UPDATED: September 28, 2017 at 5:37 p.m.
Sitting handcuffed in the back of a police wagon, Anouska Bhattacharyya heard the chatter of her colleagues. “They were saying, ‘Oh, that was your research? That was so interesting,’” she recalls with a laugh. “We are all such nerds.”
Bhattacharyya, a lecturer in History and Literature and an assistant coordinator in General Education, was one of 29 people arrested in an act of civil disobedience at Harvard two weeks ago. In protest of President Donald Trump’s decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation, faculty from six Boston-area colleges joined arms and chanted in the middle of Massachusetts Ave. until they were arrested by Cambridge police.
“There was the sense that somehow in Harvard Yard, we were protected,” Bhattacharyya says. “When we walked out of the gates and across the road, and it was just us with our arms linked. There was a world witnessing it, and it was on us to stand up.”
Campus activism has a rich and well-documented history in the United States and beyond. From the Vietnam War to Black Lives Matter, its iconography has become familiar to us: impassioned students, handmade signs, marches across manicured college greens, sit-ins, walkouts, and curmudgeonly backlash against the youth in revolt.
The faculty-organized civil disobedience at Harvard expanded the recognizable imagery of campus protest. Memorial Church Minister Jonathan L. Walton was handcuffed while dressed in a black doctoral robe. Several of the other people arrested wore suits and ties. Earlier that day, many of them had lectured at the podiums of elite academic institutions. It was, effectively, a protest that brought the denizens of the ivory tower into the streets.
“We can’t just sit back and follow our students who already carry the lion’s share of the burden of organizing and protesting and marching,” Kirsten A. Weld, an associate professor of Social Sciences, says. Weld and Walter Johnson, a professor of history and African and African American Studies, planned the action. “We have to take up some of that burden ourselves.”
In the week leading up to the protest, Weld and Johnson decided they would need 10 volunteers to get arrested. “When we first put the idea of taking arrests on the table, it was difficult to find people who were willing to participate,” Weld says. A day before the action, between 75 and 100 professors from nearby universities had gathered in Robinson Hall to brainstorm ways they could stand with DACA students. “That was a little bit frustrating at first, not that people are wrong for not wanting to participate… But I knew it wasn’t going to work if we couldn’t get 10 people.”
Sarah S. Richardson, a professor of History of Science and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality who was also arrested, was at first concerned about finding backup child care for her one-year-old. Kevin M. Bruyneel, who teaches political science at Babson College, is a green card holder from Canada who wondered if the arrest would interfere with his path to U.S. citizenship. Many of the people arrested, including Weld, are assistant professors or lecturers who do not enjoy the job security of tenured faculty members.
Ahmed Ragab, who teaches at the Divinity School, had worried that the protest would conflict with his naturalization ceremony. The timing worked out: Ragab and his wife were sworn in as U.S. citizens at Faneuil Hall, drove back to to their home in Cambridge, and changed into comfortable shoes. “Then she went to pick up our daughter and I got arrested,” he says.
Many of those on the fence were persuaded by the meticulous planning that went into the action. Weld arranged legal representation for protesters ahead of time and coordinated extensively with Cambridge Police Department in anticipation of the action. “There weren’t a lot of question marks,” she says. “People knew what to expect.”
The organizers even devised a system for socializing court costs, which otherwise would have been about $150 per person: Tenured professors would pay more, while lecturers and assistant professors would pay less. Every detail seemed to be accounted for, down to the $40 arrestees were told to bring for paying bail.
At 4 p.m. on Thursday, the plan was set in motion. About 300 Boston-area educators flooded through Johnson Gate, decked out in logos of nearby universities like Babson, Tufts, and MIT. Professors serving as demonstration marshals wore neon green vests and roamed about the scene. Dozens of students walked out of class to join the rally. The turnout skyrocketed beyond what any organizers or participants had anticipated.
Robin M. Bernstein, chair of the Program of Studies in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, had shown up to Harvard Yard wearing clothes she would feel comfortable wearing for “a day or two or three,” but she wasn’t quite sure that she was ready for arrest.
“I had never been arrested before for any reason, and frankly, I was scared to be arrested,” Bernstein says. Her reluctance dissipated when she heard the speeches at the protest. “I felt like this was a very important moment of resistance, and I very much wanted to be a part of it.”
Addressing a crowd of hundreds in the area between Massachusetts Hall and Harvard Hall, several professors and one undocumented student called on the Harvard community to act against the Trump administration’s decision. Ragab, having just become a U.S. citizen, spoke of the responsibilities that come with privilege. Then, the volunteers made their way to the street.
Bhattacharyya had been “gearing up to face down cars” as she approached Massachusetts Ave., so she was surprised to see that the Cambridge police had closed the street for them. “What was overwhelming was all the empty space in front of me,” she says. “We have so much privilege that the Cambridge police blocked off traffic.”
René Carrasco, a History and Literature lecturer, said he had never been to a protest that was so “well-coordinated with the cops.” It was “performative,” he said, but in a way, that was the whole point. “It was a way to show solidarity with my students and the community at large.”
Carrasco grew up in Chula Vista, Calif., a city with a sizeable immigrant population just seven minutes from the border. “I felt particularly interested in doing something like this because I’m Mexican, and this issue is personal,” he says. “It’s my students, and it’s also my best friends, neighbors, family.”
