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Student’s open letter says unwelcome members of UPD repeatedly approach student organizers

UPD’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager says she is trying to have conversations with students to learn what they want from the University Police

Elliott writes that Lawson and other members of the UPD entered the Multicultural Student Center and the Latinx Center requesting to speak to her.
Elliott writes that Lawson and other members of the UPD entered the Multicultural Student Center and the Latinx Center requesting to speak to her.

Sarandon Elliott, co-chair of the Young Democratic-Socialists of America’s National Coordinating Committee and a fourth-year College student, released an open letter Sunday saying that she and peers have been approached by members of the University Police Department in the last few months asking to speak with them.  

In the letter, Elliott writes that a UPD officer called her private cell phone number this summer. Elliott did not pick up the phone and the officer left a voicemail, which Elliott shared with The Cavalier Daily. In the voicemail, an officer asks Elliott if she could answer some questions about YDSA and requests that she call the officer back. 

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Cortney Hawkins — diversity, equity and inclusion manager for UPD — and Dani Lawson, community engagement specialist for UPD, addressed the letter.

Hawkins was hired by UPD in December 2020 and leads the development and implementation of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Lawson was hired in July 2021 after graduating from the University in May. While a student, Lawson was a member of the women’s basketball team and served on the University Police Accountability Board, a group made up of students, faculty, staff and UPD representatives that establishes plans regarding police oversight, funding and community relations. 

Elliott was also a member of the Board last semester alongside Lawson.

Hawkins said they could not give any information about the phone call in July due to privacy reasons. 

“Because that may be a personal matter, we can't speak to that situation,” Hawkins said.

The following month, Hawkins and Lawson approached the Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.Va.’s table at the Student Activities Fair and spoke to members of YDSA. In the letter, Elliott writes that the two women requested to meet with Elliott and other student leaders of YDSA. 

“One of the people that are on central committee for YDSA texted me and said ‘These two women from UPD came up and asked to meet with Central Committee, and they name-dropped you specifically, Sarandon, do you know anything about this?’” Elliott said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily.

Lawson denied that she and Hawkins asked to speak specifically with Elliott or any other individual. She claimed they attended the fair to engage with the community and introduce themselves to members of the leadership of different organizations on Grounds. 

“We were there at the Student Activities Fair because … it's our job to engage the students, and we talked to every single group or organization that was at the Activities Fair,” Lawson said. “It was not just that particular organization.”

Elliott said she called Lawson the next day and told her “YDSA has absolutely no intention in speaking to UPD.” 

“The first priority to me and the rest of Central Committee is to protect and ensure the well being of our members, and a lot of members would feel very uncomfortable,’” Elliott said. 

If individuals do not want to engage with her or with the department, Hawkins said the department would respect that decision.

After expressing her intentions, Elliott writes that Lawson and other members of the UPD entered the Multicultural Student Center and the Latinx Center requesting to speak to her yet again on Sept. 7 when Elliott was not present. Elliott said UPD officers — including Timothy Longo, chief of police and associate vice president for safety and security alongside Lawson and Hawkins — were sighted in the Multicultural Student Center and the Latinx Student Center in plain clothes.

Longo officially assumed his position in February 2020, consolidating the roles and responsibilities of the University’s police and security departments. Student organizers such as Elliott have long been critical of Longo’s history in the Charlottesville and University police forces. Elliott’s letter references “Chief Longo’s Record,” which criticizes his contributions to racially discriminatory practices, such as the use of a DNA dragnet in the city of Charlottesville and support of actions that led to Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore.

Hawkins confirmed that she and Lawson sometimes enter the MSC and the Latinx Student Center, but said that they only go into the space when they are invited, adding that sometimes, she and Lawson are invited to student centers by students that Lawson knows or are “getting food or doing other things” around Grounds.

“When we are invited, either by individual students or faculty or whatever, we do go,” Hawkins said. “If we're not, we stay away. Because we understand that those are safe places for individuals and we understand that our presence — even mine and Dani’s — may not always be welcomed by everyone.”

In one instance, Hawkins said Lawson, Hawkins, Longo and Police Sergeant Ben Rexrode were invited to the MSC for an event and were asked to wear plain clothes instead of a uniform to make students more comfortable.

Hawkins told The Cavalier Daily she would not disclose who extended the invitation out of respect, but emphasized the group was in fact invited and asked that officers who attend be out of uniform. 

Vicki Gist, associate dean of students and director of multicultural student services, confirmed in an email to The Cavalier Daily that UPD and other members of the University community were invited to an MSS welcome event that occured Aug. 24, though she did not confirm if students were involved in the decision to invite UPD. This event is hosted yearly to welcome new students, Gist said.  

