Students, alumni and affiliates of historically Black colleges and universities are angry about a decision by Elizabeth City State University to house law enforcement officers in residence halls on the North Carolina campus. They feel particularly betrayed because the out-of-town police were brought in to manage the growing crowds of protesters who have been gathering in the city in response to the recent police killing of a Black man -- and are now being housed by a Black college.
Critics of the university, an HBCU that is part of the University of North Carolina system, said the decision adds insult to injury. Students who live on campus were told to vacate their dorms just four days ago because of the protests, only to learn afterward that police would occupy the buildings.
Elizabeth City State University officials announced the plan Wednesday evening, and the response was swift and unsparing.
“Disgusting” and “embarrassing,” said commenters on social media, who identified themselves as Elizabeth City State students, parents and alumni and students at other HBCUs.
Some people noted the painful relationship between Black communities and police throughout American history and particularly over the last year, in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black Americans, including Andrew Brown Jr., a Black Elizabeth City resident, who was shot and killed by a county sheriff’s deputy on April 21. Protesters have been peacefully marching in the city ever since and calling for the release of body camera footage from deputies who executed a search warrant on Brown and killed him, and more transparency from police and county officials about the shooting.
“Wow ECSU, as an alum I’m disappointed,” one commenter responded to the university’s Facebook announcement. “You are supposed to be the safe haven for students particularly for people of color. Wow.”
But as a public university, Elizabeth City State must support local government agencies, including law enforcement, the university's announcement about the plan said. The rooms offered to officers were not previously occupied by students, it said.
"We are all doing the best we can to support our community during this difficult time, working to ensure that citizens can exercise their First Amendment right to protest safely and peacefully," the announcement said.
Tyrek Slaughter, a sophomore majoring in business administration at the university, said he and other students saw the decision to move students out of residence halls by Tuesday -- in response to the city of Elizabeth City’s state of emergency declaration and 8 p.m. curfew -- as connected to police moving in. The students accused the university of pushing them out to make way for the additional officers, despite the university’s statement that “none of the rooms being used were previously occupied by students.”
Robert Kelly-Gross, media relations director for Elizabeth City State, said in an emailed statement that government officials for the city of Elizabeth City requested that the university house additional law enforcement on Tuesday. As part of the state university system, the institution has “an obligation to support other agencies and the community in times of an emergency,” he wrote.
“We have also offered support to the Brown family through their representative, as we understand how difficult this is for them,” Kelly-Gross added. “Our obligations are to the city and community as a whole, and we will continue to honor those obligations, as we always have. This is a difficult time for our city, and we will do our part to help it heal.”
Slaughter said living accommodations for the police should have been provided elsewhere.
“There’s more places other than the campus that police could’ve gone,” he said.
Slaughter, who grew up in Elizabeth City and lives off campus, said he never expected his community to be at the center of national outcry against police brutality.
“I heard it on the news and it hurt me, but I never expected it to hit so close to home,” he said. “I really don't know about my city no more … I feel betrayed.”
Robert Palmer, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University, understands why some consider housing police on campus “inappropriate.” But university administrators have to do a “delicate dance” around their responsibilities as a state university and an HBCU, he said.
“Leadership is having to make tough decisions,” Palmer said. “They probably realize they’re making students feel uncomfortable and that it almost seems like they’re supporting the police, which is problematic given the relationship that the Black community has historically and presently with police.”
Palmer, who has done research about how HBCUs provide safe environments and positive education communities for Black students, noted how the additional police presence could look unwarranted to observers, given that reports about the protests say they have been peaceful.
“It almost seems like the institution is compliant with encroaching upon the rights of the protesters,” he said. “But I do want to emphasize that the institution is forced to have this delicate engagement … They have to try and be accommodating, given the fact that they are part of the community.”
Slaughter said he understands the cautious approach taken by the university's chancellor, Karrie Dixon, and other area college leaders, who moved to remote classes and operations this week and closed residence halls. But he thinks the colleges’ decision and the increased presence of law enforcement is an outsize response to peaceful protests. He participated in the protests and said there was no violence.
“I feel like it’s unnecessary,” he said. “It’s like they’re treating us like animals.”
Dixon noted in the statement Wednesday that the protesters are engaging in “the peaceful raising of voices” and “firm call for justice.”
Jimmy Chambers, a junior and president of the Student Government Association, who also took part in protests he described as a peaceful scene, said the curfew has discouraged and upset people.
“I hate that the curfew was put in place, because of the fact that they were doing it so peacefully,” Chambers said. “No one was at harm in any way.”
John Maurice, president of Mid-Atlantic Christian University, which is just a few blocks away from where the protests are being held, said community members have been “peaceful and orderly” and as of Wednesday afternoon he had heard of only two arrests of protesters who broke the curfew.
“I don’t feel threatened by the citizens of our community,” Maurice said. But the leaders of the three colleges in the city -- Mid-Atlantic Christian, Elizabeth City State and College of the Albemarle -- were informed of “chatter that’s out there in social media about outside influencers coming into the community,” he said.
Norma Houston, chief of staff for the UNC system, said some of the officers sent to Elizabeth City State are campus police from other system campuses, such as East Carolina University and North Carolina Central University. The Elizabeth City State campus police chief requested the additional support. These additional officers are there to support the campus, not city police, she said.
“ECSU has a very small campus police force, and they have been working around the clock,” Houston said. “To the extent that something were to happen on the campus, they have a very small force itself, and they could not reach out to local law enforcement to assist them because local law enforcement are busy out in the city.”
Houston acknowledged “the pain and the anxiety that that entire community is experiencing” and how an added police presence might contribute to these feelings. But the system gave discretion to Dixon, whom officials trust to “appropriately serve the community in this time of tragedy.”
Many Elizabeth City State University students, including Slaughter and Chambers, and some alumni defended Dixon even as others criticized her. They noted that the decision to house police on campus was a difficult one and out of her hands. Chambers praised Dixon’s leadership and asked that students give university administrators the benefit of the doubt.
“It wasn’t nothing like, ‘OK, we’re going to kick the students out to bring the officers in.’ That’s not something the university would ever think to do,” he said. “I always try to tell students to step back. The school is giving us a whole lot of information. They’re being transparent. A lot of the time, we look at Twitter before looking at the information that ECSU has put out.”
Peter Eley, a mathematics professor at Fayetteville State University, also a historically Black university in the UNC system, and chairman of the Elizabeth City State University Foundation, asked for students to consider the perspective of university leadership. He characterized the social media outrage over housing officers on campus a response to “miscommunication and bad information.”
“The students were asked to leave for their own safety and to be proactive,” Eley said. “When people send their children to the university, they want them to remain safe and become educated … This mess of them being sent home to house officers came from someone’s imagination at best.”