Ah, shit: Yale woman who called cops on napping black student is from Minnesota

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Sarah Braasch hasn't said anything publicly about the incident at Yale, but has previously had much to reveal about her troubled childhood in Minnesota. Facebook

Sarah Braasch hasn't spoken publicly, either in her defense or to express contrition, since calling the police on a black woman sleeping in a common area at Yale University in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Braasch, 43 and a grad student at Yale, did say a couple things about the incident at the time it happened. These were recorded by the black woman, Lolade Siyonbola, who took video of Braasch with her phone and later uploaded it to Facebook.

"I have every right to call the police," Braasch says. "You cannot sleep in that room." 

Braasch, aware she's being filmed, takes pictures of Siyonbola, who tells her: "Get my good side."

More than 800,000 people have watched this short, uncomfortable clip play out, and more than a million have seen one Siyonbola took of her interactions with campus police, who interviewed her for "about 15 minutes" after arriving at the scene, according to the Yale Daily News

As Braasch, police, and everyone has since learned, Siyonbola is also a graduate student at the Ivy League university. Yale police and administrators disagreed with Braasch's contention that she "has every right" to call them about a sleeping black woman: She was "admonished" by cops for calling them, and told her the "complaint was not a police matter."

Braasch was reportedly fiercely defensive of that common area. Just a couple months ago, Braasch blocked another black grad student from entering that same common room, apparently mistaking him for being not a student, but an intruder.

As the student left Braasch's floor, she told him he was making her "uncomfortable," and "didn't belong here," as he recalls. She also called campus police to report a "suspicious character." That suspicious character is named Jean-Louis Reneson, and he's set to graduate next year from the same graduate school Braasch attends.

Why's a Minneapolis news outlet diving into an ugly but faraway incident of campus racism? We come bearing bad news, readers: Sarah Braasch is one of us. 

Braasch's Yale biography page says she received not one, but two degrees from the University of Minnesota -- aerospace engineering and mechanical engineering -- and graduated summa cum laude in both. She was a recipient of an "Astronaut Scholarship Foundation" scholarship for three consecutive years in the mid-1990s.

Braasch later pursued a juris doctorate degree at Fordham University Law School, and was admitted to the New York state bar. Her Yale bio also notes Braasch's "secularism and women's rights advocacy." 

Some of that interest appears to be an outgrowth of Braasch's Minnesota upbringing. In two essays published online, both about secularism and atheism, Braasch writes about growing up a Jehovah's Witness here.

In one penned for the Freedom from Religion Foundation (which has since removed the essay from its website), Braasch writes about her confused feelings about Michael Jackson, denounced by leaders of her church, but beloved by her classmates. She writes:

"One day, I was the odd but accepted fixture of Lincoln Elementary School in White Bear Lake, Minn., and the next day I was the cool kid. Everyone was jealous of me. Not despite the fact that I was a Jehovah’s Witness, but, miraculously, because I was a Jehovah’s Witness. That was something new. I was supposed to denounce and disown Michael Jackson, but, suddenly, everyone wanted to know me and be near me, because Michael Jackson was also a Jehovah’s Witness. I remember little girls telling me, “You’re so lucky, because you’re a Jehovah’s Witness just like Michael Jackson.” All of the little girls in my grade had huge crushes on him.
I felt torn. I loved the attention and the admiration, but I was terrified of being attacked by demons if I strayed from the organization’s instructions. I strived to achieve both aims. I milked the association for all it was worth and denounced his worldly ways at the same time. I convinced myself that I was doing this in order to proselytize to as many of my classmates as possible."

Braasch writes of another Jehovah's Witness she knew, one who would later reveal a secret obsession with Michael Jackson, whose family moved into a mobile home to devote more time and attention to converting the unsaved. When the girl moved away from Braasch's neighborhood, the family "gave us their dog, Yickey (some kind of weird Swedish name — only in Minnesota)," she writes; apparently, even a pet was too much of a distraction from their devotion.

Though Braasch eventually grew out of her religious upbringing, her parents didn't, or at least hadn't when the essay published in 2009. "My mother is still married to my father, " Braasch wrote. "They still live together. I haven’t spoken to either of them in nearly 20 years." The full essay can still be read on the Internet Archive.

In a later essay, Braasch describes growing up in an "abusive Jehovah's Witness home," with her parents telling the children they were "constantly under threat of demonic attack," and warning "Armageddon" could "befall us at any moment." The "theater of horrors was exacerbated and intensified by my father's abuse," writes Braasch, who says she took her father to court as a teenager to file a restraining order, and win financial independence.

This sheltered and tumultuous childhood left Braasch ill-prepared for campus life at the University of Minnesota, by her own admission. She writes:

"I was socially retarded. I was completely alone. I felt totally disconnected from the university community. Interpersonal interactions were difficult and uncomfortable for me. I had trouble making eye contact. And, I thought demons were stalking me."

During school breaks, as classmates returned home to their families, Braasch spent hour after hour in the lobby -- the very same sort of common area she's been so protective of at Yale -- "watching TV and chatting with the overnight security guards." Braasch says she "presented as normal a face" to other students as possible, and sought out "other outsiders," like a "goth transvestite" and a "Jamaican bisexual dancer."

She completed both engineering degrees in just five years, by age 22, according to that essay, and decided to push on in search of yet more academic achievement.

"I was racking up prizes and awards and scholarships and fellowships and internships and whatever other honors I could get my hands on," Braasch writes. "I wanted medals and certificates and esteem. Mostly esteem. I was fueled by rage and hatred. Hatred and rage."

This pursuit led Braasch to Berkeley, where she says she suffered a mental breakdown, coupled with suicidal thoughts. She left school, and writes at length about an attempt to act as a "savior" for her adult siblings, whom she convinced to move in with her in Los Angeles. The experiment went poorly, and Braasch says she eventually had to kick out her brother, whom she says suffered from schizophrenia.

Braasch says she and her siblings were victims, terrorized for years at the hands of their severely religious parents. She writes:

"I am not unintelligent. I am not crazy. I have two engineering degrees and a law degree. I have traveled the world. I am well educated and well read. I am a human rights activist. I am a writer. I am an adult survivor of childhood religious abuse. And so are you."

In an email to students about Braasch's calling police on a fellow student, Yale described it as a "deeply troubling" incident, and administrators have pledged to work toward a more inclusive campus culture. 

As for Braasch, individually, outraged fellow students and commentators have called for her to face some sort of discipline, even expulsion, for calling police on fellow students.

When Braasch wrote in 2010 that she'd been "disconnected from the university community" as an undergraduate in Minneapolis, she was recalling a time more than 20 years ago now. One imagines she feels much the same way this morning.


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