No You Can’t Go Through My Purse

I am not a social butterfly by any means, but part of the reason I moved to Madison is because I wanted more opportunities to enjoy myself in different ways. I know that in college towns there are an abundance of free events. For instance, Madison has lots of free events, especially summer festivals where families are likely to go. (I actually just go for free music and people watching because I can’t afford to eat at these festivals, but that’s a different story.) I can go to bars and hear a local band play for tips and Madison does indeed have a great local music scene. I can also take to one of the many biking trails and go for a walk when I just need to be inside.

However, sometimes I do take a chance and go to various outings like the summer festivals even though I know there will be lots of people there I don’t want to have any contact with. The chance to enjoy a live band is what drew me to the annual Dane Dances event that happens every August. I went for the first two weeks, but decided not to go last week. The reason: the security guards there think I’m going to let them go through my purse, but they are sadly mistaken. A bag check I might have consented to, but I wouldn’t even let my man go through my purse.

I thought about it and realized Dane Dances is the only event I’ve been to here that includes such policing of people in a public space. The only exception I’ve seen is the Secret Service detail that came when the President visited for a speech. I can understand having to go through a thorough security checkpoint for this event, but why do I have to subjugate myself to a search when I am simply going somewhere to enjoy myself.

This is what I noticed about Dane Dances: not only is it organized primarily by African Americans, but it also draws more African Americans and other people of color than I have seen at other events here. Many of the whites who attend are in mixed families or have adopted children of color with them. With so many black and brown folks in one place, something is bound to happen, right?

Madison is an overwhelmingly “liberal” city, yet I still see some of the same issues with racism and anti-blackness that I would find in my old home in Tennessee. For instance, a bar called The Frequency recently decided it would no longer host “hip-hop” acts because of incidents of violence as if these are the only acts in which violent incidents occur when mixing alcohol with jackholes.

What angered me is that Dane Dances is the only event I have seen that merits this kind of security check. The only other time I have been policed about where I went was getting carded at a bar, but that made sense. There are laws against underage drinking. There are no laws about going to an open terrace on Friday night to have a nice night out. Exactly what type of trouble are these people expecting that it would afford preemptive measures that are not taken at any other events in town?

This policing of a large group of black and brown bodies is nothing new. Anyone with a good grasp of history can talk about night club raids during the 20th century. Tricia Rose wrote about this in her still relevant book Black Noise in which patrons at a rap concert are subjected (and used) to searches of their bodies and their possessions. Rose recalls that the guard who searched her purse came up with a nail file and looked at her accusingly as if she intended to use it as a weapon.

I decided not to go to Dane Dances last week when I realized my discomfort around a large group of strangers was not the only reason I did not enjoy the event as much as I wanted. Just knowing that there are figures around watching me as if I had criminal intent put a damper on the evening for me. Security guards patrolling the grounds is one thing, but strangers in uniforms putting their hands all over my possessions does not make me feel safer, just violated. Black and brown people put on a perfectly nice event, but the bag searches are a bit too Big Brother for me.

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