Over 50 students, alumni, and local activists discussed possible administrative reforms at a Saturday town hall in the wake of the arrest of a black undergraduate that has sparked allegations of police brutality and drawn national headlines.
Some at the event sharply criticized Harvard for what they called a lack of institutional support.
The event was organized by multiple student groups including the Undergraduate Council and Black Students Organizing for Change, a coalition formed in response to the arrest. The town hall came hours after more than 200 students and Harvard affiliates encircled University Hall in protest to demand changes to University processes that organizers say led to the student’s arrest. The day after that protest, the Council voted to formally endorse a set of demands BSOC sent to administrators.
“Harvard tells us that we will be protected and that they will keep us safe,” Hilda M. Jordan ’19, a BSOC leader, said at the town hall. “But Harvard didn’t keep one of our students safe that night,”
In an emailed statement, University spokesperson Melodie L. Jackson reiterated much of a letter President Drew G. Faust sent to Harvard affiliates last week. In that letter, Faust called the arrest “disturbing.”
“As President Faust wrote in her 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 letter.
Three Cambridge Police Department officers arrested the undergraduate April 13 at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Waterhouse St. after receiving several calls about the student, who was naked and had thrown his clothes at a bystander.
In the ensuing altercation, officers tackled and then arrested the student—who was likely under the influence of narcotics—for charges including assault, indecent exposure, and resisting arrest. To date, an arraignment date has not been set.
A CPD police report released after the incident states the student clenched his fists and began making aggressive moves toward the officers, prompting them to tackle him. But eyewitnesses of the incident—including members of the Harvard Black Law Students Association—have stated that CPD's version of events is “incorrect,” stating that the officers tackled the undergraduate “without provocation.”
A video of the incident later published by the New York Times shows the student standing still, surrounded by the officers, while the officers talk to him for at least a few 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. BLSA has called the incident an instance of police brutality.
Many attendees of the town hall said they felt the incident relates to broader questions of racial injustice pervasive throughout the country. Injil Muhammad ’21, vice president of the Black Men’s Forum, said the incident should serve as a stark reminder that, even at an elite institution like Harvard, black students must contend with bias and differential treatment.
“There’s this narrative that there’s a certain point which you can reach as an individual where your race, your class, those things become less relevant, as you progress up the social ladder,” Muhammad said. “And I just think it’s... just a reminder that there are certain things that just kind of transcend all of these institutions, all of these accolades that you can get, and that is being black.”
Multiple attendees also called for the formation of University response teams in order to deescalate potentially dangerous situations without involving the police.
Simileoluwa E. Falako ’20, president of the Black Students Association, said these response teams must be nonviolent and independent of the police.
“These response teams need to be demilitarized,” she said. “The fact that we have police responding to medical incidents, or the fact that if you call anything for anyone, the police are coming.”
“For black and brown students, that’s very traumatizing, with what’s been going on in this country,” she added. “If I walk down the street and see a police officer, I get scared.”
Attendees of the town hall also criticized what they called an inadequate and slow response from administrators in the wake of the arrest.
“How many letters have you seen from Drew Faust on this?” Jordan asked.
"One, it took four days,” responded Falako.
Jackson disputed these accusations, writing that administrators have been consistently engaging with students since the incident.
“In addition to President Faust’s university-wide message, numerous administrators have been meeting with students in multiple settings all week, including John S. Wilson (senior adviser and strategist to the president), who is representing the president’s office, College administrators (Dean [Rakesh] Khurana, Dean [Katherine] O’Dair, and Dean [Roland] Davis, among others), and HUPD and HUHS representatives,” Jackson wrote. “To suggest administrators have been silent on this issue and not engaged in serious conversation about this is patently false.”
Attendees also criticized the way Harvard University Health Services handled the incident—HUHS called Harvard University Police Department Friday night after being contacted about the student. Some said HUHS's response is indicative of larger problems with the institution.
In a statement last week, HUHS Spokesperson Michael Perry wrote HUHS acted “per standard protocol” that night.
Multiple attendees said they believed the University should purchase its own ambulance, which some attendees said they think could have helped prevent last week’s arrest.
“When I found out that Harvard didn’t have an ambulance, it shocked me,” Jordan said. “MIT, which is down the street, Syracuse University has one, the local community college in my town has one.”
Perry wrote in an emailed statement that representatives of Crimson Emergency Medical Services, a student-led EMT group, have asked Cambridge officials about the possible purchase of an ambulance, but have so far been turned down.
“HUHS and leaders from Crimson EMS have held several conversations with the City of Cambridge to review the feasibility and required approvals necessary to operate an ambulance service,” Perry wrote. “Presently, Cambridge officials have determined that Pro Ambulance, our local ambulance service, is the most appropriate service readily available to the Harvard community.”
Attendees also criticized what they called a scarcity of mental health counselors on campus. At a press conference last Monday, CPD Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. said the arrested student was at the time undergoing an evaluation at a hospital for issues including mental health concerns. That evaluation, Bard said, is “one of the reasons” the student had yet to be arraigned.
“It’s not proportionate to the community that is here,” Jordan said. “To have 40 folks to deal with the tens of thousands of people here is actually ridiculous.”
Perry wrote in the email that Counseling and Mental Health Services is in the process of adopting a new “model” in order to decrease wait times. He clarified that CAMHS currently employs only 35 “staff.”
“This semester, CAMHS piloted a new model of care designed to provide therapy appointments in a timelier manner and reduce wait times on the day of service,” Perry wrote.
Jordan said she had attempted to make a counseling appointment earlier this year to help relieve the stress accompanied with taking the LSAT.
“I wanted to see someone just before I took the exam, just to talk, to calm my nerves,” she recounted. “The first one they could give me was the Tuesday after the exam.”
Other attendees urged administrators to keep their focus on the arrested student, who remained in police custody as of Friday. Kacey E. Gill ’20, vice president of the Association of Black Harvard Women, said students must put “pressure” on the administration to “fight” for the undergraduate.
“There’s a lot of things that are still to be determined, as far as his life, and his life at Harvard goes,” Gill said. “And just making sure that the administration is not losing sight of that and is not forgetting that they have a student that they have to fight for.”
Chimaoge C. Ibe ’20 said he was skeptical that administrators would listen to BSOC’s demands, which include the expedited hiring of black and brown counselors at CAMHS and the acquisition of a University-owned ambulance.
“I think we need to find a better way force their hand,” Ibe said.
Jordan agreed, calling Harvard a “business” and arguing that the University would heed students’ demands if it felt financial pressure for not doing so. Jordan specifically called on parents and alumni to “start calling” and leveraging donations to effect change.
“Harvard listens to money,” she said.
—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.