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​ALJASSAR: Young, wild and free to party

Police behavior during Block Party is riddled with biases

It is a well-known fact among students at the University that Charlottesville police officers are chiefly invested in student safety, so much so that they will often turn a blind eye to underage drinking and other related offenses. Consider the police presence at Block Party, our yearly bacchanal that coincides with the start of the fall semester. As thousands of inebriated students take over 14th Street and Wertland Street — streets which fall outside of the University’s Grounds — Charlottesville police officers stand idly on the side and look out for students who may be a danger to themselves or others. Also consider the police presence at last year’s spring Foxfield races, where Albemarle County police officers did not intervene much. They were stationed at the perimeter of the event and made just seven arrests, even though thousands of students were breaking the law.

I am glad our police officers regard student safety with such great importance, but I am troubled by what appears to be an inequitable enforcement of laws in Charlottesville. Here’s a thought experiment: imagine if Block Party didn’t take place on the streets behind the Corner. Imagine if, instead, Charlottesville residents who don’t attend the University decided to throw their own “block party” just a few streets over on 10th or Page Street. If Charlottesville police heard of a block party on Prospect or Orangedale Avenue, one at which thousands of “townies” illegally consumed liberal amounts of alcohol and played disruptive music, would police officers take the same laissez-faire, safety-oriented approach?

I have a hard time believing Charlottesville police officers would be willing to stand by and observe, only stepping in when presented with a safety issue. The way police officers conduct themselves at events with students reveals an inequality in Charlottesville law enforcement, one where we as students are allowed to do things others simply can’t.

Of course, students at the University are not uniformly privileged when it comes to experiences with local law enforcement. The brutal treatment of then third-year student Martese Johnson by Alcoholic Beverage Control agents last semester illustrated that race is still a factor in law enforcement interactions. Overall, however, attending the University often comes with a particular set of social markers — generally white, upper-class and well-educated — that allow us to behave the way we do. There seems to be a perception among law enforcement officers that college students should have a little extra license when it comes to the law because they are young and bound to make mistakes. I don’t see why this same logic can’t apply more generally to disadvantaged groups in Charlottesville who may be more likely to make legal mistakes because of socioeconomic status. Right now, however, there’s just no way a poor minority population outside of the University could occupy an entire public street with drugs and alcohol while receiving the same special treatment University students do from police officers.

I don’t want police officers to be less hands-off with University students. Safety should always be the primary concern of law enforcement. Our police officers do a great job of making us feel safe on Grounds through standbys at events such as Block Party. They also acted commendably in response to the disappearance of one of our students. But the message we seem to be getting is that if you’re a University student, Charlottesville law enforcement will care about you and your safety to a greater extent. You will be allowed to misbehave by throwing block parties on public streets. It will be okay because you’re an untouchable college student with a future — you shouldn’t be locked up. That’s the definition of privilege.

Nazar Aljassar is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at n.aljassar@cavalierdaily.com.

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