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The Past is Present: Four Decades of Anti-Apartheid University Struggles

Graduating protester led away by police at 1985 College Commencement.
Graduating protester led away by police at 1985 College Commencement. By Courtesy of Oscar Hernández
By Oscar Hernández, Contributing Opinion Writer
Oscar Hernández is a graduate of the Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences.

Student encampments are springing up in the United States and now here in Montréal. They are denouncing apartheid in Israel. They are demanding an end to Israel’s war against Palestine. They want their universities to divest from Israel.

Apartheid. Divestment. Déjà vu. Today’s student protest encampments awaken my memories of protesting South Africa’s apartheid regime at Harvard 39 years ago — my own personal experience of the ways the past is present.

In the spring of 1985, I was a 25-year-old Physics graduate student at Harvard. Then, Nelson Mandela was in prison and considered a terrorist by the U.S. Rummaging through my pile of mementos, I found handwritten descriptions and musings from those moments. My class notes, you could call them.

One passage conveys a story I had heard during my years organizing: “When former South African political prisoner Dennis Brutus was breaking rocks on Robben Island 20 yrs ago, a warden asked him how he could be so stupid as to think he could defeat the apartheid government. Dennis Brutus said to him: ‘How do you know you can never lose?’ Quickly the warden replied ‘America will never allow it.’”

Israel must feel the same as it bombs Gaza and organizes pogroms on Palestinian villages in the West Bank. But while the U.S. and its Western allies support Israel, much of their populations are repulsed by the blatant hypocrisy.

Spring 1985 started with student sit-ins and occupations demanding divestment at universities across the nation. I remember the urgent discussions among anti-apartheid Harvard students. Should our campus movement join the growing protest?

With each passing day, events moved more students to support an occupation. Reverend Jesse Jackson came to speak at Harvard, and then at a rally at Columbia University in support of its students’ occupation.

Harvard’s Southern Africa Solidarity Committee, formed in 1978, was won over. We planned to occupy 17 Quincy St., the Harvard Corporation’s headquarters for one business day — a compromise for those initially reluctant.

When the day came, we walked to 17 Quincy St. from different directions in small groups. Evan carried a large, empty box. Jen — dressed well, to avoid suspicion — rang the door and announced a delivery. The double doors would have to open wide. Jen stalled with small talk while we arrived. We all began to pour in through the vestibule.

My notes from the day read: “As I walked thru the second doorway the officer grabbed me with one of his outstretched arms. I immediately went limp and sat on the floor. The guard’s preoccupation w/ 165 lbs of dead weight allowed many people to go by w/o even touching the guard.”

About 40 students entered the Corporation offices at 9:00 a.m. on April 24, 1985. We introduced ourselves, explained why we were there, and pledged to leave at 5 p.m. At the disciplinary hearing that followed, staff and administrators from 17 Quincy St. confirmed that the protestors were generally courteous and civil.

The Chief of Harvard Police arrived and “when told of the students’ procedures and their guarantee to leave at 5 p.m., commented, ‘I can live with that.’” Then, “promptly at 5 p.m., having vacuumed the area they had occupied, the protestors left the building, as they had promised.”

The occupation was a public opinion success, leading the Harvard Conservative Club to invite New York City Consul General for South Africa Abe S. Hoppenstein for a meeting in Lowell House’s Junior Common Room on May 2. He was greeted by a loud protest that continued to be heard during the meeting, so they cut the meeting short and escorted Hoppenstein to a waiting car.

But, as my notes record, he was stopped: “Ben jumped out and laid down in front of Abe’s car. A bunch of us joined in. Abe left his car and went back to the JCR. Most of the people went and stood in front of the doors to the JCR.”

After two hours blockaded, Hoppenstein finally left the meeting room inside a huddle of Conservative Club members and Harvard police, who seemed to relish knocking down and stepping on the protestors blocking the path.

Police forces in 1985 were not as heavily armed as now. The use of heavy weapons once fell almost exclusively to the national guard or the army. Today, militarized police forces routinely brandish terrorizing weapons against divestment protests.

On May 1, 2024, counter-protesters violently attacked the encampment at UCLA. The next day, police brutally dismantled the targeted encampment. The following day, U.S. President Biden tacitly supported the police action, saying “Order must prevail.”

On that same day, with pro-Israel counter-protesters threatening the encampment at McGill University, where I am an adjunct professor, Quebec’s premier François Legault said, “The law must be respected so I expect police to dismantle these encampments.”

The McGill encampment still stands. Pro-Palestine protestors wear masks over concerns about retaliation, harassment, and blacklisting from pro-Israel groups such as the website Canary Mission.

Backlash against student actions calling for divestment from Israel is a testament to their importance. Let us remember that the protests against apartheid succeeded, leading hundreds of universities to divest.

In turn, the U.S. enacted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, adding to international pressure on the South African government to negotiate with the “terrorist” Nelson Mandela. The negotiations led to Mandela’s unconditional release in 1990, the dismantling of apartheid, and ultimately to Mandela’s election as the first Black president of South Africa in 1994.

On Dec. 29, 2023, South Africa sued Israel at the International Court of Justice for the crime of genocide against the Palestinian people. In the face of these charges, we can imagine Netanyahu and his right-wing colleagues repeating the same brag that Dennis Brutus heard from his South African prison warden: “America will never allow it.”

Yet they should also keep in mind this quip from U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger ’50: “It may be dangerous to be America's enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”

Oscar Hernández is a graduate of the Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences.

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