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Harvard, Do Not Punish Calls for Justice

Students supporting “Harvard Heat Week” stand outside the main entrance to Massachusetts Hall on Monday morning.
Students supporting “Harvard Heat Week” stand outside the main entrance to Massachusetts Hall on Monday morning. By Alana M Steinberg
By Ted Hamilton, Jasmine Opie, Brett A. Roche, and Talia Rothstein, Contributing Opinion Writers
Ted Hamilton, Jasmine Opie ’16, Brett Roche ’15, and Talia K. Rothstein ’17 were organizers with the campaign to divest from fossil fuels.

Last fall, former Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust published her memoir “Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury,” which celebrates the progress made by her generation’s disruptive anti-war and civil rights activists.

Faust’s formative years were a time when “ideas and even movements were emerging to challenge assumptions about race, gender, and privilege,” she writes. “And at a time when we see many of those advances challenged or even overturned, it can remind us why we don’t want to live in such a world again.”

As Harvard alumni who helped lead the campus’s fossil fuel divestment movement from 2013 to 2017, we know quite a bit about Faust’s attitudes towards activists. We made noise and disrupted events; we occupied and blockaded buildings; some of us were arrested. Despite the hostility of Faust and Harvard’s leadership toward our demands, we ultimately prevailed. And none of us were punished: no probations, no suspensions, no “involuntary leaves.”

At a time when Harvard students are again rallying for divestment — this time standing behind Palestinians who are being killed by the thousands by Israel — University administrators should make the same choice. Respect your students. Do not punish calls for justice. And take this opportunity to do the one thing you refused to do with us: listen and engage with the substance of student demands. Disclose, divest from genocide, and reinvest in Palestinian life.

Our experience with disruptive action at Harvard began after years of asking the Harvard administration to engage on the issue of fossil fuel divestment. In the spring of 2014, we blockaded the doors to Massachusetts Hall, calling for an open dialogue on divestment. After 24 hours, one of us was arrested by the Harvard University Police Department. Faced with Harvard’s continued intransigence, we made plans to escalate.

In the spring of 2015, a coalition of dozens of students, faculty members, alumni, and community members flooded Harvard for a week. We blockaded Massachusetts Hall for six days, occupied the Harvard Alumni Association headquarters for two days, and blockaded University Hall several times. After a week of powerful mobilization, members of the Harvard Corporation agreed to meet with us.

When Harvard did not budge on divestment, we continued to stage disruptive actions, including a sit-in at the offices of the Harvard Management Company in 2016, where four students were arrested by the Boston Police Department, and a one-day blockade of University Hall in 2017.

Despite repeatedly engaging in unauthorized and disruptive activities on Harvard’s campus, none of us were ever disciplined from the University against organizers.

Now, nearly three weeks after Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine’s encampment in Harvard Yard began, Harvard has placed at least 20 students on involuntary leave, with others facing disciplinary proceedings. We do not view their decision not to arrest students this time as some act of institutional kindness; it simply helped them avoid bad press.

Those of us arrested in the fossil fuel campaign were able to return to our schooling and lives essentially untarnished, to continue our studies, commune with friends, and ultimately brush off our encounters with the law (we received no criminal convictions). The shift from empty displays of public reprimand to the substantive punishment of involuntary leave is alarming, denying students procedural protections and the right of appeal in an attempt to silence peaceful student protest.

Disciplinary action against student activists is a choice — and the University’s choice of when to discipline student activists is telling. When we occupied and blockaded buildings in protest of Harvard’s fossil fuel investments, the same policies prohibiting “interference” and “obstruction” of the University’s “essential processes” were in place. Then, as now, occupying University property could lead to discipline.

But we did not face discipline. In fact, the University engaged us in negotiations and even agreed to a meeting with us and the Corporation — a stark contrast with their response to today’s encampment.

We have asked ourselves: Why this differential treatment for these students peacefully occupying space today? The troubling conclusion we’ve reached is that Harvard’s choice is based not on the nature of the protest, but rather the injustice being protested. Harvard is implicitly telling its students — and the world — that protest against climate catastrophe is appropriate, but protest against colonialism, apartheid, and genocide is not.

It’s easy to look back at past divestment movements and wonder why it took Harvard so long to catch up with the moral compass of its students. But they did eventually. Harvard partially divested from apartheid in South Africa after monumental student pressure. Harvard also divested from the fossil fuel industry, following over a decade of student organizing. Today’s fight is no different. Interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 condemns the protestors for choosing disruption over dialogue; however, both our experiences and the study of history have proven time and again that disruption is an essential tool to catalyze dialogue among parties with disparities in power.

Harvard, do not punish your students for standing up for justice, peace, and equality — values that Harvard professes and has followed in the past. Listen to students once again. Follow their lead. Divest from genocide.

Ted Hamilton, Jasmine Opie ’16, Brett Roche ’15, and Talia K. Rothstein ’17 were organizers with the campaign to divest from fossil fuels.

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