UChicago Safety Issues and Student Privilege

Updated May 25, 2011

The Saferide Program at the University of Chicago provides free transportation for its students, employees, faculty members and other affiliated individuals from 5 p.m. through approximately 3 a.m. To take Saferide, one has to either call the operator or find one of the vehicles running around the campus. Last year, some UChicago students put together a petition to the Saferide Program, asking for service improvements to further ensure students’ safety. They explained that there had been instances where the Program operator did not pick up the phone at all, put a caller on hold for so long that the caller gave up and walk to her or his destination, and took more than 30 minutes to pick a student up when the student had been told to wait for only 15 minutes. The petition was in fact more or less a reaction to the neighborhood’s recently heightened security alerts due to recent violent incidents on and near the campus.

As a student of the University of Chicago, I am just as concerned about our security as my fellow students who felt scared enough to take such action. But the fact is, I do not feel represented by the petition at all. Thus, I could not sign it. My security concern is not limited to the University community but extends beyond the campus, and when you think about the economic diversity in the entire Hyde Park, using / being able to use convenient services like Saferide is a huge privilege. Granted, our student fees do go to Saferide, but how many people can actually buy safety like that? Having money to be spent on betterment of one’s safety is definitely a privilege.

Each Saferide driver is supposed to ask all passengers to show her or him their UChicago ID card. And I have seen quite a few people denied access to a ride on Saferide because they “failed to provide” a UChicago ID, as well as many people who did not even bother trying to get in. As a student myself, however, only 1 out of 10 times am I asked to show them my ID. Such ratio is, based on my observation, pretty much the same for other students as well.

What does this mean? It means that UChicago students and the rest of the Hyde Park community look different, or at least, we are in principle supposed to look different. And what kind of people are we talking about when we say “the rest of the community” who do not look like us? They are predominantly African-American, some of whom, I have seen, would have to ask someone for change in order to get access to public transportation if denied access to UChicago vehicles. That is common sense to those who understand the economic reality of Hyde Park. However, staying ignorant of such economic reality throughout their years at the University is not impossible at all. Most students here spend only a few years on campus (varying from 2-months summer programs to a 5+ year PhD programs). To most of them, safety is their safety, not that of the whole community.

My concern is, first, the ID display requirement is doing nothing but reinforce the economic polarization between UChicago students and others. Second, the security measures employed as of today do not take into account the racial and economic diversity of the students.

The Saferide Program is operated by the University (Department of Transportation and Parking) who took over the operation from the University of Chicago Police Department in 2007. This means that, unlike the 171, 172 buses that are run by CTA, there would be no economic harm even if they stopped enforcing the ID display requirement and checking “suspicious” individuals’ ID cards. The number of passengers may increase as more people would be able to take Saferide, but very slowly, unless the University decides to make a huge announcement to the neighborhood about the end to ID requirement (which they wouldn’t). And most importantly, as the University has expanded its campus onto the southern side, local residents have suffered the relocation, separation from families and friends, and rise in rent. Providing Saferide services to local residents, to me, seems like a necessary part of the University’s compensation for the loss that it has caused them.

Well, even if you don’t agree with any of the above, you know it’s friggin’ COLD in winter to the extent that everyone deserves to be provided sheltered transportation!

On the second point about student diversity – coming from a marginalized family background myself, I do not feel included fully in the petitioners’ “we, students” tone. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Minority students come from diverse backgrounds where most of us have been taught not to trust police officers, security guards, and other professionals who say they are protecting us. True, we don’t feel safe when transportation services are not adequate. But some of us will still not feel safe when safety is guaranteed only for student-looking students (read: typically white, middle-class, able-bodied, with no mental disability). Ultimately, we are not safe until the entire community feels safe and protected.

I must immediately add that, as a UChicago student, I do have the privilege——the privilege to be educated, to be protected, and to get access to libraries, air-conditioned buildings, University-owned/sponsored transportation, etc. I can never speak for non-UChicago-affiliated people who live in Hyde Park. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility not to look away from this weird relationship we as students have with the rest of the community, with privilege attached to us and not to the others. We have a responsibility not to try to maximize our security at the expense of others. By “at the expense of others,” I mean demonizing “strangers” on the street. Those “strangers” are humans, typically African-American, who live here, and may have even lived here for their entire life, surviving the expansion of the University and thus dislocation of their relatives/families/friends/selves.

Yes, Hyde Park is not the safest town in the world and UChicago students have all the right to be afraid, to ask for protection, and to feel safe——but so does everyone else.

I think I’ll finish by quoting from one of my favorite scenes from the movie, “Hairspray,” where African-American student Seaweed takes to one of her mother’s dance parties a white boy (Link) and two white girls from school (Tracy and Penny):

Motormouth Maybelle: Well, looks like y’all took a step outta bounds.
[to Seaweed]
Motormouth Maybelle: Who’ve we got here?
Seaweed: Mom, I want you to meet my new friends. This here is Link, Tracy Turnblad…
Tracy Turnblad: [interrupts] This is just so afro-tastic!
Seaweed: And this young lady right here, is Penny Pingleton.
Penny Pingleton: I’m very pleased and scared to be here.
Motormouth Maybelle: Now, honey, we got more reason to be scared on your street.

Masaki C. Matsumoto
Queer & feminist writer/YouTuber in Japan.

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