Black Students Criticize Harvard Police

Harassment by University Cops Is Fact of Campus Life, Black Undergrads Say

Shakti Floyd '94 says that during his first night at Harvard three years ago, University police stopped him as he left a Yard dorm.

Since then, Floyd has been stopped by police on two other occasions: once as he rapped in the Yard and another time as he waited for the Harvard shuttle bus.

In all three cases, Floyd says he wasn't doing anything wrong. The only thing that drew the police to him, he charges, is the fact that he is Black.

Black students, in fact, say it is commonplace for officers of the Harvard Police Department to detain them as they make their way around campus.

"There is a serious problem with regards to how some members of the police department treat black students on this campus," says Zaheer R. Ali '94, former president of the Black Students Association (BSA).

The worst part about the alleged police mistreatment, Ali and other students say, is that many Black undergraduates have come to accept such treatment as a fact of life on campus.

"What is sad about it is that at this point, after seeing repeated incidents, it is almost as if you [are] becoming cold to it," says Luis R. Rodriquez '94, adding that he, too, has been stopped by Harvard police.

Allegations of police harassment have been a regular feature of campus life throughout Police Chief Paul E. Johnson's ten-year tenure (please see graphic, above).

Whenever he has been faced with allegations of racially-motivated harassment, like the charges leveled last week by Inati Ntshanga '95, Johnson has responded in basically the same way. The chief recognizes the need for sensitivity in the police force, but without exception he defends his officers.

In the case of Ntshanga, Johnson and other University officials say police were following proper procedure in December 1992 when they arrested the student in the Matthews Hall linen office while he worked for Harvard Students Agencies.

University Attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr., who investigated the case for Harvard, says officers were right to arrest Ntshanga because he could

not, and would not, identify himself.

Ntshanga disputes this, saying he told policehe was a student and suggested that they call hisHSA managers. Nevertheless, he was charged withbreaking and entering, trespassing and use of aburglary tool-his keys to the linen room, Ntshangawas later acquitted of all charges.

Specifics aside, Ntshanga's allegations haverenewed concerns about how the Harvard police areBlack students.

"That is nothing new by Harvard. They alwaysdetain Harvard students and people in thecommunity," says former State Representative andCambridge City Councilor Saundra Graham. "Theyknow what they do and they continue to it."

Graham says attempts have been made to educatethe Harvard police for more than a decade, andthey have failed.

Graham says police treatment of Black studentswill only improve if Harvard is punished. Sheurges Ntshanga to file a complaint against Harvardwith the Massachusetts Coalition AgainstDiscrimination.

But students, she says, do not seem willing totake punitive measures against their University.

Ali agrees, saying many Black students tend todecide, "Fine, I'll ride on the back of the busagain. Fine, I'll go find another bathroom."

But Ali warns, and recent history bears himout: "Sometimes it builds to a boiling point."

'The Harvard Plantation'

Tensions between students and Harvard policereached just such a boiling point" in April of1992.

During the month, the BSA door-dropped anewsletter called "The Harvard Plantation," whichdescribed four cases of students allegedly beingharassed by police.

In interviews with The Crimson at the time, thestudents and the police officers gave similaraccounts of the incidents, but they disagreed asto whether racial harassment had occurred.

Johnson forcefully denied the students'charges.

"I felt the need to address the specificcharges made by the BSA," Johnson told The Crimsonat the time. "There are glaring misstatements inthe flyer-errors of fact."

Both Rodriquez and Raymond Joseph '94 wereinvolved in one of the incidents described in the"Plantation," flyer. The two students were walkingwith a group of friends near Hollis Hall when theywere stopped by police because, officers said,they were yelling loudly. Rodriquez and Joseph saythey were rapping, and not disturbing the peace.

Joseph stops short of calling police behaviorin the matter racist. But he says officers wereout of line because they accused the studentswithout evidence.

In another incident, a University securityguard ignored the cries of two Black women afterfive half-clothed white men made sexuallyharassing comments and gestures at them outsideClaverly Hall, alleges Ali, who was then BSApresident.

But Robert J. Dowling, who manages theHarvard's security guard force, responded that theguard "didn't think anything was wrong. It was notbecause they were Black."

Ali says the BSA pressed Harvard administratorsto investigate. No probe ensued, but Johnsonagreed to a meeting with the BSA.

At the time of the meetings, a College officialsuggested that a liaison between police andstudents be appointed, but that recommendationnever materialized. Instead, the administrationproduced a videotape which featured skits andconversations to serve as a guide for properpolice-student interaction.

Ali says he thought relations had improvedafter the making of the videotape. But heexpressed surprise at learning that the Ntshangaarrest took place in December 1992-just a fewmonths, after police had promised to be moresensitive in race-related cases.

"There is a lag time, but it still reveals thatfor something like this to happen in December1992, the same year of the L.A. uprising, the sameyear of the 'Harvard Plantation,' the same yearwhen you had members of the police affirming totreat students just surprises me thatthey would still act in this fashion in thatcontext."


Ali says he troubled by the University'stendency to protect the police when studentscomplain of harassment.

"I am further disturbed by the seeming aboutprotecting the police." Ali says.

That may be why students like George Fatheree'97 and David Brown '97, who each say they havebeen harassed by police this semester, don't taketheir complaints to the University.

Epps says he is working to improve thesituation. The dean and the BSA have organized aforum at the Institute of Politics of April 20 todiscuss tensions between Black students andpolice.

But Harvard's history of dealing withharassment allegations just dosen't inspire muchconfidence in Black students.

"It seemed like everyone had a story," Ali saysof the dozens of student complaints he has heard."Everyone had something where they felt they werebeing mistreated because they were Black andHispanic.