Last week, officials placed a GW Police Department officer on administrative leave after a video appeared to show him assaulting a student protester – my friend. I watched him push her down a flight of concrete stairs.
I and nearly 100 other students marched to the F Street House – University President Thomas LeBlanc’s on-campus residence – last Thursday, in solidarity with Sunrise GW’s campaign against the University accepting research funds from Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. The plan for the event was to walk up to the steps of the building and tape our requests to the door. I and three others stayed near the house to ensure that other protestors would be able to walk up the stairs.
We expected to face repercussions from officials for our protest because we were crossing LeBlanc’s home, which is private property, but we were unbothered. We thought no institution could claim to educate future generations while simultaneously taking funds from groups that contribute to environmental harm. I and other Sunrise GW members felt that ignoring GWPD’s warnings was warranted.
Two GWPD officers were at the top of the steps before we could reach them. One officer told us to leave, but we stood our ground to deliver the letter as we had intended. We asked him why we had to leave, but he resorted to physical force and pushed myself and two others down the steps before he informed us that we were trespassing on private property. He knocked my friend and activist Victoria Freire off balance, then pushed her again and sent her tumbling down the steps onto her head.
When my friend reported the incident to another officer and told him we would call for an investigation, he told us it “wouldn’t be the first time.”
The night of the incident, I was eating dinner in District House with my friend when I turned around and saw the officer who had assaulted her enter the building. I visibly gawked and he approached the table where we sat and asked if we wanted to talk. We declined.
The sight of the man who assaulted my friend was both shocking and disgusting to me – as was his offer to speak with us. The officer is larger than me in both body and stature, and while it might comfort me to see a person more physically capable than me in the role of public security, it instead filled me with fear and rage because he used his force to hurt my friend and me. His presence in District that night is both an obvious and disappointing signifier that an employee involved in the alleged assault of a student only hours before was not only not immediately apprehended by his superiors but allowed to roam around campus while an investigation was underway. Officials did not notify students of the incident – or that the officer was suspended – until a day later. Suspending him from campus immediately would have made students feel safer.
The University’s failure to act immediately is disappointing but not surprising. Officials have had time to consider policies like divestment but waited to do so until after LeBlanc made an inflammatory comment on tape.
It is also not the first time GWPD has reacted poorly to student protests. Weeks ago, a group of Sunrise members waited outside former South Bend, Ind. mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s car to ask him why he accepts the money of fossil fuel executives to fund his campaign. The next day, GWPD wrote up student activist Bryce Maples, who utilizes a wheelchair for mobility, for surrounding the car. Only he was apprehended even though he was surrounded by other able-bodied students at the protest. I know that he was written up by GWPD because I had to contact the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities to defend him. I was also outside the Buttigieg event and approached the car but was not approached by GWPD. The department’s action insinuates that GWPD approached him only because his wheelchair distinguished him from the other protesters.
Responding to student protests with violence is unacceptable, especially when a major draw to the University is its activism. It is unclear whether the officer’s actions were a result of GWPD protocol or self-motivated, but either way they represent a threat to the entire student population. This is not the first time GWPD has been criticized for its poor treatment of students. If something does not change, it will not be the last.
While the officer has since been placed on administrative leave, officials have yet to vocally condemn him for assaulting a student under their care, as I and other students in activist groups on campus wait for their response. If they terminate him and do not make tangible changes to officer conduct, then it will be clear to the student body that the administration aims to placate and not protect us.
Nicole Caracappa, a freshman majoring in archaeology, is an opinions writer.