UPDATED: April 24, 2018 at 6:32 p.m.
More than 200 Harvard students and affiliates, many with red duct tape over their mouths, handed out flyers and encircled University Hall in protest Saturday to demand reforms to University processes they say led to the forcible arrest of a black College student April 13.
The event was planned by Black Students Organizing for Change, a group formed by College students in the wake of the physical confrontation between a black student and the Cambridge Police Department last week. In a recent open letter addressed to the “Harvard Community,” the group wrote its mission is “to hold Harvard University accountable for the safety of community members, particularly Black and Brown students.”
In the days following the arrest, hundreds of Harvard students gathered across campus to discuss the incident, reflect, and plan a response.
The new black student organization—and Saturday’s protest—constitute first steps of that response. The protesters, including both undergraduate and graduate students, gathered at the Phillips Brooks House to distribute flyers, duct tape, and signs just before noon Saturday. At noon, pairs of the students—most of whom were dressed in black—stationed themselves throughout Harvard Yard, holding signs reading “I Don’t Feel Safe” and “Will Harvard Call the Police on Me Too?”
The protest coincided with Visitas, the College’s weekend of programming for admitted students, which began Saturday morning. Many of the onlookers were prospective students and their parents.
The protesters passed out flyers instructing admitted students and parents who have safety concerns to call their admissions officer, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, or Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath.
After 40 minutes—the amount of time protesters said matches the number of minutes it took Harvard University Police Department officers to arrive on scene after eyewitnesses called for help April 13—the demonstrators stood side-by-side to completely surround University Hall. The students then observed a two-minute period of silence, corresponding to the amount of time they say it took HUPD to respond after the Cambridge Police Department contacted them following the arrest.
Harvard, your students are asking you to respond. Harvard, what are you going to do?
At the close of the two minutes, protest organizer Hilda M. Jordan ’19 tearfully initiated a chant of “Treat me, don’t beat me.”
Jordan’s chant referred to the blows a CPD officer dealt the student during the arrest Friday. Three CPD officers and one Transit Police Department officer responded to calls about a naked man standing on Massachusetts Ave. around 9:09 p.m. April 13, the night of the College’s annual spring concert. In the altercation that followed, officers tackled the student to the ground before arresting the student—who was likely under the influence of narcotics—for charges including indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, assault, and resisting arrest.
A later CPD police report states the student clenched his fists and began making aggressive moves toward the officers, prompting them to tackle the undergraduate. But eyewitnesses of the incident—including members of the Harvard Black Law Students Association—have stated that CPD’s version of events is incorrect and that the officers acted “without provocation.”
A video of the incident later published by the New York Times shows the student standing still, surrounded by four officers, while the officers talk to him for several seconds. The student turns around and takes two steps towards one officer before taking a step back and raising his arms to chest-level. Another officer then tackles the student from behind.
While the student remained on the ground, at least one CPD officer punched the undergraduate in the stomach five times in an attempt to unpin the student’s arms and handcuff him, according to the CPD police report.
Harvard Law professors Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Dehlia Umunna, who lead the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute, are now legally representing the student.
Details about how the incident unfolded emerged in the days following the arrest—including the fact that student witnesses first contacted Harvard University Health Services, who contacted HUPD. HUPD then transferred HUHS to CPD. HUPD representative Steven G. Catalano said the student who was arrested at the intersection of Massachusetts Ave. and Waterhouse St., feet from Harvard Law School’s campus, was not standing on campus turf and was therefore outside HUPD’s jurisdiction. Spokespeople from both HUPD and HUHS have said the organizations followed proper protocol before and during the arrest.
In their open letter, BSOC members criticize the University’s actions on the evening of April 13 and the protocols that guided them to contact CPD. The flyers protesters distributed Saturday listed a number of demands the group outlined in the open letter.
These demands call on the University to provide financial and academic support for the arrested student and to publish a report on the events leading up to the student’s arrest. The group is also calling on the University to designate all drug and alcohol-related calls to HUHS as medical emergencies, to acquire a University-owned ambulance, and to expedite “hiring of Black and Brown counselors at Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services.”
The group asks the University to agree via written statement by May 1 to implement these measures.
In an emailed statement Saturday, Harvard spokesperson Melodie L. Jackson referred to a message University president Drew G. Faust emailed to Harvard affiliates earlier this week.
"As President Faust wrote in a message to the entire Harvard community earlier this week, we are committed to determining what Harvard, as an institution, can learn from the incident so that we can move forward together as a community 'where people from all backgrounds and life experiences can come together confident in their ability to do their best work in a safe, supportive, and constructive environment,'" Jackson wrote, quoting Faust's email.
Jackson further quoted Faust's assertion that work going forward will and must necessitate "hearing directly" from students, faculty, and staff.
“We will continue to build on the important discussions that have already taken place across the University since last week’s incident, including conversations involving students, faculty, leadership of the University, College, graduate schools, the HUPD and HUHS,” Jackson wrote.
Protesters reiterated demands listed in their open letter during the day Saturday.
“Harvard, we are calling you to develop a medical emergency response team that is responsive to students’ needs,” Jordan said to protesters and onlookers in the Yard. “We are asking you to get an ambulance. We are asking you to make your students feel safe, because black lives matter at Harvard, too.”
The students then began to chant together, “Black lives matter.”
“Harvard, your students are asking you to respond. We’re asking you to acknowledge our pain, our concerns, the fact that we do not feel safe here or anywhere,” Jordan said. “Harvard, what are you going to do?”
During the demonstration, Harvard Law student Akua F. Abu ’14 said in an interview she thinks it is important to showcase the mistakes and shortcomings of Harvard for prospective students.
“The students who are coming to Harvard should really understand that Harvard can be a great and supportive place, but Harvard has made mistakes and Harvard needs to do better,” Abu said.
In an interview, Jordan said she and BSOC members deliberately planned the protest to coincide with Visitas.
“We want them to know that their medical response team is a police unit that has limited jurisdiction that doesn’t extend to the sidewalk,” Jordan said. “If it affects a student’s choice to come here, then it’s something they should know.”
Admitted students who walked by the demonstration said they were “shocked” to learn about last Friday’s events.
“I'm pretty sad it happened at such a renowned institution like this, especially with this political climate surrounding Black Lives Matter and stuff,” prospective member of the Class of 2022 Toluwalope Moses said. “You would think that wouldn't happen here.”
—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @delanofranklin_.
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22.