Officials at the University of Houston walked back a policy requesting that theater students wear neon vests after a campus police officer pulled a gun on a Black theater student rehearsing a dramatic scene on campus.
The campus police were responding to a 911 call on Nov. 4 of last year. The caller claimed that a Black man with a knife was assaulting a woman on a loading dock behind a building next to the School of Theatre & Dance.
The student, identified as Domonique Champion, was actually holding a piece of white paper from his script. The students were rehearsing a scene from “A Lie of the Mind” by Sam Shepard.
The police officer reportedly drew his gun in a “low-ready position” and “aimed his weapon in their general direction” while commanding Champion and the other student to show their hands and get down on the ground.
The Texas Tribune reported that the students followed the commands as they shouted that they were rehearsing a scene from a play. Both students were crying and shaking after the officer holstered his weapon while explaining they’d received a 911 call about an assault.
Champion recalled the terrifying encounter at a town hall meeting following the incident and said he did not feel safe until he heard the voice of a Black officer.
“I’m terrifyingly aware that the gun was meant for me. Because of angling, I knew it was meant for me,” said Champion. “I need it known [that] it’s more than the gun. It’s the fact the gun was already out, yes… I need you to understand I did not feel safe moving until I heard the voice of a Black sergeant.”
Champion added that the police officer who pointed the gun at him made a joke afterward. “He said, ‘You should get an ‘A’ because you had us tricked.’”
The campus newspaper reported that Champion has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and suicidal ideation since the terrifying incident.
“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.”
The dean of Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, Andrew Davis, said the vests were suggested as a way to identify theater students while rehearsing in public spaces. McGovern added that the policy was rescinded earlier this week after students criticized the policy.
“Among other concerns, vests do not address the issue of providing our students safe and appropriate rehearsal spaces, especially for scenes involving purported criminal activity or violence,” said Davis. “Therefore, the School of Theatre and Dance has retracted this proposal and will not ask students to wear vests.”
Students argued that the neon vest policy put the burden of their safety on them instead of the campus police. The students also criticized the school for ignoring the effect of the traumatic incident on Black students. Some students received their vests in November, but others didn’t get theirs until last week.
University of Houston theater student Brandon Sanders received his vest last week and said he began to cry thinking about being asked to wear the vest as identification.
“We just woke up to the news of hashtag Tyre Nichols,” he said. “This could’ve been hashtag Domonique Champion. What if he didn’t put his hands down? What if it was me, a vocal Black boy who would’ve cussed them out if they pulled the guns out?”
Sanders was wearing a shirt that read, “I am not a threat” and added that a vest doesn’t change the color of his skin.
“A bright green vest will not change the color of my skin,” said Sanders to the school newspaper The Cougar. “I saw it as the utmost disrespect. These vests aren’t bulletproof. All they do is make me stand out.”