Where are you from?

Feb. 28, 2017, 12:14 a.m.

On Friday, Feb. 24, a Stanford police officer pulled me over on my bike on Serra Street in front of Memorial Auditorium. My department is split between the auditorium and Roble Gym, two buildings on opposite sides of campus, and I often have to rush on my bike from one building to another. On Friday, I was hurrying from a departmental event in Memorial Hall to meet a graduate student in Roble Gym.  I ran a stop sign, and seconds later, a Stanford Police SUV showed up behind me, with a police officer asking me to stop, using a car-mounted megaphone. I stopped, and, as he was exiting his car, the officer yelled at me to come closer, which I dutifully did, and then asked me if I noticed what just happened. I said I did, and his next question floored me. In an aggravated voice, Sgt. Adam Cullen blurted into my face: “Where are you from?” I cringed at the thought of how Sgt. Cullen would come across to my non-American born students, colleagues and staff members who not only don’t sound like him, but who also don’t look like him.

Some three years ago, I made the same traffic violation, and my experience with Stanford Police was completely different. As on Friday, I knew what I did and made no complaints; unlike on Friday, the police officer was respectful and above all professional. He issued me a ticket and a Bike Safety Class info, warned me to be careful for my own safety and the safety of others, and then we went on our ways. No yelling or asking where I was from. Since then, I brought up this incident several times in my introductory seminar “Law and Drama” as an illustration of the fundamental purpose of the law to mediate between a citizen and the community. What am I to say about my encounter with Sgt. Cullen? In the meantime, did the fundamental purpose of the law change from mediation to ethnic and national identification and segregation?

In my academic discipline, the classic example of subject formation involves these kinds of encounters with cops. Coming from the place of the law, the simple address “Hey you!” makes the subject stop in her rails and recognize herself in the image that the law projects onto her. We are not only what we feel we are; we are summoned into our identities by a regulatory power. In the academese, this process has a fancy name: performative interpellation. Interpellation, because it is a call to which one is compelled to respond; performative, because this response generates, to a considerable degree, the respondent’s subjectivity. What am I to make of the performative interpellation that the police officer issued to me on Friday afternoon? If his initial address to me was, more or less, “hey you,” the one that followed my response tried to pin me down as who I am, and not for what I did or didn’t do.

Lack of appropriate training and personal manners aside, Sgt. Cullen’s question indicates the downside of the dream of an apolitical university. If we remove politics from Stanford e-mails and news media, it will surely come back in other, much more inappropriate and potentially violent forms. The purpose of an open discussion is for the members of the community to exchange ideas and educate one another in the process. My experiences on Friday suggest that some members of Stanford Police have gaps in their education about the community they are policing and for what purpose. I’d be more than happy to invite any of them to visit my introductory seminar when I offer it next time. As in the past, I will bring the positive example of the police that mediates instead of persecuting. When it doesn’t mediate, the law excludes. When it does that on the basis of how subjects appear, the community reaches the very limit of democracy.


—Branislav Jakovljević
Associate Professor, Chair
Department of Theater and Performance Studies


Contact Branislav Jakovljević at bjakov ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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