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A black college student went looking for free food. He ended up pinned down by campus police.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/15/2019 Katie Mettler
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Alexander McNab was hungry.

It was 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, and the Columbia University senior had just left his late-night Afro-beats dance practice. He had work to do, and his anthropology thesis was looming, so the 23-year-old pulled out his phone to check a Facebook page where students can post and find the most universally reliable staple on American college campuses: free food.

Other students had just deposited party leftovers in the nearby Barnard College library, where Columbia students are welcome to study. McNab headed that way.

By the end of the night, he would find himself the latest subject of another viral video — the kind that revives the tense conversation communities are having nationwide about police use of force, racial profiling and the risks that come with being a person of color in the United States.  

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On his quest for free food, McNab had an encounter with police, which included a disagreement about his student ID that led officers to pin him to a countertop. The incident, filmed by two witnesses, inspired a weekend of unrest on the New York City campuses, where administrators have released statements and held listening sessions and students have called attention to what some consider a chronic problem within the public safety department.

Barnard has issued two statements and hired an independent investigator.

The officers involved have been placed on paid administrative leave.

McNab, who said all he wanted to do was work and study this weekend, has instead spent the past three days fielding interviews, answering emails and explaining what it’s like to be black.

“There’s never a good time for this to happen,” McNab told The Washington Post. “But this weekend, I had all these things to do.”

The night of the encounter, McNab said, he set off toward the free food, crossing the street dividing the Columbia and Barnard campuses and passing in front of a Barnard public safety van that was waiting to turn left. McNab said he sped up as he crossed to catch the light before it turned.

He walked through the official gate to Barnard’s campus, where he heard someone shout: “Hello, sir! Hello, sir!”

He didn’t look back — not this time.

McNab thought about two other occasions he had been stopped by Barnard officers and asked to show his ID, encounters he said were a result of racial profiling. They once demanded to see his ID as he was leaving a two-hour dance practice. Another time, he left dance practice to run — barefoot — to the bathroom, and he was stopped again because the officers assumed he was homeless.

It’s campus policy to ask for student identification after 11 p.m., a rule McNab later said he was aware of but had not considered in the moment. At the time, he said, he believed the officers were stopping him only because of his skin color.

McNab kept walking, into the library and toward the food. Female students greeted him, offered him a plate and told him to take as much as he wanted. He scooped up some lamb and rice. Then the officers walked in.

There were two of them, then four, then more. They demanded to see his student ID, McNab and witnesses said. The officers grabbed McNab’s arms and pushed him against the counter at the coffee shop on the library’s first floor. They forced him onto his back.

That’s when Caroline Cutlip, a Barnard junior who had posted about the food, started filming.

“The moment I saw him pinned back on the table, it was so reminiscent of police brutality things I’ve seen online,” Cutlip, the only white student watching, later said of her decision. She said she thought to herself: “I need to say something. I feel like I am someone who can use my privilege to say something here.”

“But I had no clue what to say,” Cutlip said. “So I started filming.”

In the first of two videos she recorded, McNab is surrounded by at least five public safety officers.

“Take your hands off me!” McNab yells, as the officers immobilize him.

They demanded to see his student ID card. One officer, who seemed to be leading the rest, glanced over his shoulder toward the table of Barnard students where Cutlip was filming. The officer looked back at McNab and again at Cutlip’s camera. He released his grip.

“Okay, let’s walk outside,” the officer said.

With his hands free, McNab pulled his wallet from the front pocket of his pants.

“You want to see my ID?” he said, handing them his card. “I am a Columbia University student. That’s me. This is the third time Barnard Public Safety has chased me down.”

The lead officer took McNab’s ID card and started to walk outside, commanding McNab follow. McNab refused and later explained to The Post that he wanted to stay near witnesses. He was afraid leaving the building would jeopardize his safety.

In the video, McNab is seen waiting by the Barnard students. He murmurs an apology, and a student firmly responds: “No, don’t be sorry.”

The officer says he is going to confirm McNab is an “active student” and eventually returns with his ID card. Cutlip began filming a second video, this time capturing the officers telling McNab that he ran into the building without showing his ID. McNab says he walked, not ran, and the Barnard students back him up.

“I got him running through the courtyard,” the lead officer says.

At the same time, a second officer begins arguing with the Barnard students, claiming McNab ran in front of his van. McNab and the other students rebut the narrative again, and the second officer raises his voice at a black female student.

“Do you have a gauge that you can measure how fast he was running?” the officer asks her.

“Does it matter?” she responds.

“Were you there?” he asks, walking closer, pointing his finger and eventually telling her to “relax.”

In unison, the other Barnard students repeat the word “relax” with exasperation.

“I am relaxed,” she says.

“Yeah, well I don’t see that,” the officer says. “Right away, you’re taking a …”

“Please stop talking to me,” she says.

The officer walks away. The video cuts off.

Alone again in the library, McNab and the Barnard students were left to properly introduce themselves and rehash what happened.

Several of the Barnard students were crying.

“It showed me that this wasn’t just something I went through,” McNab told The Post. “They went through this, too.”

McNab said another student suggested the incident was worthy of a complaint to Barnard’s Title IX officer. She logged on to a computer and sent one off.

McNab left after midnight but didn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m. By the time he woke and headed to his sailing class on the Hudson River, a video posted online had started to gain notice. McNab left his phone onshore at 10 a.m. When he got off the water at 2 p.m., it was flooded with messages.

Cutlip, a student government representative, had met that morning with the Title IX officer and worked with her and other student government members to craft an official statement. In the afternoon, Cutlip posted her videos online.

By Friday afternoon, Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock had released a statement to students and staff about the “unfortunate incident” at the library, but it did not outline any details.

“We deeply regret that this incident occurred, and we are undertaking a thorough review of our public safety officers’ actions, and will address our processes and procedures and how they are applied,” the statement read.

Beilock announced a listening session Friday evening with public safety officials and members of the Barnard administration.

McNab attended, he said, but didn’t speak until the very end. He watched as his peers scrutinized the language Barnard officials used to talk about the “incident,” listened to them call him “the student” and grew disappointed when the administration, in his eyes, failed to squarely confront the racial elements of his experience.

At the end, McNab said a close friend cried as she explained to school officials that he was a kind person who did not deserve this kind of treatment. She called for a thorough investigation, support for women of color at Barnard and proper mental health services for anyone who had experienced racism on campus.

As students snapped their fingers and cheered, McNab took the mic.

“My name is Alexander Cecil McNab,” he said. “You men may know me as ‘the student.’ I’m a senior at Columbia University. This is my ID. You can check it. It’s real.”

McNab pulled out his ID and thanked the administrators for the free pizza they provided.

“It’s very good,” he said. “But I would also appreciate an apology.”

Again, the students clapped. Several administrators repeated the language of the email — that they regretted the incident — and used the phrase “we apologize.”

“Why can’t you call it racism?” a student asked.

What McNab said he was looking for, however, came from Natalie J. Friedman, the co-interim dean of the college and the dean of studies, who welcomed him to campus and thanked him for speaking.

“I also apologize on behalf of the college,” she said, “for the racist incident that happened.”

McNab walked up and shook her hand.

“To me, that was the most beautiful thing she could do,” he later said.

Administrators from Columbia have since released their own statements, and several of McNab’s anthropology professors have reached out in support. A woman he dances with in Brooklyn, who works for the NAACP, texted him, too. The student newspaper, for which he is an occasional contributor, is allowing him to write a personal essay about what happened.

“I’ve been trying to figure out the right vocabulary to use,” McNab said Sunday morning as he prepared his to-do list for Day 3.

There was his job as a tutor, a paper for one class and a couple of articles for student publications.

And there was a protest, spurred by his experience Thursday night. He wanted to go, he said, but “I was supposed to finish my thesis this weekend.”

 

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