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From Vietnam to Palestine: How Harvard Suppresses Student Protest

A People’s History of Harvard

By Emily N. Dial
By Prince A. Williams, Crimson Opinion Writer
Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “A People’s History of Harvard,” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

On Nov. 29, the African and African American Resistance Organization and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Caucus of the Harvard Graduate Student Union organized a student walkout as part of a week of action in solidarity with the people of Palestine. We asked students to walk out of the last fifteen minutes of their class for the nearly 15,000 (at the time) Palestinians who were dead or under the rubble.

For this, we are facing disciplinary cases before the Harvard College Administrative Board, the body responsible for the application and enforcement of College disciplinary policies.

It’s important to understand that this is more than an unjust attempt at disciplinary action taken against student leaders — the University policy in question has a long history of repressing campus organizers.

On Jan. 19, Interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 and senior University deans released an email reminding students of the University's Statement on Rights and Responsibilities.

On the surface, this document professes support for academic freedom and the right of students to organize. However, as University leadership has pointedly reminded affiliates, the policy says interfering with the “normal duties and activities” of the University is “unacceptable.”

The administration’s recent email clarifies that this means protests and demonstrations are banned in classrooms, libraries, dormitories, residence halls, dining halls, or offices where “the work of the University is carried out.”

The use of the Statement on Rights and Responsibilities to go after generations of student activists leaves little doubt as to their purpose.

The policy originated with campus protests against the war in Vietnam.

In April of 1969, hundreds of anti-war demonstrators led by the Students for a Democratic Society and joined by the Association of African and Afro-American Students, the original AFRO, occupied University Hall. One of the top priorities of SDS was the abolition of ROTC, while AFRO was actively fighting for the University to create an Afro-American Studies Department.

In response to the occupation, University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 called the police, who beat, forcibly removed, and arrested occupiers, hospitalizing several. An ad-hoc committee forced 16 students to leave, suspended 20 others, and issued another 99 warnings.

The events of the 1960s — the University Hall takeover of ’69 included — resulted in the creation of the Statement on Rights and Responsibilities.

One of the early uses of the policy was to punish students protesting apartheid in South Africa.

In 1985, 18 students faced disciplinary action for their involvement in anti-apartheid protest under the policy, including 10 students who were required to withdraw for blocking the exit of a South African diplomat from the Junior Common Room of Lowell House.

Nevertheless, the longer Harvard maintained its opposition to divestment, the more it fanned the flames of criticism and student activism.

Thanks to the tremendous resilience of the South African Solidarity Committee, Harvard cut its investments in South Africa by $230 million by the spring of 1987.

The policy again reared its head during the living wage campaign.

In the late ’90s, the Progressive Student Labor Movement — the precursor to the Student Labor Action Movement — launched a campaign to win all Harvard employees a living wage of $10.25 per hour or more.

After several years of petitioning and rallying, nearly 50 members of PSLM organized a 21-day sit-in at Massachusetts Hall in 2001. While undergraduates only received three weeks of disciplinary probation, four Harvard Law students were reprimanded and formally charged with violating the rights and responsibilities policy.

The campaign substantially impacted several campus labor contract fights, resulting in 95 percent of all Harvard employees obtaining their target living wage by 2002.

Now, again, this same policy is being weaponized against organizers fighting to end the siege on Gaza. Eight students who participated in a 24-hour sit-in at University Hall were brought before the Ad Board.

Most recently, AFRO leadership has faced disciplinary action from the Ad Board for organizing a non-violent student walkout for Palestine. We do so under the most rigid reading of the policy yet.

The recently-announced interpretation of the rights and responsibilities policy says to many organizers that the only acceptable way to dissent is to protest in a corner.

The history makes it clear: Severely restricting when and where students can protest was always the main objective of the Statement on Rights and Responsibilities. Veiled with platitudes about safeguarding scholarship and academic freedom, our community members must never forget the impetus to quash political dissent that brought this policy into existence.

For us organizers, though, this history also provides an unexpected reassurance. It shows that those of us focusing on Palestine today follow a long, proud succession of the brave students who have fought against imperialism, apartheid, and exploitation. We continue a tradition of student movements holding their institutions accountable for creating a better world.

While we know by these examples that repression will come, we also see what will come next: victory and, one day, the judgment of history.

Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “A People’s History of Harvard” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

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