An after-hours food run proved harrowing for a Black Columbia University student who found himself pinned to a countertop after a violent encounter with police.
With the officers now gone, the university has offered its apologies for the racist incident.
Alexander McNab had just left his late night Afro-beats dance class near the Ivy League campus when the turmoil unfolded, The Washington Post reported. The 23-year-old college senior whipped out his phone to check a Facebook page where starving scholars can post and find free food.
The nearby Barnard College library, where Columbia students are welcome to study, was awash with party leftovers, so McNab headed there.
Recalling the events of that night, the student said he set off toward the free grub, crossing the street that divides the two college campuses. McNab sped up to catch the light before it changed, passing in front of a Barnard public safety van that was waiting to turn left.
He heard a voice call out from behind, “Hello, sir!” but didn’t think much of it as he hurried inside the library. The campus policy requiring students to show ID after 11 p.m. hadn’t crossed his mind, he admitted. McNab told the Post he had been stopped by Barnard officers and asked to show ID at least twice before, incidents he simply chalked up to racial profiling.
Once inside the library, McNab was greeted by smiling faces who offered him plates of food. With the green light to take as much as he wanted, he piled on scoops of rice and lamb.
Moments later, a pair of officers arrived. Then there were two more, then four more. The situation quickly escalated as the officers demanded to see McNab’s university-issued ID. That’s when witnesses said they grabbed the young man by his arms, shoving him into the countertop of the first-floor coffee shop before pinning him on his back.
A speechless Caroline Cutlip couldn’t believe what she was seeing and began recording the incident.
“The moment I saw him pinned back on the table, it was so reminiscent of police brutality things I’ve seen online,” Cutlip, a Barnard College student who’d posted about the free food, told the Post.
The college junior, who’s white, recalled thinking to herself: “I need to say something. I feel like I’m someone who can use my privilege to say something here. But I had no clue what to say. So I started filming.”
In the video shot by Cutlip, McNab is heard telling the officers to get off of him.
“You have no right to touch me!” McNab shouts. “Take your hands off me! You’re going to take your hands off me! Take your hands off me!”
The 23-year-old continues to protest as six campus officers pin him to the countertop, his fellow students watching in horror. At one point, an officer instructs McNab to “let’s walk outside,” but he refuses and instead produces his ID card.
“Let me show you my ID,” McNab tells officers, digging in his front pocket. “You want to see my ID? I am a Columbia University student. You see this? That’s me. This is the third time Barnard Public Safety has chased me down and you put your hands on me. I did not touch any of you. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”
A man, who appears to be the lead officer, then takes McNab’s ID and walks away, still ordering the young man outside to see if he’s an “active student.” McNab told the Post he was afraid his safety would be jeopardized if he left the building and instead chose to stay near witnesses.
“There’s never a good time for this to happen, but this weekend, I had all these things to do,” he told the newspaper, referencing homework and a looming thesis for his anthropology class.
McNab didn’t leave the library until after midnight. By the next morning, his phone was flooded with messages from concerned students who had seen the now-viral video.
Among them was Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock, who issued a statement Sunday calling the confrontation “unacceptable and antithetical” to the university’s values. She also confirmed that the six campus officers and supervisor involved have been placed on administrative leave.
“I sincerely apologize to the Columbia student involved and have reached out to him to better understand his experience on campus,” Beilock’s statement read, in part. “I also apologize to the students who witnessed it and were treated disrespectfully, and to all who have felt its impact.”
She continued: “The confrontation puts into stark relief what some members of the Barnard College community, particularly people of color, have been saying about their relationship with the Office of Public Safety and the lack of trust they have in it to keep them safe. We must ensure that public safety officers act equitably toward all and that the community trusts this will occur. That work is now underway, effective immediately. “
Columbia University officials also released their own statements addressing the incident, and several of McNab’s professors have reached out to show their support, The Washington Post reported.
Moving forward, Barnard College has promised to review how its public safety officers are trained to interact with students, saying its policies should be equally enforced regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity or expression.
The university has since hired an independent firm to investigate the April 11 incident.
Watch more in the video below.