by Erin Lewis and LaQuita Belle
Each year during homecoming, friends who have not connected since last year greet each other with open arms. The air is crisp and there is a sense of camaraderie. Many younger alumni and current students weave the school colors into their trendy tailgating attire, while many alumni members wear school or The Divine Nine Greek paraphernalia. The tailgaters are reminded of the experiences they shared as students and are proud to be Gamecocks regardless of their year of graduation.
Generations of former and current students from the University of South Carolina came together to fellowship at the 1200 block of Rosewood Drive on October 27th. But the events of this year’s homecoming tailgate and the treatment of the Black University of South Carolina students and alumni left a sour taste in the mouths of attendees. The Forever to Thee that rings clear during “We Hail Thee Carolina” felt temporary. It felt as though the alma mater song excludes the University of South Carolina’s Black students.
As music played from different DJ booths and proud Gamecocks celebrated homecoming, everything came to an abrupt stop. At the front of the tailgate location, the DJ cut the music and announced he was being told by police that the music was too loud. He lowered the music and continued. Minutes later, a Richland County police officer informed the DJ he was allowed to play one last song. The crowd becomes confused as it is not even 7:00 pm and the football game did not kick off until 7:30 pm.
In the next thirty minutes to an hour, a series of baffling events occurred. First, more cops poured into the gate to tell Gamecock students and Alumni to pack up. Second, a police officer rides through the tailgate location on horseback wielding a stick. Third, attendees become upset and stay put as some police officers became combative when trying to shut down the entire event. Many attendees approached officers with questions as to why this was occurring. Questions went unanswered while the tone of responses varied. The lack of information provided regarding the officers’ arrival and the use of a 2,000 lb animal to intimidate people who were simply celebrating being surrounded by friends and classmates led to feelings of injustice and mistreatment as the shut down seemed to be racially motivated.
Older alumni began to pack up their tailgates, others began to leave, while many continued to stay put to witness the commotion. The space became filled with confusion, sadness, and anger. The icing on the cake was when cameras entered the space following a new group of police officers coming in to continue the shutdown. Many residents recognized the camera team from the show LivePD, which often portrays the Richland County Sheriff’s Office. The crew pointed cameras into the faces of tailgaters as if it was a circus sideshow. LivePD’s arrival added insult to injury and further criminalized young, black University of South Carolina Gamecocks for existing in a space that was reserved for tailgating purposes through the proper channels. After making their way through to capture the entire tailgate, the camera crew stopped in front of a large crowd of younger alumni and students to capture their frustration towards the officers. For the sake of great tv, many tailgate attendees were recorded flashing their middle fingers and screaming profane messages to the police officers.
Although the University of South Carolina defeated the University of Tennessee, the moment was tarnished for many people and the celebration was prematurely deflated before kickoff by Richland County Sheriff Department’s mishandling of this situation. If this is what returning home to the University of South Carolina means, then black students may refuse to call USC home at all.
So what actually happened? According to the media, the call was made by the owner of the lot who happens to be an African American male. One primary witness and host of one of the tailgating sections shared that the owner called the cops as a response to the overcrowding which caused difficulty for EMS responders to retrieve a young lady that had passed out. It can be assumed that this moment made the owner feel uneasy about the size of the crowd, which is a natural and valid response. However, let’s analyze other steps that could have been taken prior to calling in the cops.
What could have happened:
-Pre-planning for the crowd with the use of cones to create walkways would have prevented the issues to begin with
-Pertinent information discussed between the owner and hosts of the tailgate could have been shared with tailgate attendees by way of DJs who were in three different areas of the lot
-The owner could have led the EMS responders through the tailgate
Essentially, poor planning and lack of communication led to safety concerns that resulted in an abrupt stop to an annual celebration that many alumnae spent months looking forward to. Recent responses to the event include an apology from the Sheriff stating that the event “looked bad”. Not only did the situation look bad, but it felt bad.
So where do we go from here? What steps can we take to ensure that attending homecoming won’t bring resentful feelings for black students and alum from the University? How do we improve the relationship between African Americans and the police force?
To resolve the issues related to failed community policing in Columbia, SC, it is recommended that a series of dialogue take place between the police department and community members to address the concerns of former students, current students, and our K-12 scholars that watch the injustices spread through the media and may have other negative experiences of their own. It is time to have real conversations about race and some of the negative psychological effects of racism that can be triggered by events such as the one that took place this weekend.