Columbia Student Physically Restrained by Security in Barnard Library

On the night of Thursday, April 11, Alexander McNab, a black Columbia University senior, was stopped in Barnard College’s library, known as the Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning, by campus public safety officers, physically restrained, and questioned. In the wake of the incident, videos of which have been reposted widely on social media, many are calling for Barnard to address longstanding issues between students and campus security.

Barnard College's Milstein Center

On the night of Thursday, April 11, Alexander McNab, a black Columbia University senior, was stopped in Barnard College’s library, known as the Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning, by campus public safety officers, physically restrained, and questioned. In the wake of the incident, videos of which have been reposted widely on social media, many are calling for Barnard to address longstanding issues between students and campus security.

Facing a late night of studying, McNab noted a Facebook post offering leftovers from a recent party at the Milstein Center, so at 11:30 p.m. he went in search of a snack. After crossing Broadway, the thoroughfare dividing the Barnard and Columbia campuses, McNab passed a Barnard public safety van, sped up to make the green light, and entered the Barnard campus. As he walked through the college gate, he reported, someone behind him shouted, “Hello, sir! Hello, sir!” McNab ignored them. He continued into Milstein, where he was invited to help himself to a plate of leftover lamb and rice.

The public safety officer at the main gate called a for “10-13,” requesting backup, after he lost sight of McNab. Two campus security officers entered Milstein, followed by at least four more. The officers approached McNab and asked to see his ID, then grabbed him by the upper arms and pinned him against a counter in the center’s first floor coffee shop. Videos show McNab surrounded by five officers, repeatedly saying, “Take your hands off of me.”

The incident was filmed by two onlookers, including Barnard junior Caroline Cutlip. A student government representative, Cutlip told the Washington Post she was unsure of whether or how to intervene, so she began recording the confrontation on her phone.

One of the officers, after glancing toward Cutlip, released his hold on McNab and said to him, “Okay, let’s walk outside.” McNab was then able to pull out his wallet and hand over his ID. “I am a Columbia University student,” he told them. “That’s me. This is the third time Barnard Public Safety has chased me down.” McNab declined to follow the officer outside when he left to verify the ID, reportedly fearing for his safety and wishing to stay among witnesses. “You saw my ID. What else do you need to see?” he told them. “You want to talk, talk to me right here.”

When the officer returned, Cutlip began filming a second time. Officers can be seen telling McNab that he ran into the building without showing ID; McNab responded that he walked, not ran, and the students present confirmed his statement. “I got him running through the courtyard,” the officer stated. Another officer argued with the assembled crowd of Barnard students about whether McNab had been running. The video shows a black student explaining to an officer that McNab had walked into Milstein; his eventual response is to tell her to “relax.” She replied, “Please stop talking to me,” and he walked away.

The video can be viewed here. (Warning: video shows physical confrontation between McNab and campus security.)

ACCUSATIONS OF RACIAL PROFILING

It is Barnard campus policy to ask for student identification after 11 p.m. McNab was aware of the rule, he told the Columbia Spectator, but stated that he felt frustrated that the rule was inconsistently invoked, and white students were often not asked. As one Columbia student noted on Twitter, “this rule is loosely enforced and hardly followed. I have always just nodded to the officer.” McNab has been stopped twice before at Barnard, he reported, including once when he left dance class barefoot to run to a water fountain and was stopped by a campus officer who asked if he was homeless. “Because of all of that, I said ‘Nah, that’s not happening again this time,’” McNab told the Spectator.

There has been ongoing tension on both the Barnard and Columbia campuses about public safety officers, and they have been accused of harassment of students of color and of a failure to act when those students are targeted by others. At a March meeting with Barnard’s Student Government Association, Public Safety representatives noted that officers do not legally hold the same powers as police officers, although they are security professionals trained by New York state.

On the day following the incident, several students filed Title IX complaints, and Cutlip, along with several other student government members, met the following morning with Barnard’s Title IX officer to craft a statement. Cutlip’s videos, which she posted online, were widely reshared on social media.

CALLING FOR CHANGE ACROSS CAMPUS

Also on April 12, Barnard president Sian Leah Beilock released a statement to students and staff that read, in part, “Incidents like the one last night highlight the need for us to continue our campus-wide conversations around public safety and to ensure that our policies are clear and are consistent with our values. We appreciate that students have raised such concerns and helped to spark an important dialogue and self-reflection.” It did not explicitly identify any racial overtones of the incident, which drew criticism from some members of the campus community.

A protest was staged at the Barnard gates on the afternoon of the 12th, and a number of organizations and faculty members on both campuses signed a petition created by the Columbia University Women of Color Pre-Law Society “condemning the racial profiling and use of force against a black student by Barnard Public Safety.”

An open letter to Barnard administration signed by more than 250 alumnae called on the college to “re-imagine what safety looks like on-campus and take the lead of black and brown students in those conversations…. We cannot keep showing our students of color that they do not belong on campus.”

It continued, “Time and time again, we have seen Barnard and Columbia students take action where the administration has not. The College mentioned in their issued statement that the officers involved have been placed on administrative leave—this will not end the cycle of harassment towards Black students. Fundamental and systemic change is needed.” (LJ executive editor Meredith Schwartz, a Barnard alumna, was a signatory on the letter.)

Beilock convened a listening session for that evening with representatives from the college administration, public safety, the Furman Counseling Center, and Barnard’s Office of Equity. McNab attended the Friday night session. At the end of the evening, he stood up and thanked the administrators of the event and added, “I would also appreciate an apology.”

While he did receive several public apologies from administrators, McNab was disappointed at the administration’s lack of engagement with the racial elements of the incident, told the Washington Post. Eventually Natalie J. Friedman, co-interim dean of the college and dean of studies, thanked him for coming. “I also apologize on behalf of the college,” she said, “for the racist incident that happened.”

Beilock released a follow-up statement on April 14, reading in part, “What has come across is a pervasive sense that racial bias remains pernicious on our campus. In particular, people of color have expressed to me feeling excluded or singled out in campus life, in the classroom, and, yes, in dealings with public safety. I want to say directly that I hear you and am committed to change.”

Associate dean of multicultural affairs Melinda Aquino sent a separate statement to a listserv of LGBTQ+ students at Columbia, saying, “We share in the deep upset and know this brings much pain and reminder of the anti-black violence, racist profiling, police brutality, and systemic racism that plagues our communities. We denounce these and all acts of hate.”

On Thursday, April 18, Beilock met privately with McNab to apologize for the confrontation and said that she would welcome any ideas for improving the relationship between students of color and public safety officers. McNab said that he would be writing an article for the Spectator, where he is a staff writer, with his recommendations, and advised Beilock that she could learn more about his experiences from any of the recent articles that had appeared in print or on television.

Columbia University issued a statement of its own, as have campuses across the city, which have also held listening sessions for students. The six officers involved have been placed on administrative leave, and Barnard has hired an independent investigator. Barnard also plans to reevaluate how its officers are trained in regard to racial bias. At press time, the dean of Barnard Libraries had not yet responded to LJ’s request for comment.

An additional statement from a Barnard spokesperson noted, “Regardless of either party’s intent, the resulting confrontation with Mr. McNab and our public safety officers was unacceptable and does not reflect the values of the College. It highlights an immediate need to ensure that the entire community, including public safety officers, acts equitably toward all, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or national origin.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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