Memories clouded my brain as I heard responses to the divestment protest that had just happened. I had just come from a meeting where we watched the newly-leaked video and praised the way the protesters’ made their cause known and refused to be silenced. We wrapped up a meeting in the Phillips Brooks House parlor room when a police officer walked in. He asked if any of us had been involved in the protest. We responded that we had not, but the police presence resonated with me.
When I was in another room later with opinions that opposed mine, I pulled together enough energy to recount previous encounters with police. I thought back to the Republican National Convention, when I was part of a group of immigrant rights protesters putting together a ‘Wall off Trump’. Members linked their arms to create a wall of unity. I remember the line of police facing us in our vulnerable states as we risked arrest. I remember how the police faced us, prepared to take action.
I compared that to the way I saw police circling a group of right-leaning protesters at the Democratic National Convention the following week. Their backs were to the protesters. They faced the rest of the crowd and protected the protesters’ right to free speech with their own bodies. While their rights were protected, we were vilified. We were targeted.
This was one of the first examples I had that showed me the way “freedom of speech” is skewed to protect hate speech and to police marginalized communities. Another recent example brings us to the University of Arizona, where students were charged for protesting an event on their campus earlier this month. Students noted that the presence of representatives from Customs and Border Protection made them feel unsafe.
While the freedom of speech of the CBP presenters was protected, that of the protesters was deemed a disturbance. Freedom of speech being trumped with the excuse of disturbance of the peace feels like a direct way to limit discourse coming from the left from people who don’t have the resources or platforms to be heard otherwise.
When we tie these larger issues to the events that took place at the Institute of Politics forum with University President Lawrence S. Bacow, similar possibilities present themselves. We have yet to see if action will be taken against the protesters, but we already see a pattern of policing right on Harvard’s campus.
The divestment protest was not an independent event. The protesters shut down the IOP event in response to the continued silencing they faced when meeting with Bacow as they were met with the statement, “I don’t respond to demands, I respond to reason.” Bacow repeated this patronizing claim during the IOP protest and continued his response with the question of what kind of community we want, as if we really have a say in the matter. He exposed the power disparity by doing so.
The way that this community is structured now is not sustainable for everyone. The foundation on which this institution was created is not sustainable for everyone. All the voices in the community are not being heard because they’re not all represented in positions of power since it was not built with everyone in mind.
The foundation of this institution was flawed from the start, but Harvard still has an opportunity and duty to rebuild it. We should be building a community where we listen to demand because it comes out of another ideology that is often neglected. We should be building a community where we are not leaving collateral damage as this institution tries to get ahead. This is what Divest is pushing for. These are the demands that are getting ignored.
I have been a student at Harvard for 958 days, and I have seen the silencing of marginalized students far too many times. Bacow has made it abundantly clear that the voices of students don’t matter. It seems like the choice is only the administration’s.
The choice should be ours.
Laura S. Veira-Ramirez ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in History and Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.