Submission: the ethics of escalation
photo courtesy of Michael Miller/Flickr

Submission: the ethics of escalation

Submitted by Isaac Denner

A few weeks ago, an incident occurred in Palm Court. A student and a police officer got into an argument about another student, who, the cop claimed, had been concealing an alcoholic beverage. The first student was handcuffed.

  The entire situation was handled poorly by the cop, both in the sense of how the cop acted as a person and how the cop acted as a cop. The situation never should have escalated to the point that it did; the officer egregiously overacted in handcuffing a student over a nonviolent incident in which nobody was in danger. But the police officer also made the mistake of egregiously overacting as publicly as he did and as blatantly as he did. Rather than moving the confrontation to a less public place, the police officer simply did this in the far corner of Palm Court.  It was hard to miss the fact that this incident was happening. It was hard to miss the fact that this incident was escalating. Perhaps the cop was trying to make an example of the two students; perhaps the cop was simply trying to handle the incident as quickly as possible. I do not know. What I do know is that the Wall hosts ended up sitting next to the handcuffed student in a show of solidarity, and eventually more joined. What began to accumulate was a small audience. 

Audience to authority does two things: it holds authority accountable, and it makes authority uncomfortable. 

The first of those two is important. Accountability is deeply necessary in the prevention of injustice, misconduct and incompetence. Accountability is what prevents injustice and incompetence from going unnoticed and uncorrected. Accountability led to Joy Hamm’s resignation. Accountability led to the creation of the Student Library Advisory Committee (SLAC). Accountability is one of the many tools that we can use to keep our authorities⁠—housing, the police, the administration⁠—in check. 

The second thing that audience to authority provokes⁠—discomfort⁠—is more troubling. Seeing authority uncomfortable gives some people a pure, childlike feeling of glee. But discomfort also provokes authority; it leads it to think less clearly and it leads it, occasionally, to escalate situations. 

Within the small audience that had gathered to watch the police officer on that unfortunate night, someone suggested that we find more people to join our small crowd. I agreed and chatted with a few people about the incident that was unfolding. I was surprised by some of the reactions⁠—most NCF students that I interact with are not pro-cop. Most of them, at least in theory, would relish the chance to make a police officer uncomfortable. But several of the students I talked to seemed to be worried about the audience that was gathering. They seemed to be worried about the reaction of the police officer to this audience, and how the student would be affected by it. Indeed, the police officer seemed put visibly on edge; he was jumpy, short, and snappy. These students seemed afraid that in witnessing this police officer, in protesting this police officer, the student’s situation would deteriorate. 

This raises an interesting, and, in light of recent events, particularly pertinent question: is protest worthwhile if it escalates threats to a student’s well-being? If it means that they might be arrested rather than simply warned? If, in a worst-case scenario, the police do not simply harass a student, but physically harm one? If this is a risk, should bystanders idly sit by as police officers overcomplicate, overact, and overstep?

I do not think that this question has a simple answer. When I ask questions, I usually seek clear, general, resounding answers. However, the ethics of escalation have so many variables, so many possibilities, so many hypotheticals. Marginalized students will be treated worse by police. Intoxicated students risk making damaging mistakes in escalating. Time, place, attitude⁠—all of these are variables that affect how situations of protest will unfold. I am, personally, not equipped to provide the clear, resounding answers that I desire. I cannot say what every student should do in this situation. 

Here is what I can say. I can say what I, personally, would want in this situation. I believe that the police need to know that if officers overstep boundaries, if they overstep their role in our community, that students will notice. That students will be unhappy. That police officers, in acting as they do, are actively damaging our trust in them. 

I have privilege in this position. White, cishet, male-presenting people have never been marginalized by police. My situation would likely never escalate as much as a PoC’s. My safety and wellbeing would likely never deteriorate in the same way. I have privilege in this position, and to me, that means there is a responsibility to use it. 

I strongly urge every student reading this to consider, if they were in the situation of those two unfortunate students in Palm Court several weeks ago, what they would want done. I strongly urge the students reading this to ask their friends what they would want done. I believe that students have a responsibility to keep authority in check, but only under the consent of those who might be affected. So I hope that you have a conversation about whether or not you would like to play a role, if the opportunity arises, in keeping the cops accountable. In keeping the administration accountable. In keeping our campus a place where students are respected, and a place where students are safe. 

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