Mystery Object #5: Totem of Emergency Protection +1

Totem of Emergency Protection +1

Today while leaving campus, as I have each day for ten years, I noticed a new addition to the campus topography. Just at the south edge of campus, between two dorms, was a giant dark brown pole with a big blue light on top. Along the side of the pole, written in large letters was “Emergency & Information.” The pole is called a Code Blue Emergency phone and is one of the fine fear abatement products produced by a company appropriately named Code Blue.

Of course, as an anthropologist who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, I think that I will call it an Totem of Emergency Protection +1.

I refer to it as a totem, because in many ways it is a sacred object—an emblem—of our community. It represents a narrative about who we are and how we relate to the world around us. It will remind me every day how disconnected—despite marketing to the contrary—universities can be from the communities in which they exist. Most importantly it  it will also remind me how fearful some people can be of unfamiliar urban neighborhoods.

Of course, since I happen to live in the neighborhood that generates such fear, I also find it offensive on many levels.

Let me explain.

These days it is popular for universities to not be content with simply learning—but to extoll the virtues of  engagement with the world beyond the university. (Often folks will refer to this as the “real world” as if the things learned in the classroom are mythological, the work students do not real, and the loans and expenses they incur somehow fake.) At most schools these “opportunities” include internships, volunteering and service. Universities need to be very vigilant that these activities are not simply  opportunities for companies to exploit free student labor and for universities to give students “feel-good” experiences unconnected to campus intellectual work.

It is fascinating that while the virtues of community engagement may make for bright, shiny marketing and fundrasing materials, these messages are often directly at odds with the architecture, physical management, and policing of campuses. Marketing says “welcome, we are a community,” but space-planning walls off campus from the surrounding community—symbolically warning students of the unknown dangers of the nearby neighborhood.

In the case of my campus, over the past five years new construction and plantings have increasingly removed open spaces in favor of narrow accesses. What used to be a very open campus—directly connecting to the neighborhood—is increasingly starting to look like a walled garden with the campus on the inside and the neighborhood on the outside.

Of course, today as I walked between the two dorms on my way home, I didn’t miss the fact that one of the architectural gateways is now policed by the Emergency Totem of Protection +1. It stands there warning students that they are entering a threatening area—and reassuring them with the serene blue light of Justice.

“The Blue Light of Justice”

I am sure that at this point, at least one person reading this is thinking that I am criticizing a legitimate tool in crime prevention. Actually I am not. I am criticizing an empty, useless, offensive waste of money. You see, these call boxes don’t really work. I mean, sure they work to make some kind of call, but they don’t work as a communication device in the event of an emergency. If there were a real emergency, wouldn’t people who have cell phones simply call the police? A good article about these code blue phones suggests that they don’t deter crime and that children and drunks use them the most.

Nope, these phones aren’t about reality. They are about symbolism and magic. For some their cool blue light signals safety from the unknown—they are spiritual warding talismans marking the edge of civilized space, warning students of the urban neighborhood beyond. Of course, for people like me and many of my colleagues and neighbors who actually live in the neighborhood just blocks away, they are reminders of fear that I find offensive. They tell me that despite words to the contrary, the university communicates messages to its students that the environment in which we live—the place we call home—is unsafe.

How do I know this? I have never seen one of these totems in a suburb. If they really were about reporting legitimate crime, I can think of a few wild bars in Lakeville that could use one in the parking lot.

To me the blue light simply communicates fear. This is not the best message to send to your neighbors.

So, up until now I have been talking in ideas, not numbers. Some people, however, are only concerned with cashmoney—the economic argument. While I can’t find a price on the manufacturer’s website, according to the article I mentioned above, the Code Blue Phones cost $6,000 each and $3,000-$5,000 to install. Today I counted at least three newly-installed totems.

By comparison, the amount it costs to install just one is easily as much as the annual discretionary budget for a small university department. It could fund a dozen student-faculty collaborative grants or at least eighteen faculty to present at academic conferences.


“Push for Help”

So, we have expensive magical objects that communicate confusing and ambivalent messages—reminding passersby to be afraid while simultaneously sending visual cues intended to reassure.

I have a hunch we might also have something else. At a time when university budgets all over the U.S. are tight—and academic programs are looking to cut back—spending spending extra resources to purchase designer “safety equipment” from third party corporations can hardly be justified. With student debt burdens at an all time high, the money to fund such purchases must be made available by the low cost of government-backed debt. In other words, might it be possible to think of the Totem of Emergency Protection +1 as an example of something that exists because of student-funded, government-backed corporate welfare?

Of course, in bringing up this example I don’t mean to single out my own university. I am fairly confident that some of these observations apply to other universities located in urban areas.

The great irony is that while people unfamiliar with urban living are afraid, most American cities have never been safer! A brief glance at local police statistics indicates that my university neighborhood is as safe as it has ever been—with a majority of crimes being minor thefts. No doubt violent crimes, like most anywhere in the US, are usually perpetrated by known assailants. (I have made a few inquiries to confirm this, and will update this page when I get a response.) Regardless, neither of these kinds of crime have anything to do with the blue-lit telephone logic.

So why is everyone so afraid? And why are they spending so much money for magical protection in a wonderfully diverse neighborhood filled with families, kids, retirees, and regular folks? People move into our neighborhood for the friendly neighbors, public art, convenient transportation, libraries and parks. Maybe folks who misunderstand this should come join a neighborhood breakfast on the boulevard.

Or, maybe every neighborhood resident should install a radiant blue totem in their own front yard and then dig in their closets for their twenty-sided dice. After all, we will all enjoy a +1 protection bonus.

“Two blocks south of the Totem of Emergency Protection +1”


  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    I’m very surprised that they installed more of the totems. I’ve always thought that our cell phone culture would make those go away, but I really appreciate your point about their (unfortunate) symbolism. I wonder who makes the decisions to install those. Safety and Security? The physical plant? Originally I would have guessed one of those two, but you now have me wondering if it’s higher than that in the org chart (which is 200 pages long, by the way – I recently had one delivered to me for a committee I’m on).


    • I think the fact that they still install these *in spite* of the ubiquity of cell phones supports my point. They are magical symbols of fear and protection. And, expensive ones at that! As for who decides these things—my wild hunch is that it would be a paid outside consultant. I also imagine that it is the result of “best practices” that have not been reflected upon.


  2. Christie

    I think the most serious question is: do they reduce crime? If, for example, they make people feel safer, but do not make them safer, then these totems would qualify as reckless endangerment.


      • Ah ha! Why am I not surprised? Of course, I suppose it would be a mistake to assume that the parents your friend mentioned are all parents. I imagine they must be parents who have certain assumptions about living in an urban area. It certainly the parents who live in this neighborhood would have no need for such protection magic.


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