Challenging the Checkpoint

I arrived back on campus from January Term expecting the same inconvenience that had, over the last semester, become an institution. To my horror, and ...

Feb 7, 2015

I arrived back on campus from January Term expecting the same inconvenience that had, over the last semester, become an institution. To my horror, and I say this with only the slightest exaggeration, the checkpoint was not only still there as I assumed it would be, but had been upgraded. What had once been a haphazardly thrown together collection of plastic chairs, cones, a table and an umbrella, had become solidified and made permanent in the most literal way. The new and improved checkpoint 2.0 has a guardhouse, jersey barriers and an electric gate-arm. While I am certainly not against the guards stationed there having a more comfortable work environment, the institutionalization of the checkpoint forces our community to reevaluate some of its core values — especially those regarding inclusion.
The main argument for the presence of the checkpoint seems to be security. It is possible that the checkpoint exists to protect the community either from a large-scale attack or something like petty crime. Yet both of these justifications are completely absurd given how the checkpoint operates and the resources it has. Crime prevention seems like an unlikely explanation and an excessive measure in a city noted for its safety. Similarly, the idea that unarmed guards could prevent a coordinated terrorist attack or any determined attempt at causing harm to the university and its inhabitants is ludicrous.
The checkpoint’s procedures make the idea that it could have any serious purpose increasingly laughable. One could easily hold up any purple piece of plastic; the inspection of IDs is hardly intense. Furthermore, there is a wide variety of unconfirmed, entertaining anecdotes about students and faculty being allowed entrance by claiming they were visiting themselves, imaginary students or, in one of the best versions of this story, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
If the checkpoint has no functional purpose, then we must examine its costs beyond the mere annoyance of being stopped routinely and having to present ID — another problem present throughout the campus. The Saadiyat campus was advertised and presented to the university community as being an open one. The idea was essentially the physical manifestation of a liberal arts college transported to the UAE, the typical descriptor for NYU Abu Dhabi. This would be a campus where anyone from the larger community could come to enjoy the available public spaces, attend events or visit the gallery; the campus would, even though physically separated from the heart of Abu Dhabi, be an integrated part of the larger community.
The current checkpoint directly contradicts this and proves that open, in the eyes of the administration, is a flexible term, and that the campus is more open for certain types of people deemed desirable by the university or its cabals. Who, if anyone, gets turned away from the checkpoint? Who is denied entry to the university? Who constitutes the public that has access to the campus?
Last semester, when the checkpoint was still in its nascent stages of development, I arrived one day to the campus by taxi. As we approached the checkpoint and got in line behind two other cars, the driver turned to me and cracked a joke, asking why we were crossing a border if we were still in the UAE. This anecdote only points to the fact that even if the campus is still open, even if people are not being turned away, the unnecessary checkpoint encapsulates in physical form the imagined barrier between university and larger community. It is a symbol that deters entrance. We should be striving to be in and of the amazing, diverse capital that my current mailing address says we live in, instead of styling ourselves, intentionally or not, as an elite citadel with distinct privileges, disinterested in and rudely antagonistic to the city surrounding us. It is possible to speak of a plethora of different Abu Dhabis, communities that are bound by the same geography but rarely interact; we either have to do what we can to prevent the university from becoming another one of these separate communities — one with an elitist tinge that other Abu Dhabis, although not all, lack — or accept that our alleged values differ drastically from our actions.
Sam Ball is opinion editor. Email him at 
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