A group of student activists sought to remind passersby of the second anniversary of the release of photos depicting U.S. military personnel abuse of inmates in Iraq’s Abu Gharib prison.
“Torture should be a thing of the past,” said William M. Skinner ’09, one of the demonstrators. “[Protests like these] don’t confront [passersby] or make them angry, but it does jolt them.”
Many students who passed by said they were, in fact, taken aback.
“Of all the [demonstrations] I’ve seen at Harvard, this is definitely the most disturbing,” said Nicko F. Fretes ’09.
While he did add that “it would be helpful if they could tell us what to do” about torture, he said that “it definitely shakes you to walk out of the Science Center and see this.”
“The dark clothes were really frightening,” said Candice N. Plotkin ’06, who was at the time distributing flyers for an arts event in the highly trafficked area. “They reminded me about a lot of the horrors I had forgotten.”
Students on the whole commended the protesters for their actions.
“I just feel that it is a very brave thing to do for them,” said Borna E. Dabiri ’07, a passerby. “It’s nice to see a tangible effort to bring attention to [torture]....It takes a lot of guts to do this.”
The demonstration was a joint effort between the Harvard Law School Student Advocates for Human Rights and the Alliance for Justice in the Middle East.
Deborah A. Popowski, a student at Harvard Law School (HLS) and co-coordinator of the protest, identified two main goals of the demonstration: “to call for accountability up the chain of command for abuse of detainees in custody” and to call attention to the issue of torture.
“Everyone has a responsibility to stay abreast of what is going on and to speak out when they don’t agree with it,” Popowski said.
The number of participants grew as the protest continued, reaching its peak of 30 from an opening contingent of three as both late-arrivers and spontaneous demonstrators took part.
Elizabeth B. Hadaway ’09, informed of the protest through a message sent across the Harvard Darfur Action Group e-mail list, was one of those taking part. “Because it’s the anniversary, this is a good moment to solemnly take a stand,” Hadaway said. “I feel like something should be done, and at least I’m doing this.”
“There was lots of positive feedback. I think a lot of people were surprised and confused in the moment,” wrote HLS student Fernando R. Delgado, another co-coordinator of the protest, in an e-mail. “We had a handful of negative reactions, one of which was just disrespectful. Overall though, we thought the reactions were good.”
Friday’s event took inspiration from a January visit to Georgetown by U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez that was met by several protesting students donning the Abu Gharib garb.
Those witnessing the demonstration were invited to add their names to a contact list that provides information about upcoming anti-torture events.
“The role of students has historically been important,” Delgado said.
“There’s a chance for Harvard to be a leader in political debate, even at the student level,” he added. “[Students] owe it to themselves to get into the debate.”