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Harvard Should Follow Its Own Lead and Engage with the Protesters

Two students leaning out of Massachusetts Hall window take interview with reporter during 2001 Progressive Student Labor Movement sit-in.
Two students leaning out of Massachusetts Hall window take interview with reporter during 2001 Progressive Student Labor Movement sit-in. By Loewe B. Lee
By Aaron D. Bartley, Faisal I. Chaudhry, Fatma E. Marouf, and Ashwini Sukthankar
Aaron D. Bartley, Faisal I. Chaudhry, Fatma E. Marouf, and Ashwini Sukthankar participated in the 2001 Harvard Living Wage Campaign as students at Harvard Law School.

Last Friday, the Harvard Administration placed 20 students on “involuntary leave” — a bland term for suspension without due process — based on their participation in the Gaza Solidarity encampment in Harvard Yard. This aggressive response is a mistake that Harvard will regret.

We are the four Harvard Law students who participated in the 2001 sit-in during the Harvard Living Wage Campaign. For 21 days, we, along with dozens of other University students, occupied Massachusetts Hall, demanding fair wages for all University workers.

In many ways, our demonstrations were strikingly similar to the pro-Palestinian protests today. Many students slept in tents outside the building to support us. We organized daily pickets, some of which drew up to 2,000 people. We held a candlelight vigil. Our efforts, which were entirely peaceful, made it into the national press.

But back then, Harvard recognized the groundswell of support behind our demands, and was compelled to engage. We held extensive negotiations with the administration and left Massachusetts Hall with the promise that the school would create a committee to recommend wage changes.

Given public scrutiny and support, Harvard had to show considerable restraint during the demonstrations. The police entered Massachusetts Hall repeatedly but never used or threatened force. We were officially reprimanded by the Administrative Board of Harvard Law School, and the undergraduate students who participated in the sit-in received nothing more than a few weeks of disciplinary probation. The administration ultimately heard, acknowledged, and engaged with students’ demands on behalf of Harvard’s lowest-paid workers.

The current administration could learn something from the lessons of 20 years ago. We believe Harvard grievously underestimates support for the current movement. Both Brown University and Rutgers University have already negotiated with pro-Palestinian protestors, recognizing the political significance and urgency of this moment. Evergreen State College and Trinity College Dublin reportedly agreed to divestment.

These institutions responded to students’ concerns about university investments in companies connected to the Israeli occupation, and the slaughter, starvation, and mass displacement of Palestinians, as part of what some experts regard as a genocide. Harvard must follow their lead.

Unfortunately, thus far, Harvard seems intent on an aggressive posture. In a University-wide email last week, President Alan M. Garber ’76 claimed that the protesters, which ask Harvard to come to the table and discuss divestment, favor “the voices of a few over the rights of many who have experienced disruption in how they learn and work at a critical time of the semester.”

Given that Harvard students advocating for justice in Palestine have been doxxed and targeted for months, dismissing those still willing to protest as “the few” is disingenuous. Notably, the calls for a just and permanent ceasefire aligns with the majority of United States public opinion, according to a recent survey. The Gaza encampment protest, like the Living Wage Campaign over 20 years ago, amplifies the voices of the many — the marginalized for whom Harvard would rather disavow responsibility — and brings them into the conversation.

Our experiences during the Living Wage Campaign, our participation in the sit-in, and the reactions of Harvard University and Harvard Law School profoundly influenced each of us. Our education would have been very different had we not engaged in civil disobedience in the service of justice and had we not seen how power and privilege react when challenged.

In 2001, we endured an administrative hearing rife with procedural abuse, threats, and theories of collective punishment that absurdly held us accountable for the actions of others. These practices exposed the deep hypocrisy of our law school.

Now, we stand in solidarity with students who are being threatened with even more draconian penalties, imposed without even the pretense of due process. We support them, just as many administrators, faculty, elected officials, and others had our backs over 20 years ago.

In 2001, students driven by a just cause compelled the Harvard Administration to come to the bargaining table and to partner with students, workers, and the community to create a fairer Harvard. It would be sensible and strategic for the University to act in good faith again today.

Aaron D. Bartley, Faisal I. Chaudhry, Fatma E. Marouf, and Ashwini Sukthankar participated in the 2001 Harvard Living Wage Campaign as students at Harvard Law School.

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