Closed-Door Provocation

BLOCKADE

LAST WEDNESDAY, South African consul general for New York City Abe S. Hoppenstein attended an uneventful forum at the Kennedy School of Government. He came, he spoke, no one complained. The next day, this mid-level diplomat came to Lowell House to meet behind closed doors with members of the Conservative Club.

While Hoppenstein--an unlikely villain at best--shared wine and cheese in the Lowell Junior Common Room, crowds outside grew larger and more hostile. When Harvard police refused to allow any people into the JCR, the group crammed into the small foyer separating the JCR from the Lowell House dining room. Harvard police, with Hoppenstein in low, finally burst through the crowd to take the diplomat to a waiting car.

When 12 students blocked Hoppenstein's getaway car, Harvard police rushed the diplomat back into the JCR. The disorganized throng outside then voted to barricade Hoppenstein in the room until midnight, causing Harvard police to enter panic mode and stage a military-style break through the protesters and assorted students heading to and from lunch.

Certainly, student threats to shut the bewildered diplomat in Lowell House till midnight were excessive and unnecessary, but no more so than the Conservative Club's initial invitation to Hoppenstein to come to a wine-and-cheese reception. In the midst of heightened tensions over Harvard's $580 million in South Africa-related investments, the Conservative Club's move amounted to little more than bald and cynical provocation.

The Club easily could have sponsored a forum open to those somewhat more ready than the Conservative Club to confront Hoppenstein with the brutal regime he represents. And if the group really intended to hold such an event for which admission would got need to be limited, it should have chosen a larger place.

INSTEAD, THE INVITATION served as additional salt in the wounds of anti-apartheid activists. The reception recalled a similar recent episode when a Black Law School group invited a PLO representative to a meeting where Jewish students were not allowed to ask questions. Jewish groups were enraged then; the anti-apartheid protesters had every right to be enraged last week. The subsequent police action--which came after no warning to the students--only confirmed for Harvard's doubters that the University is unprepared to deal with them in good faith.

University administrators and Conservative Club members have mistakenly tried to turn Thursday's events into yet another debate on the Constitution and freedom of speech. Freedom of speech concerns are involved here--to some extent. But it is equally important for all members of this community to operate in a way that does not increase tensions and encourage bad feeling. The Conservative Club, even though it has a Constitutional right to invite whomever it wishes, did not operate in good faith.

There is a broader point here. Political movements feed on opposition. That is why Harvard's spring calendar is not marked by demonstrations against the Soviet Union and cuts in educational aid. Movements gain momentum when their opponents do not act in good faith. And when the University, for any cause, uses forces against its own students without warning, they only confirm for those students the rightness of their cause.

IN A PERFECT WORLD, we would condemn the Lowell House blockade as an unproductive move that diverted attention from South Africa and Harvard's investment policies. But in the context of the day's events, including both the provocation of the protestors and the substandard behavior by the police, the vote to blockade was not unreasonable.