, is central to my idea of its function, even for a small state college. It is even more radically crucial when the mission of the campus is to allow the poorest Hoosier at least once chance to see what doors, and worlds, will open if granted the security needed to explore books, ideas, and self-discovery.
Tiara Nelson is one such student. By her own description, she grew up in rough neighborhood in Detroit — she deeply identified with the young characters we read about this term in Mike Gold’s Jews without Money, immigrants who lived among the hustlers, gangsters, and corrupt landlords of what were 100 years ago the tenements of New York City. And yet Tiara showed up every day to my creative writing class wearing a bow-tie, suspenders, and crisp button up. She sat in front, always ready to deliver her insights on a classmate’s poem or the story we read for the week.
She described, in one of her short-stories, “a fourteen year old boy, as quiet and subtle as the rotation of the Earth,” the same story narrating the life of a sensitive teenager who would rather “count the holes in the ceiling” than do his homework. In my multi-ethnic literature class, she wrote about W.E.B. Du Bois’ theories of “double-consciousness” and the middle-class African-American family in Ann Petry’s “The New Mirror.” She could quote literary critics in the same essay as Kanye lyrics, all the while making subtle points about politics, racial identity, and literature. She told me the pride she felt reading books while her friends watch TV or play sports.
And yet, this is the student who wrote me last week to let me know she could not turn in her final paper because she had been arrested by the Elkhart Police Department. After I asked if she were OK, she revealed over email that she had been bruised, arrested without charge, forced to use a hole in the floor to urinate. She was stripped naked in front multiple police officers, some of whom were male.
According to a friend’s social media post, Tiara related this story to her with tears streaming down her face. Needless to say, her academic career has been derailed, while she attempts to recover from this violence, this horrific sexual assault.
The week prior Tiara and I discussed her going to graduate school for creative writing; now I am frantically emailing colleagues to find resources for sexual assault survivors and survivors of police violence.
That this is the Elkhart PD should come as little surprise to readers. As has been extensively reported on by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica, the Elkhart PD has long been mired in allegations of abuse, excessive violence, criminality, and negligence. According to a November, 2018 story 28 of 34 supervisors have been disciplined or suspended, charged with crimes; seven have been involved in fatal shootings. The year prior, two officers had been video-taped beating a suspect in handcuffs – an incident which the chief described as “a little overboard.”
This violence was defended by the outgoing chief as the necessary role of a “thin blue line” defending citizens from “garbage” and “predators.” I would like the outgoing chief and the Elkhart PD to know that the “garbage” and “predator” in this case happened to be a young creative writer, an “A” student in my classes, and someone who – after the carework by her loved ones and family to undo the harm enacted by the police – should by all rights go on to a bright future as a gifted writer.
Her charges, not that it matters, are for non-violent misdemeanors.
It makes one wonder who the “predators” of our society really are. And while I will leave that question to the reader, I will pose another one that I will answer: what lesson are we teaching our bright young people, struggling to make a better life for themselves, if that can be whisked away in a second by a police officer who believes the real lesson students should learn is that some people are “garbage” and can be brutalized at whim, because of their race, because of their sexuality, because of whatever a police officer feels like? I would like to assign my students to read The Great Gatsby or American Pastoral, but Tiara’s is the real story of this country, should anyone care to hear it.
Benjamin Balthaser is associate professor of multi-ethnic U.S. literature at Indiana University, South Bend.