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Police Say Harvard Affiliates Likely Cut Johnston Gate Lock During Saturday Protest

A Cambridge Police Department officer observes pro-Palestine protesters stage a sit-in during a rally on Saturday outside Johnston Gate.
A Cambridge Police Department officer observes pro-Palestine protesters stage a sit-in during a rally on Saturday outside Johnston Gate. By Addison Y. Liu
By Sally E. Edwards and Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard affiliates used bolt cutters to cut a lock securing Johnston Gate in an attempt to allow roughly 150 protesters access to Harvard Yard for a Saturday afternoon protest, the Harvard University Police Department said Sunday.

The incident occurred as Harvard affiliates, Cambridge residents, and activists from other Boston-area universities gathered on Saturday at the Science Center Plaza to protest the Israeli offensive into Rafah and condemn Harvard placing student protesters on involuntary leaves of absence.

According to HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano, the protest was attended by “persons not affiliated and affiliated with the University.”

“Officers believe the lock was intentionally cut by someone within the Yard to permit access to the Yard by approximately 150 protestors,” Catalano wrote in an email to The Crimson.

HUPD officers, responding to a report of a cut lock, found an abandoned bag containing bolt cutters inside the Yard on Saturday around 7 p.m., according to Catalano. Johnston Gate has been locked since late April, as University leadership indefinitely closed the Yard to the public amid the ongoing pro-Palestinian encampment.

“There was no breach of the Yard,” Catalano wrote in a follow-up email. “Officers immediately responded to the gate to secure it.”

Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine, the student group that organized the encampment, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in a statement that “safety and security of the Harvard community remains the University’s top priority as we continue to manage the ongoing disruption resulting from the encampment.”

“The intentional step by what appears to have been someone inside Harvard Yard to cut a lock on the Johnston Gate during a protest is extremely concerning,” Swain wrote.

While interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 previously said the University has a “very high bar” before it will resort to police action against the encampment, the breach of a bolt lock during a large-scale protest outside Yard likely does not fall too far short of Garber’s threshold.

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber sits in a February interview in his office at Massachusetts Hall. Garber said he would not rule out police response to student protest, but that it would need a high bar.
Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber sits in a February interview in his office at Massachusetts Hall. Garber said he would not rule out police response to student protest, but that it would need a high bar. By Marina Qu

HUPD Chief Victor A. Clay said in an April interview that while the University administration cannot simply request that the department arrest any individuals, arrests may occur in the case of “significant property damage or physical violence at any level.”

The protest and the attempt to cut the lock comes amid rising tensions between protesters and administrators, who have also taken disciplinary action against more than 60 students for participating in the encampment and placed more than 20 students on involuntary leave of absences.

Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine, the group organizing the encampment, said Friday they had rejected an offer from Garber to end the encampment and avoid being placed on involuntary leave. Hours later, administrators sent letters to at least 20 students informing them they had been placed on leave and barring them from campus.

The encampment remained in the Yard as of Sunday evening, despite a requirement that most undergraduates move off campus by midday Sunday. It remains unclear how administrators intend to deal with the encampment just days ahead of the University’s Commencement ceremonies.

During the Saturday protest, Harvard Divinity School student Noa Sepharia said she would continue protesting despite being placed on leave.

“Hey Garber, I’m still here — and I’m not going anywhere until Harvard divests from genocide,” Sepharia said.

Swain wrote in the statement that there have been increasing reports from “frontline staff” of harassment by encampment participants.

“This behavior includes reports of staff being yelled at and encircled by protesters as they do their work, as well as being confronted, followed and subjected to audio and video recording,” Swain wrote. “These reports are not only from staff carrying out ID checks and other work to enforce policies, but also from staff while going about routine duties.”

Meanwhile, the administrators have also attempted to film members of the encampment after they started to refuse regular ID checks. Dean of Student Services Michael Burke used his mobile phone to film protesters, who used keffiyehs, surgical masks, and sunglasses to hide their identities.

The cut lock is the most recent instance of a breach of security into Harvard Yard. Since the start of the encampment, the University’s security and facilities staff have reported multiple instances of attempts to breach gate locks and pry open the Yard’s gates, according to Swain.

Last week, police observed two College students passing supplies over a gate to the Yard to unidentified individuals whom they believed climbed over the wall.

In a separate incident, verbal trespassing warnings were issued last Tuesday to four individuals who climbed over the 1870th gate, according to HUPD police logs.

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at sally.edwards@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sallyedwards04 or on Threads @sally_edwards06.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at asher.montgomery@thecrimson.com Follow her on X @asherjmont or on Threads @asher_montgomery.

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