UHPD incident with theatre students sparks outrage: ‘Vests wont change the color of my skin’
In early November, a UHPD officer pointed his weapon at a student who a witness mistakenly believed was assaulting a woman on campus. The lead officer arrived to find what was reported to be an assault was actually a rehearsal.
The incident has sparked outrage among students across campus and has only been compounded by the School of Theatre and Dance’s solution to the issue. Their answer? Distribute brightly-colored vests to students, so UHPD knows not to shoot them.
Domonique Champion, the student who was mistakenly believed to be attacking his rehearsing partner, has attended UH off and on for more than 10 years and is pursuing a master’s degree in acting and theatre. When he saw the officer bearing down on him with his gun drawn, he knew immediately it was a matter of life or death.
“It was generations of instinct just thrust upon you, and the only thing that I could do is drop to my knees and yell: ‘We’re rehearsing!’” Champion said. “ It wasn’t until I heard the voice of a Black sergeant that I finally felt at ease.”
The witness who reported the crime said Champion was armed. The supposed weapon was a folded piece of white paper, which he was holding in plain view above his head.
The incident aside, the vests provided to prevent future incidents were seen as a slap in the face for students like theatre senior Brandon Sanders. Sanders quickly took the issue to social media, where it has since gained traction on platforms such as Twitter and YouTube.
“A bright green vest will not change the color of my skin,” Sanders said. “I saw it as the utmost disrespect. These vests aren’t bulletproof. All they do is make me stand out.”
Sanders learned about the incident when he was handed a vest on his first day back in class. He felt blindsided and took the issue to the UH faculty. He demanded they inform the student body by sending out an alert to all students enrolled.
While the School of Theatre and Dance has held several meetings for concerned students, Sanders said they had revealed more issues than they have solved. Most notably, in a video posted to his YouTube, UHPD Chief Caesar Moore said his department had not even been informed of the vest situation.
“When I talked to the dean, there were a lot of things that came to light that I wasn’t happy about,” Moore said. “The green vests. I didn’t agree with that. I didn’t approve of that. I didn’t know about that.”
Moore described it as a “horrible miscommunication” between UHPD and the School of Theatre and Dance. For Moore, the issues lie at the administrative level.
“There may need to be some discussion about how higher-level decisions are made to ensure greater inclusion,” Moore said. “If that inclusion and equality are not perceived to be there, then that trust is not there.”
Despite his procedural objections, Moore recommended students wear the vests for the time being.
For Sanders and many other students at the School of Theatre and Dance, the vests represent a much bigger issue, one of representation.
“There is no person of color on the School of Theatre and Dance faculty at all,” Sander said. “ How can your administration look like all white people when the demographics of your student body do not reflect that?”
Sanders ultimately sees the vests as the type of solution only those with the ignorance and privilege of not having to worry about the color of their skin could concoct. For him, the lime-green vest is a symbol of deep-seated institutional failure.
Champion echoed Sander’s concerns regarding racial representation. While he generally likes his professors and believes they are qualified, he questions the extent to which the University prioritizes diversity within its staff.
“I can’t help the fact that the faculty is white. They’re good at their jobs. They teach good shit,” Champion said. “But I know there are people out there who look like me who can do it just as well.”
Since the incident, Champion has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation. He has had difficulty eating and suffers from frequent panic attacks.
“I was struggling with suicidal ideation,” Champion said. “I kept seeing this image of a gun and almost hoping something would happen to me. I realized it was because I was carrying this survivor’s guilt with me.”
Champion’s survivor’s guilt stems from the pattern and history of police brutality directed toward Black Americans. He was lucky, Champion said, but many others that look like him have not been so lucky. The fatal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers has only made it more difficult.
The moment the officer pointed his gun at him, Champion felt he was handed a responsibility. Where before his primary concern was completing school, now a cause has been thrust upon him. One which he’s not entirely sure he has the strength to carry.
“There’s this societal expectation to be strong, to keep pushing. To keep going,” Champion said. “But I am physically, mentally and emotionally spent, and I don’t know how much more of myself to give to make sure that, whatever this is supposed to be for, actually ends in success.”
Years of fighting, generations of struggle, and still an issue lies latent at the core of American society. Champion, already contending with issues at home and academic stress is now expected to shoulder the burden of a cause that began hundreds of years before his birth.
Yet he is not alone. Students and friends like Sanders have given fuel to Champion’s sputtering flame and have stood up alongside him to demand better from the administration. What they want is simple: Better. They are tired of institutions failing them, tired of being swept under the rug and tired of fighting a seemingly endless war.
“I want the students to be informed, and I want them to know how much power they have,” Sanders said. “Because they need to understand that their lives are at risk.”