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Members of the Harvard Law School faculty published an open letter to students and Harvard affiliates Monday criticizing President Donald J. Trump for calling for a military response to ongoing protests against police brutality.
The letter received signatures from 160 faculty members, including former Law School Dean Martha L. Minow and former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha J. Power. It was reopened for signatures on June 2 after requests from additional Law School teaching faculty and law librarians.
The authors of the letter denounced a tweet posted by Trump on May 29 which included the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in reference to nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. They argue the president’s language encourages violence by private citizens.
“By legitimating lawless action by public officials, the President’s tweet invites other individuals to take similarly destructive action,” the letter reads.
The White House press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Law School professor Christine A. Desan, who worked on drafting the letter, said Trump’s tweet signified a commitment to using violence against citizens involved in the protest. She said she finds the message problematic since Trump speaks as the Commander in Chief of the Army.
“We don't under our Constitution live in a society where even if somebody is stealing something they get shot,” she said. “To have him pledge to use excessive state violence against people indiscriminately is really unlawful — deeply unlawful.”
The letter also states Trump borrowed the phrase in his tweet from former Miami police chief Walter E. Headley, who supported police brutality during the Civil Rights Era. Desan said that the phrase’s tie to a previous era of white-on-black violence demonstrates Trump intended to call for violent action against citizens.
Professor Kenneth W. Mack — who also authored the letter — echoed similar concerns about the historical interpretation of the phrase.
“It seems to be saying quite correctly that ‘if I sent in the military, they will act in a way that the segregationist sheriff promised he would act the 1960s, which is to shoot people as a deterrent, to deter from them from protesting,’” he said. “That would seem to breach the fundamental principles of democratic governance.”
The faculty wrote in the letter that the military holds a responsibility to protect civil order — a principle Trump would violate by using federal authority against protestors.
“There are rules for the deployment of the military,” Mack said. “We don't shoot people for protesting.”
Desan argued that by sending in the military, the President would exceed the authority of his office and breach his responsibility to minimize the force and use of the army.
“It's not Donald Trump's army,” she said. “The President can only use what force we've delegated, what authority we've delegated to him.”
Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic Director Deborah E. Anker, who signed the letter, noted the importance of the large number of faculty members who supported the letter.
“It is so important to highlight these actions of the President that are divisive, anti-democratic and encourage hatred and violence, including private violence,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
Devos also noted the rare and “striking” unity among the Law School faculty, a group commonly rife with ideological disagreements.
“It's a forceful message from a group of people who might not agree on much at all but agree that this conduct crossed a very profound and important line,” she said. “The fact that it reacted at this moment, I think, is a real message that deeply troubling conduct occurred.”
Mack said he hopes students who read the letter realize their professors aim to teach them how to act against injustice and defend the fundamental principles of the legal system, rather than simply teaching them the technical details of law.
“We're not just teaching our students tactical principles of law,” he said. “We are hopefully teaching and setting an example about how to be responsible citizens — lawyers specifically — in a democracy.”
He added that lawyers especially carry a responsibility to uphold the rule of law and speak out against injustice — a duty that motivated the group of faculty members to join together.
“The protests were set in motion by an act of lawlessness, and the President of United States has responded by promoting, recommending, and pledging to engage in further lawlessness,” he said. “That was the reason we felt the need to speak up.”
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.
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