According to Ceci Cain, fourth-year College student and vice president of administration for Student Council, Lawson and Hawkins entered the MSC again Sept. 7.

“A close friend and trusted comrade has informed me that once again Dani Lawson and Cortney Hawkins have come into the Multicultural Student Center, a place designed to be a safe haven for Black and Brown students at this predominantly white institution, asking to speak to me,” Elliott wrote in reference to the incident.  

Cain said Lawson and Hawkins discussed community engagement and the role of policing at the University with her.  According to Cain, Hawkins and Lawson asked her to help them set up interviews with multiple student leaders, including Elliott. Cain, Elliott and the other students Hawkins asked to speak with are members of U.Va. Beyond Policing, a student organization that advocates for abolishing the police and UPD. 

Afterward, Cain said she talked to interns and administrators at the MSC and was unable to determine who invited Hawkins and Lawson into the space. 

Both Lawson and Hawkins said they wanted to speak with students at the University because part of their job is community engagement.

“What we're doing is what research has told us and what students, faculty and people within the  city of Charlottesville are saying that they want — visibility,” Hawkins said. “They don't want to just see a department come when there's an issue or a supposed issue, and so that's what we are doing, and we respect that there are boundaries that people have.” 

University spokesperson Brian Coy echoed Hawkins’ sentiments, writing that UPD “regularly engages” with student leaders to listen to their points of view and discuss “UPD’s efforts to maintain a safe and welcoming community on Grounds” in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

“Those conversations are an important part of developing and maintaining trust between University police and the community,” Coy said. “While many individuals hold different points of view about important matters like policing, we hope they will express them with civility and respect toward their fellow hoos.”

Cain said that she thinks UPD’s “student engagement” tactic is a way for them to gather more information and be more aware of what is happening and being planned among student organizers at the University. 

“I know that cops are not interested in having personal, friend-like relationships with students,” Cain said. “They want to increase student engagement so that their surveillance tactics are more effective.”

Elliott said she is similarly suspicious of the department’s approach.

“I guess they're reaching out to various organizations that are about trying to build bridges with students.” Elliott said. “But again, I frankly have a hard time believing this ‘good faith’ approach. UPD has had a long history of not protecting leftist students, and Black and Brown students at the University … I think it's really a surveillance tool. And I think it's to keep tabs on what organizations are doing.”

Elliott’s letter cites examples of activists at the University being arrested for organizing activity, such as in 2006 when police officers arrested 17 student protestors for trespassing after four days of a student sit-in calling on the University to pay contracted employees a living wage. In 2017, UPD officers arrested three student organizers for trespassing after the students unveiled a banner that read “200 years of white supremacy” at a bicentennial event. 

At this point, Elliott said she is not willing to speak with anyone employed by UPD. 

“I'm willing to speak to other administrators about this problem,” Elliott said. “But as far as people that work for the University Police Department, it's just a hard no for me.”

Elliott said that a number of factors led her to release the open letter, one of which was a picture published on University President Jim Ryan’s Instagram account Saturday of Ryan posing with members of Young Americans for Freedom at an event commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. YAF is a conservative organization for youth activists focused on spreading ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise and traditional values.

YAF has been the subject of criticism at the University before — YAF released a video of a Student Council meeting last November in which they alleged “leftist” student representatives “attacked” a conservative representative. Student Council denounced the posting of the video, saying it had been “selectively edited” to misrepresent their discussion. Members of Student Council targeted by YAF in the video were subject to threats of physical violence.

In a symbolic commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the organization constructed and then tore down their own wall in front of the Amphitheater on which they spray-painted phrases such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Dr. Fauci” last November. Nationwide, YAF chapters have sparked controversy for inviting controversial speakers to college campuses, which have often been met with student protest

“For them to pose with those students that are openly part of [YAF], and then turn around and harass organizers that are actually trying to make this place more equitable and inclusive, the math isn't adding up,” Elliott said.

Elliott said she also wanted the letter to call attention to the issue to urge students to create change at the University. 

“Police harassment, intimidation, and surveillance is not just phenomena you see on CNN and on your Twitter feeds,” Elliot said. “It is happening at this University, the University some of you pay thousands to attend. It happens at the University that claims to be an open and welcoming community.”

Elliott encouraged students, workers and community members “serious about dismantling racial capitalism” to read abolitionist works and join organizations like YDSA, which are working to dismantle and abolish the police.


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