Situational Awareness

This morning I was taking notes on my laptop as an officer from the NYPD counter terrorism department’s SHIELD unit gave a room full of academic staff ‘active shooter’ training. As the first video was rolling, he walked over and stood behind me to see what I was typing and almost inaudibly asked the young man from IT who was sitting behind me what I was up to. “She’s taking notes,” he whispered back, loud enough for me to hear. My first instinct was to think that maybe buying a bright red laptop was a bad idea, followed quickly by a wish that I had had enough time before the session to run to my office to drop off my stuff and pick up a notebook. My heart was pounding loudly; this person had taken over my safe space rendering it anxious and forced my body to feel defensive when all I had been doing was taking notes. I did not flinch or acknowledge his existence as he paced around me. Even though I like to pretend it does not matter, I know that it was not the red laptop that was the trigger for his suspicion, but rather my hijab. I watched the screen as Derrick O’Dell told us what he did in 2007 during the Virginia Tech mass shooting. I thought of the many students I taught. I thought of the kids in the neighborhood schools. I thought of my young daughter. I thought about what I could do to make it past an ‘active shooter’, and I realized I would have to have a second plan in place as well: how to make it past law enforcement without them thinking it was me.

There is a violent ambiguity that frames these discourses, training, and analysis about how to prepare for a scenario in which one is confronted by a person on a mission to get a high body count. According to the Department of Homeland Security, an “Active Shooter” is defined as an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area. I thought of Orlando. They cannot tell you exactly what to do but through these training sessions, they give you some idea of what to expect, and make some recommendations. Based on the accounts of the survivors, the ‘shooters’ are not really interested in negotiation, but rather to just methodically kill people. This is not always the case (and if you are interested, you should check out the NYPD publication). As I was listening to the statistics about the shooters, the names and categories of guns, and tests of what sorts of things might prevent the bullet from getting to you (filing cabinets are the best officer furniture: cubicle partitions, not so much), I noticed how each one of the sounds was unique.

One of my favorite reads on the topic of ‘gun sounds’ is work done by Lawrence Abu Hamdan. In one of his recent works, How Can I Forget, he writes about the use of Glide — the app that unintentionally recorded the sounds of the shots that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. The use of the real-time video texting service app was intended to record the person saying something else, but as the sound of bullets permeated the articulation of words being recorded, their sound became witness to the crime. There is a moment in which desire and violence overlap, intermingle and intimate, and it is one of the more poignant moments in American sonic history that so clearly defines America’s relationship to Black History.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement a group of concerned faculty, students and staff curated and hosted a series of talks, films, readings, and conversations on our campus, which culminated in a two day teach in for Black Lives Matter (for an up to date listing of sources on BLM + Anthro, see the most recent Around the Web Digest, posted by E. Chong).  And so for the past year, we had uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege, we built bridges, we found collaborators, we identified issues that students, faculty and staff were facing, and we drew up demands. And there was some backlash — even at a private. progressive art school in Brooklyn, there was backlash and micro aggression that manifest itself in the strangest places. But for the most part, there was support and the demands we made to the administration are being taken seriously. However, it was the public backlash and vague threats that we received that made some of the faculty/staff from the BLMPratt leadership (myself included) decide to attend this training.

The most important notes from the training were to work in groups (that is, if you are confronted with an active shooter and you have no other option to escape – work collaboratively to take the person down), and secondly, and most crucial to the survival was ‘situational awareness’. Mired in issues of contemporary American masculinity, one of the best cliff notes version of how to understand situational awareness is on the blog, The Art of Manliness (incidentally, they also have a good posting on how to roll up your shirt sleeves –  a good skill for archaeological field work). In my mind, situational awareness is something we, as anthropologists, are already trained (disciplined, if you will) to do and often, especially in moments of trauma or panic, we immediately turn to our own muscle memory, i.e. observation as thick description, a running narrative in our head. I know that in my own experience, spaces of trauma have brought out the archaeologist/anthropologist in me like no conference ever has. Situation awareness, in my mind, is not only an issue of physicality and knowing where you are, where the exits are, etc – but it’s also knowing the context, the histories of conflict or collaboration, etc. For those of us who have worked on collaborative projects, it might be easier to envision what an organic collaborative environment might look like and how it can be activated if needed – or maybe that is one of my take-away comforts from the training.

The recommendations that the officer provided for schools generally, was to install more security, more surveillance, to have us report on each other, bio metrics, more gates, and other ways to protect ourselves. Engendering more fear and suspicion on our campus does not sound like a good idea and impacts all creative and critical thinking. And certainly, bringing more guns onto campus, in my mind, is not going to solve this problem (although there are reports of spikes in gun application requests for concealed weapons in Orlando after the shooting). I urged our staff to keep in mind that reporting based on suspicion leads itself to, more often than not, rely upon stereotypes and racial profiling.

I do worry about an active shooter coming on to campus. In a post-Columbine world, I do worry about young children in school. However, based on research published by Borum et al in the article, What Can be Done About School Shootings? A Review of the Evidence, the year of the Columbine shooting, 17 students were killed at school, but over 2500 young people (ages 5-19) were murdered outside of school, and more than 9700 were killed in accidents (Borum et al 2010: 27). So where does that leave me and my desire to protect my students? The likelihood of my students being killed outside the classroom is higher than them dying in my classroom. And what of my students of color, in particular, my black students?

I can assure you, there is nothing more ironic (and yet fully American in that contradiction) than having NYPD explain to you how to protect yourself against someone who might come in to shoot you for talking about police violence against unarmed black bodies.

I might not have flinched while the officer was walking around me, but I knew that my publications, tenure, or even my PhD was not what he was looking at or concerned with. I knew that I would have to prove my innocence and my right to be in that room before he let his guard down. It was only once the Director of our Security department spoke to me in a familiar and relaxed manner, that the officers hand stopped its slow pendulum movement of instinctively reaching around his badge on his belt to the right, revealing both the over reliance on his right hand and the location of his concealed weapon.

There is something in the ways in which we have been trained in Anthropology that mirror some epistemic relationship with the military. It is most clear in these moments.

Dedicated to Joan Gero (1944-2016).


Uzma Z. Rizvi

Uzma Z. Rizvi is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at The Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY. She is also a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah.