My senior year of college, I was a resident assistant for some run down on-campus apartments behind Frat Row. As an RA in the unsophisticated, clunky Leonardtown Community, my residents were all upperclassmen, most of whom weren’t lucky or rich enough to have their parents pay for them to live in new apartments with noble, British-y names like “The Commons” or “Courtyards.”
Instead, we rag tag Leonardtown residents roughed it in what was supposed to be temporary military housing, constructed in the 1970s by what I can only assume were underachieving Brutalist architects. The apartments, though shabby and decrepit, were never torn down because there was always enough demand for housing. And as dirtbag college students, let’s be real, you really don’t need much.
In Leonardtown, each apartment had a keylock door directly to the outside world—like a motel—that opened into an enormous common room with walls that looked and felt like a burlap sack. But the single and double rooms had a truly bizarre design flaw: Instead of extending to a full rectangle, these teeny tiny boxes had their corners cut off, like a bay window, only horrible. The result of the very heavy-handed “cut corners” metaphor is, of course, that it made the already confining rooms feel even smaller.
But it was fine. Totally fine. It didn’t stop us from sharing memories, movie nights, mononucleosis and other communicable infections, and a grimy kitchen. It was college. What else did we need?
All my residents were upperclassmen who had already adjusted to college and figured out that life—in Leonardtown and beyond—was rarely fair or glamorous.
We had learned the hard way that walking the McKeldin Mall would always be longer, May afternoons would always be hotter, November rains would always be wetter, and our backpacks would always be heavier than we expected. But that was just fine because at the end of the day, we came home to our weird ass rooms in our weird ass apartments with our weird ass roommates.
A few RAs on staff, however, didn’t share my same chill “live and let live” vibe. Some of these 21 year-old communications majors were on a power trip like you wouldn’t believe. They expected order, deference to their authority, and an unwavering adherence to quiet hours and the legal drinking age. These officious bozos seemed to enjoy being on duty and writing up incidents, as if being an RA was an extremely important post that signified more than just room and board perks.
The first was when some junior women, trying to fry donuts, accidentally started a fire that burned out their kitchen, set off the sprinklers, and flooded the apartment beneath them. Because the fire department had to come, there was property damage, and a dozen students had to temporarily move into a hotel, documentation was pretty necessary. Because it was, you know, an actual incident.
The front desk staff called and woke me up for a 2 A.M. complaint from a resident that her suitemates had been drinking. I grabbed my stupid clipboard and walkie talkie, and put on some slip-on shoes and walked over to the apartment. When the resident opened the door, I was taken aback. It was one of the other RAs on my staff.
“Is everything okay?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, incensed. “I don’t have time to deal with this. I just got back from studying, I have an exam tomorrow, and I just can’t take it anymore.”
“What seems to be the problem?” I asked, and she invited me into her apartment to show me the issue.
Now, for an RA to call the RA on duty at 2 A.M. for an incident in their own apartment, you’d have expected it to be something massive—maybe a nasty plumbing leak, a robbery, or finding out that your roommates have been operating a covert drug ring. Not tonight, folks.
Two empty Miller Lite cans, sitting respectfully at the bottom of a recycling bin. The rest of her apartment was dead silent.
“What exactly do you want me to do about this?” I asked, not seeing the big deal.
“My roommates are underage,” she said.
“Yeah, but since no one is currently drinking these, there’s no way to tell whether it was them, so we can’t just assume that it was underage drinking,” I replied, not bothering to cover up my dismissive tone.
“If you don’t write up this incident, I’ll have to write you up along with them!” she shouted at me.
I paused, rolled my eyes, and reluctantly knocked on the closed door of her suitemates’ double. After a few seconds, a young woman opened the door with the mussed hair and squinting eyes of someone who was fast asleep at 2:13 A.M. on a Wednesday night. She crossed her arms, maybe to convey her angry body language, or maybe as a means to get some privacy from a stranger while not wearing a bra.
“Did she call you?” she asked, gesturing at the other RA, her suitemate.
“Someone called about an underage drinking incident,” I said noncommittally.
“I know it was her,” she said.
I apologized to the sleeping roomies for disturbing them, concluded aloud to my RA coworker that there were no active violations, and went back to my apartment.
“What happened between you and Ayo last night?” she asked.
I explained my perspective plainly: There was no incident to respond to; my coworker was just being an authoritarian bulldozer. She had no reason to call me because—not only was no one actively drinking—everyone aside from my coworker was peacefully asleep when I arrived. I was disappointed in her lack of diplomacy and bad relationship with her roommates because it made everyone else on staff’s job harder. She cried wolf.
More importantly, her desire to strictly enforce rules and punish people was, in my opinion, likely to create more problems than it solved.
My boss said it wasn’t my place to undermine my coworker like that. That I owed it to my teammate to show some solidarity.
So I did. But the only person I named in it was my coworker, who I thought was the only person who should have been reprimanded for anything.
She didn’t care about helping her residents or roommates, which is the simplest way I could ever try to explain some kind of Resident Assistant Hippocratic Oath. To her, being an RA was about power and prestige, a position of authority that demanded respect and deference.
For her, being an RA had nothing to do with creating the safe, engaged community you read about in Resident Life brochures. It was about control, status, and resolving whatever Napoleonic power complex bullshit she brought with her to the unassuming Leonardtown Community.
Let me clear it up. Keep the walkie talkies, but add body cameras. Now swap out the pajama bottoms for blue uniforms. Instead of room and board, let’s sub in union contracts and pensions. Now, let’s add cars with lights and sirens. Ooh, and guns. So. Many. Guns. And now let’s add taglines like “To serve and protect” and nicknames like “New York’s Finest.”
I’m not so stupid as to think you can equate being an RA with being a police officer.
For starters, both police and RAs have inadequate training, the frustrating ability to make people’s lives miserable whenever they feel like it, wild unpopularity except with their families, and the misguided habit of using the expression, “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about!” (Why not try telling that to Breonna Taylor… right after we arrest the cops that murdered her.)
But perhaps the biggest problem is that both of these positions attract people who enjoy having power and authority over others. No, not every cop, and not every RA. But that oppressor’s mindset is sick and malevolent. And that evil part of human nature—as it metastasizes and becomes the culture of an organization— is a bigger problem than we can simply reform.
Both police and RAs would tell you that their mission and purpose is creating a “safe community.” But when we’re asleep in our beds and still can’t make it peacefully through the night, it requires that we ask the question: Safe from what? Safe from whom?