November 16, 2010

Secure in our fears

Increased campus police presence will not change students’ perceptions of surrounding community

On Thursday night, between the hours of 9 and 10 p.m., within a ten minute period, some strange fate precipitated two violent crimes. Two students, two blows to the head, one stolen cell phone, and one trip to the emergency room.

Having witnessed firsthand the results of one of these violent attacks, I know how terrifying it is to imagine such misfortune befalling me. The University, always quick to assuage our fears, has once more increased security. We’re told now, that from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week, security guards will be providing foot patrols and walking escorts across the Midway at Ellis Avenue and University Avenue, which will be expanded soon to crossings at Woodlawn and Dorchester. It doesn’t stop there: patrols will now be found pacing along Ellis and the Midway, something I experienced for the first time Sunday night as I made my way back home from Harper.

So is the big question “Am I more secure?” or is it “Do I feel more secure?” I know the University aims to address both, but I guess it doesn’t matter, because the answer is no either way. As security measures intensify, so does the ingenuity of those seeking to commit these crimes. Exactly how far can campus security be expanded? To what extent does the University take responsibility for the safety of every student? I can say with confidence that there will inevitably be new offenses, new victims, and new locations, if not on University or Ellis, perhaps on Blackstone and Kimbark. Though that may sound pessimistic, it is a reality that students must confront. Our safety, first and foremost, is our own responsibility. Adding security upon layers of security doesn’t really accomplish much, since it doesn’t try to address fundamental issues that exist in the relationship the campus has with the community.

Take, for example, the two security patrols I passed on my way back to the dorms. Did I slow my pace in accordance with my newfound feelings of ease at the sight of these patrols? No, on the contrary, I found my steps shortening and quickening, for their presence struck me as unnatural and intrusive—a further reminder of the bubble we college students operate in, artificially sheltered from the real world.

There’s such a deeply ingrained attitude of “we” versus “them” that it’s almost impossible to envision a community that functions differently, in a way that is unified. Much of the surrounding community likely sees University students as privileged, decidedly un-savvy co-residents of a shared, but divided, neighborhood. On the other side of the fence, many students are ambivalent; we feel the pull of responsibility to be more than just passive residents, to contribute and to instigate change, but we’re nevertheless held back by fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar. The school’s community service program, especially in the neighborhood’s schools, is definitely extensive, and has no doubt changed countless young lives and minds, yet we still need an increasingly comprehensive security system to “protect” us, essentially, from what we do not know.

Our parents have a tendency to believe in the notion that an education in the conventional sense is all we’re paying for and all we’re getting, that more money should equate to less risk, both emotionally and physically. But what we’re really discovering here is that a college education is more than dissecting the classics and increasing our mathematical and scientific capacities, as invaluable as these are. It’s simultaneously about living independently and growing socially through new adult relationships and interactions. This sort of maturation, from experiencing the world at large, should be especially fruitful here, precisely because we shouldn’t be living in a bubble. We’re in the middle of a rich community that isn’t some distant, imagined land, some “other” space.

Our fears are certainly not irrational in light of the two recent attacks. But they’re also profoundly limiting, and once we can muster up the will to overcome these fears, at least in part, we’ll find that spontaneous connections then can be forged from smiling, perhaps even striking up a conversation with that stranger on the street—rather than the all-too-common aversion of the eyes. These interactions will have positive effects on the community. Regardless of time and location, race and gender, these connections are important, and it begins with each individual, accompanied, of course, by the proper exercise of common sense. Due to the socioeconomic realities that exist in Chicago, there is going to be a degree of risk in trying to find links not only to our fellow students, but also to our neighbors to the north, east, west, and south. The risk, though, is worth it.

Emily Wang is a first-year in the College majoring in English.