Playing by the Rules

FOR THE FIRST TIME in a decade, Harvard University arrested political protesters. While the arrests last Friday elicited little comment from Harvard officials, they marked a significant change in Harvard's response to political protest. From the blockade of a South African diplomat at Lowell House in the spring of 1985 to the disruption of an alumni dinner at the 350th celebration this fall, the University has drawn criticism--from both supporters and opponents--for its ambiguous response to demonstrators. Harvard administrators have tried whenever possible to minimize dissent instead of risking publicity by confronting it either in word or in deed. But by avoiding confrontation the University has subverted the role and purpose of civilly disobedient protest.

While sit-ins and blockades at campuses across the country have been met with arrests--and occasionally with negotiation and compromise--Harvard has ignored blockades, sit-ins and shantytowns and has responded after the fact with protracted disciplinary actions of questionable fairness and legitimacy. The decision to arrest divestment activists, who were blockading a dinner for million-dollar contributers at the Fogg Art Museum, was welcome as an unambiguous and justified response to protesters who were trespassing and obstructing entrance to the Fogg--albeit for good reasons.

Nevertheless, the arrests highlighted the University's consistent refusal to enter into a serious dialogue with the Harvard community about its investment policies. Just last week President Bok and the corporation refused the requests of the Undergraduate Council, over two dozen other student groups and over 1100 students to hold an open meeting to discuss divestment. In this atmosphere members of the Harvard community who objected to the University's conduct on strong moral grounds felt compelled to undertake civil disobedience in response to the indifference of a closed bureaucracy.

Civilly disobedient demonstrators ought to be arrested. Not just because they break the law, but because they are owed the recognition and publicity that accompany formal sanctions. Civil disobedience is only justified when legal avenues of protest and dialogue have been exhausted; in such circumstances it becomes the only means for those without power to draw attention to their cause and to bring pressure on those in authority. Demonstrators need not only violate unjust laws. Protesters frequently violate minor and irrelevant statutes--by trespassing, for example, at the Pentagon or the South African Embassy or the federal building in Boston--in order to dramatize the spectacle of dissenters being arrested by those determined to maintain an immoral policy.

That sort of symbolism is precisely what the University has been trying to avoid. But as long as Harvard refuses to face up to its moral responsibilities by divesting completely from South Africa-related companies and as long as activists are willing to face the consequences of their acts of disobedience, such symbolism is appropriate and justified--and so are arrests.