When a student at his university got violently arrested after a woman suspected him and a friend of plotting to rob her at an ATM, University of the District of Columbia (UDC) President Ronald Mason Jr. saw the episode as more than just the latest example of a police encounter gone awry.
“There’s a bigger issue at play here,” Mason told Diverse during a recent interview. “And that’s the relationship between America and Black men in general, and police and Black men in general.”
“I think it’s pretty clear that the there are matters that need to be addressed in that regard,” Mason said. “You can speak on the bigger issues all the time but
it’s an issue about America’s relationship with Black men.
“I don’t think (college) presidents should be on the sideline on that issue, whether they’re HBCU presidents or otherwise,” he said.
Mason made the remarks a week after UDC student Jason Goolsby, 18, found himself being tackled after a woman using an ATM called 911 to report that Goolsby and an acquaintance appeared to be looking for someone to rob, news reports state.
Goolsby had held the vestibule door open for the woman, who was pushing a baby stroller, but she left without taking out any money and called 911.
An officer arrived in a cruiser, then emerged with one hand on a holstered gun and pepper spray in the other as he ordered Goolsby to the ground, according to the news reports.
Goolsby said he initially ran because he feared for his life. Goolsby’s friend captured the incident on cell phone video and posted it on social media.
The video spread under the hashtag #JusticeForJason sparked protests the following day and thus became one of a series of episodes that many believe are illustrative of the wrongful treatment of young Black men at the hands of police.
And it adds to the growing number of such episodes that involve young Black men in college, such as the violent arrest of Martese Johnson at the University of Virginia this past March and a January incident in which Yale University student Tahj Blow, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who writes about race issues, was held at gunpoint after police said he matched the description of a burglary suspect on campus.
Officers in both of the above-referenced cases have been cleared of any wrongdoing. It remains to be seen what will happen with the officers in the case of Goolsby.
All of the facts may not be known about the case, but Mason said it’s clear the incident appears to have been driven by fear among all those involved.
“The whole scene that happened with our student is all about fear,” Mason said. “The lady whom they helped get through the door with her baby carriage, she acted out of fear.
“The student ran because he acted out of fear. The cops ran up and shoved him to the ground because they were afraid he had a gun in his backpack.
“When you put it all together, it really is about the fear we brought on ourselves because of the things that we’ve done as a nation over the course of the last 200 years.”
Mason made his comments in the context of a conversation about his prior advocacy for an initiative known as the Five-Fifths Agenda for America, which he launched during his tenure as president of the Southern University System. The initiative takes its name from the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, which regarded enslaved Blacks in the United States as three-fifths of a person for purposes of political representation.
Mason said he sees a role for institutions of higher education to confront the racial ills that so often lead to violent encounters between young Black men and police.
“As institutions of higher learning it seems to me that we can do what we do, which is educate, but educate more fully on the difference between America’s actions and its ideals,” Mason said. “Speak directly to this issue of the relationship between Black people in America.”
He said he could see UDC’s law school and TV station doing more to bring attention to issues of race in law enforcement.
“I can see us putting together a team of lecturers, once I identify who the talent is in that area,” Mason said. “I pledged that UDC will work in this arena as well as bring the full force of this institution as much as we possibly can to bear on this conversation in a way that helps move the nation forward.”
A Diverse writer asked Mason if—given the fact that many violent and even fatal encounters that Black men have had with police as of late were precipitated by running from the police—a message needs to be sent that running is not an effective tactic.
Mason ceded that it could be part of the discussion but also quipped: “And the older you get the less effective it is.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.