When you signed on to attend Penn, you were probably really excited to immerse yourself in all that is afforded to you by this top-tier university. The caliber of academics, research, faculty — the list goes on. What you probably did not recognize was that for the next four years, you would be immune from a prejudiced justice system in your new city.
Philadelphia is home to some of the most discriminatory laws in the country, but we simply do not have to deal with their repercussions because of our Penn IDs. However, every once in a while, the line is blurred. Penn places privileged students in marginalized communities and students from marginalized communities in privileged spaces.
On a regular basis, Penn students come face-to-face with the law.
College junior Justyn Williams recounted a recent altercation with the police. “We walked in on a fight in McDonalds and realized that one of our friends was involved,” he said. “We tried to separate the fight so that our friends [would] not get hurt any more than they were, and at that exact moment, the police came in. They grabbed us three and told us to be quiet or we would get thrown in the van.”
After standing outside for a prolonged period of time, Justyn and his two friends were finally released after showing their Penn IDs. They were not questioned or put in the van. However, as he recalls, “the whole time this is happening I’m wondering why it’s just us three outside, and no one else. We were not even involved in the fight, but we were the only black people and I suppose that warranted that we can be targeted and threatened to be taken away. That stuck out to me. To be honest, I’m glad I had my ID on me that night.”
As a fellow black student at Penn, I have the privilege of using services that Makuu, the black cultural center, provide. I can walk into the center and talk to phenomenal people such as Director Brian Peterson, Associate Director Daina Troy and Office Coordinator Jared Lowe on a daily basis. In them, I have a family that truly understands the issues faced by black people on this campus every day.
But what can we do to replicate this throughout Philadelphia? We have the resources to help young people mobilize against unjust laws.
The city views black youth as a threat. Such a threat, in fact, that preventing youth from being outside after 9 p.m. seems like the only way to deal with them.
And while some use the well-crafted “but they are involved in flash mobs” argument to justify this law, Penn State researchers have shown that over the past two years, there were only six mob incidents. While that in itself is a problem, charging kids with felonies for playing in a snowball fight, for example, is not the solution.
Truth is, the control of black bodies dates back centuries in the history of this country. To think that youth are now the new targets is “ridiculous and offensive,” College sophomore Dominique Prue said. Prue recently came face-to-face with this law only a block away from our campus when asked to show her ID and prove that she was of age.
“When I asked why I had to show my ID, I was told that it was past curfew,” she said.
As I walked home from Take Back the Night on Wednesday, it dawned on me how important it is for marginalized communities to have safe spaces where they are supported, encouraged and treated with integrity. Penn is well on track in creating these spaces, but outside the walls of this campus lies another reality.
As activist Khadijah White, a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, said, “the kids that grow up in West Philly do not even see anything wrong with the law because it is their reality, which is frightening.”
We have the power to help change this city by mentoring high-school youth through Community School Student Partnerships in the Netter Center, by campaigning and working on research for the American Civil Liberties Union and by expressing our dissatisfaction with the law.
As Penn students we have been granted a green card. But rather than using this privilege to free ourselves of these underlying issues, we need to leverage the resources available to us to benefit others as well.