Striding past gray, pseudo-Gothic buildings, I rethought my decision to donate to the school’s annual alumni fund. In the parking lot yet another campus cop skulked, this one in a car parked near mine, eyeing me as he spoke into a walkie-talkie. When I got in my car, he backed out of his space with the wheel turned. But he didn’t pull off. His car idling, its nose facing me now, he remained there and stared. Apparently, he was waiting for me to pull off so he could tail me as I left campus.
But I didn’t pull off right away. My stomach aching, I ate my first meal of the day. There’d been no time for breakfast and lunch. The drive from upstate New York, where I live, to campus had taken two hours; I’d just endured five hours of training and an hour with HR (the administration had hired me to freelance from home); and now I faced a two-hour drive back to Beacon during rush hour.
It took me ten minutes to wolf down a turkey sandwich and quaff a bottle of water, but the officer glared at me as though I’d been sitting there all day. Finally, he left the lot. After swallowing the last bite and punching my address into the GPS, I did the same. Before I could leave the school grounds, a different campus cop lurked past, eyeing me as he spoke into a walkie-talkie…
This happened in October. All the campus cops who stalked me were white. One wore a blue uniform and drove a white squad car, “Public Safety” emblazoned across its doors in black and orange. The other four were plainclothesmen, all on foot except for the overweening zealot in the parking lot, who drove a battered, blue compact.
Finding it hard to believe Princeton employs plainclothesmen? You shouldn’t. In 2002, the school was still upfront about including such officers, then called proctors, in its police force: “The Department of Public Safety consists of…uniformed public safety officers as well as proctors, who are not in uniform.” By 2014 the school—in its annual Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, a policies-and-procedures reference for the university community—implied it no longer employs plainclothesmen: “The Department of Public Safety consists of uniformed, commissioned officers (campus police officers), and non-commissioned uniformed security officers.”
However, the department’s website contradicts this claim, clearly stating that its police force also includes detectives, some of whom are even pictured on the site in plain clothes. What’s more, the school’s well-regarded student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, noted in 2013 that the public safety department includes “unsworn officers who…wear white polo shirts rather than the blue police uniforms” worn by its “sworn” officers.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, I get it. Princeton’s police force includes plainclothesmen. But how do you know the men who followed you and watched you were plainclothesmen?” If they weren’t plainclothesmen, what were they? Tourists? Since when do tourists at Princeton, or anywhere for that matter, carry walkie-talkies? In my four years as a Princeton student, the only people I ever saw carrying walkie-talkies were campus policemen, some in uniform, some not.
When I told her by email that I’d been racially profiled by school security, the Princeton administrator to whom I report was not surprised. An alum herself, she weeks later came up to me after an on-campus meeting for freelancers.
“You were guilty of walking while black,” she said as we stood in the hallway of the Woodrow Wilson School. “I’m sorry.”
At my request, she’d had photo IDs made for all freelancers so we could prove we—really so I could prove I—belonged on campus. The lanyard, to which my ID was clipped, dropped around my neck like a noose, and I saw myself hanging from a Southern tree, my genitalia stuffed in my mouth. I let images—the orange carpet, the wall photos of politicians and professors—pour in through my eyes, hoping they’d rinse my mind of blood. They didn’t.
And as I made my way across campus toward the parking lot, I thought of Amadou Diallo. In 1999, four NYPD plainclothesmen shot and killed him after mistaking his wallet for a gun. If campus policemen experienced a similar hallucination when they saw my ID, I wouldn’t have to worry about being shot, but only because Princeton—unlike Yale, where recently a black campus cop pulled a gun on a black male student--has not armed its police force.