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University President Lawrence S. Bacow released a statement to Harvard students on May 30, titled “What I believe,” in which he condemned the death of George Floyd. He recalled his memories of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and then, repeated a few cliches about why he believes in the “American Dream.”
President Bacow told us what he believes — now, we, as Harvard affiliates, should call upon him to take his own advice. He is the president of a behemoth institution that actively profits off of the prison industry, which is predicated on the policing and exploitation of Black people. Even in the middle of this killer pandemic, the University has not opened up its dorms to house people experiencing incarceration who aren’t able to socially distance themselves in prison. On top of all that, the Harvard University Police Department is out in Boston policing the very protests that President Bacow speaks of — and this is not the first time.
The very same guns, bullets, and TASERs that the police are using to maim and kill Black people right now? Harvard makes money off of them. The prisons, jails, and detention centers that protestors and bystanders are hauled off to? Harvard makes money off of them. The technology that can track faces of protestors and reinforce the surveillance state? Harvard. Makes. Money. Off of it.
The Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign conducted research that revealed that at least three million of the 40-something billion dollar endowment is invested in private prisons and the prison-industrial complex, including companies that privatize healthcare, food services, and telecommunications in public prisons. These companies suck the blood, life, and last remaining dollars out of the world’s prison population — which is disproportionately Black and brown poor people — and Harvard invests in them for a pretty quarterly profit.
The University has refused to divest so many times that the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign sued it. The introduction of the lawsuit’s complaint defines the prison-industrial complex as a network which “encompasses the immense web of financial, economic, and governmental actors and interests that use prisons, police, and surveillance to address issues arising from America’s deeply racist social and economic systems.”
“As a result, the humans trapped in these cages — who are disproportionately poor, Black, and brown — suffer, and all too often, die as a result. These are the companies in which Harvard invests,” the lawsuit reads.
As the lawsuit alleges, the systemic confinement and coercion of Black people in cages en masses is deeply repugnant and ethically unjustifiable. That was true under the reign of chattel slavery, and it is still true now in the world of the prison-industrial complex. Harvard perpetuates violence against Black people with its investment dollars. And the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign informed President Bacow of this many times. So President Bacow should take to heart his “What I believe” message. Otherwise, “What I believe” is all talk, no action. It’s all performance, but no divestment.
When we, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign student activists, filed this lawsuit in February, we had no idea how right we would be when it came to the interests of the prison-industrial complex over the literal lives of prisoners. They have no choice but to await in a dirty and cramped cage their illness and death from a new, highly contagious, highly fatal disease. We had no idea that cities all over the United States would rise up against the fascist and totalitarian regimes that hyper-militarized police forces impose. The case for the abolition of police and prisons makes itself. It makes itself over and over again, and the centrist complacency must stop. The prison-industrial complex is a crisis. The torture, capture, and exploitation of people has reached a breaking point. Now, more than ever.
We are calling upon President Bacow to divest from this atrocious industry and to reinvest that money in helping the Black and brown communities that Harvard’s presence and investments have systemically helped to undermine over centuries.
President Bacow wrote, “I hope you will find the strength and determination to act on your beliefs — to repair and perfect this imperfect world.” We too hope that Harvard University finds the strength and determination to stop its slavery-and-prison profiteering. Harvard is the wealthiest university in the world, and President Bacow sits at the top. Bacow calls on us to “repair” this world, but we, the students of Harvard, have to wonder whether or not he is willing to do the same.
This isn’t new. All of the information contained in this article is already available in the public record. And this problem isn’t about beliefs — it’s about inaction. We do not intend to make any statements or implications about the character of anybody, including President Bacow. Rather, we demand President Bacow take real action beyond the simple rhetoric of the American Dream.
If President Bacow was serious about his belief that George Floyd should be alive, that the police should not perpetuate such violence upon the people, and that Harvard University should be on the right side of history, he should divest the endowment from private prisons and the prison-industrial complex and make immediate reparations with the divested funds. Until then, the world awaits for President Bacow to heed his own words.
Amanda T. Chan is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Eboni R. Nash is in her second year at the Harvard Divinity School. They are both members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign.
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