Holding a banner that read “NO BAN ON STOLEN LAND,” the professors formed a human chain across the width of the road. They chanted, with hundreds of spectators, “Education not deportation.” The crowd whooped and cheered as law enforcement began making arrests.
Several professors remarked on the “professionalism” and “courtesy” of the police officers who took them into custody. Some said it seemed that the police were “going through the motions” of arrest. One called the police’s treatment “white-gloved.”
“We were treated more leniently than expected, which is a function of our privilege and cultural capital as professors at fancy universities,” Weld said.
The decision to cooperate with police in an immigration rights action is a notable one, even in a liberal hub like Cambridge. Cambridge has been a sanctuary city since 1985, and Harvard University Department Police Chief Francis D. Riley has clarified that the University’s police force is not involved with the enforcement of federal immigration laws. But the entanglement of policing and immigration still looms. In August 2017, Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79—who recently criticized Trump’s decision to repeal DACA—filed legislation that would allow state and local police to detain people in coordination with Immigration Customs Enforcement.
Cambridge Police Department Communications Director Jeremy Warnick wrote in an email to The Crimson that the police aimed to provide “security and protection to protesters, bystanders, and the public” as well as to “public and private property.” They also provided “tactical resources” and “traffic resources,” he wrote.
“I think there is, on some level, an issue with cooperating in certain ways with the institutions that we know help to oppress and harm many of the communities we’re trying to stand up for,” says Emily K. Pope-Obeda, a History and Literature lecturer who teaches a course on the policing of migration. Pope-Obeda said police presence was an issue on which professors “did not see completely eye to eye,” but ultimately the urgency of standing with students overrode all else.
Many of those arrested felt similarly. Optics mattered—Carrasco, in his role as a media contact for the action, informed news outlets of the exact time that arrests would begin—and therefore numbers were important. Several professors wouldn’t have volunteered to be arrested if organizers hadn’t crafted detailed plans ahead of time. Without exhaustive coordination with law enforcement, the human chain that stretched along the crosswalk might have been half the size that it was.
It was, as Weld put it, a protest designed so that “people who don’t usually do this kind of thing” could feel comfortable participating. “This was not an adversarial ‘people vs. police’ situation,” she says. “That’s a different kind of tactic for a different situation. Our audience was really the press, our students, and other faculty members in the area and nationally to say that the time of signing petitions and hoping for the best is over.”
Echoing Weld, Johnson emphasizes that organizers sought to “create a situation which would get as many people to participate as possible.” Academics are “not a population that’s particularly noted for acting out and getting arrested,” he adds.
Video footage from the event shows police binding protesters’ hands in front of them, rather than behind. In one clip, Walton, handcuffed and still wearing his academic robe, raises his arms for a pat-down. “Watch your head,” a police officer says to another professor as he ushers him into the wagon.
INSIDE THE CELL
No matter how thoroughly they had prepared, many of those arrested still found themselves unsettled by the experience: the feeling of being handcuffed and shepherded about, the confines of a police wagon, the spareness of a jail cell.
Caroline Light, who teaches in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, found the situation “destabilizing.”
“You’re made to feel like you’ve done something deeply wrong,” Light said. The feeling was new to her: “As a middle-aged white woman, I’m not looked at with suspicion by law enforcement. In fact, I’m looked at as somebody to be protected and cared for.”
While filling out paperwork, posing for a mugshot, and giving her fingerprints, Bhattacharyya found echoes of her own scholarship. She’s currently researching the “bureaucracy of empire” and the history of fingerprinting and identification in 19th-century India. “It was interesting to suddenly be faced with the contemporary bureaucracy of the criminal justice system, to think about how I as a body fit into that,” Bhattacharya says. “And the privilege of my body within that system.”
The professors were held at the Cambridge Police Department headquarters near Central Square. They were segregated by gender and detained in groups of four. Each jail cell had a bench, a metal toilet, and no semblance of privacy.
“It was not an experience of suffering,” Weld says. The police started processing right away, and it seemed likely that the professors would be released in a few hours. “But it was still jail. Every time you’re moved from one part to another, you notice there are officers stationed in strategic points to make sure you do what you’re supposed to do.”
Bhattacharyya was one of the first to be processed. When she was released after two hours of detention, she was greeted by History and Literature staffers who were waiting with water and food. She and her fellow protesters were arraigned the following week: The charges of disturbing the peace were dropped, and the district attorney’s office did not ask them to pay court costs.
“It was a further reminder that we had been able to organize something that was very symbolic but was also awash with our privilege,” she says.
Wielding the privilege of elite academia, it seems, was the point of the entire action. Twitter boomed with pictures and videos of the human chain on Massachusetts Ave. The protest earned splashy headlines at several news outlets, from the Boston Globe to Breitbart.
“I felt, for the first time in maybe 10 years, that I actually got to practice everything I’m constantly trying to teach,” Bhattacharyya says. “I got to physically embody the kind of—not just scholar—but citizen that my students might think about being.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: September 28, 2017
A previous version of this article misstated the date of a meeting of between 75 and 100 professors from nearby universities in Robinson Hall. The meeting took place a day before the arrests, not more than a week before.