After Forcible Arrest of Black Student, Harvard Affiliates Meet, Reflect, and Organize
UPDATED: April 15, 2018 at 2:05 a.m.
In the wake of the forcible arrest of a black Harvard undergraduate Friday, hundreds of University affiliates came together at multiple events held across campus to talk through the incident and to share their concern and support for one another.
Cambridge Police Department officers arrested a Harvard undergraduate Friday night after a physical encounter with law enforcement on charges including indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, and assault. Shortly after the incident, the Harvard Black Law Students Association tweeted out a statement calling the arrest an instance of police brutality. CPD later publicly issued its full version of the arrest; BLSA wrote in a statement Saturday evening that CPD’s accounting of events is “incorrect.”
Hours after news of the student’s arrest became public, administrators and student groups including BLSA mobilized to organize meetings to help affiliates process the event. College officials held one meeting, BLSA held another, and multiple House Faculty Deans and tutors hosted gatherings in House spaces throughout the day Saturday.
Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Roland S. Davis and Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair co-hosted an event Saturday afternoon in the Phillips Brooks House parlor room for students across campus to “come together and be in community with one another” in response to the arrest, according to an email Davis sent to students Saturday.
Roughly 50 individuals attended the gathering, which was off-the-record. Attendee Naomi P. Vickers ’21 said in an interview after the event that she hopes Harvard will take “concrete steps” to ensure local institutions like Harvard University Health Services, the Harvard University Police Department, and CPD protect students. Many people left the event visibly upset.
“I think they tried to accommodate our thoughts, but what will be productive is getting all involved parties in a room to discuss students’ needs,” Vickers said of the gathering.
O’Dair said after the event that she recognizes some students are dissatisfied with the University’s procedures for responding to student health issues.
“I really hear the students when they say they don’t trust the systems here,” O’Dair said.
HUHS received a call about the student Friday night but HUHS staffers redirected the caller to CPD, according to BLSA’s statement. HUPD was also made aware of the incident Friday night but CPD officers had already arrested the student by the time HUPD officers arrived at the scene Friday night, HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano said in an interview Saturday.
Davis said after the gathering he is satisfied with the way students responded throughout the discussion.
“I am sad that this tragedy happened, but glad and proud of the way the Harvard community is responding and hope we can make progress towards meeting the students’ needs as well,” Davis said.
Shortly after the meeting in the Phillips Brooks House, BLSA held a similar off-the-record event in the Law School’s Wasserstein Hall, attended by more than 150 people.
BLSA hosted the meeting to update Harvard affiliates about what happened Friday and to provide students a place to heal and work through the arrest, according to BLSA member Emanuel Powell III. He specifically credited black women involved with BLSA for their participation in the event, noting the women facilitated conversation and ensured the gathering served as a “space of healing.”
“What we had here today was about people coming together in tears, but also a type of joy that was around, ‘How do we fight so this doesn’t happen again?’” Powell said. “You don’t hear that so often, this part of the story—the people who in their anger actually find love for each other.”
BLSA member Amber A. James ’11, who spoke at the event, said she agrees with Powell and that she thinks the meeting served a key function in allowing Harvard affiliates to “[build] for the future.”
“I think of this meeting as both crisis response to the specific incident that happened and also coalition building and healing and establishing a foundation for the work that will continue to be done, the healing that will continue to happen in order for us to process, and the relationships that will continue to thrive and grow in spite of incidents of oppression and state-sanctioned violence,” James said.
James, who was present during the arrest, said the gathering Saturday gave her a platform to tell event attendees what she witnessed.
“It was incredibly important for this space, the Harvard Law School community, the broader Harvard community, the broader Cambridge community to hear from what people actually witnessed, not the warped version of the story, the self-serving version of the story the police will tell,” James said in an interview after the gathering. “You can’t call me a liar if I tell you what I saw with my own eyes.”
“So I really wanted to make sure that people had the opportunity to hear first-hand,” she added.
Attendee Che R. Applewhaite ’21, who identified himself as an international student of color, said what he called the University’s lack of action regarding the arrest made him feel unsafe.
“There have been ways in which the University could've prevented something like this from happening, and those things not actually being done,” said Applewhaite, who is comping Fifteen Minutes, the Crimson’s magazine.
Anselm Kizza-Besigye ’21, who said he is helping organize undergraduates’ collective response to the arrest, said after the BLSA event he thinks the University should have done more to protect the student involved in the incident. Kizza-Besigye is also comping Fifteen Minutes.
“As I’ve learned more about what’s happened, it’s just become more obvious to me that there is an acute and systematic failure on almost every level of administration to secure black lives on this campus,” he said. “When we talk about how the Cambridge Police Department responded to a medical emergency on a campus, that is absurd and it’s indicative of a much larger issue in which people don’t understand the implications of calling the Cambridge Police in a non-threatening situation.”
Cambridge City Manager Louis A. DePasquale wrote in a statement to Cambridge City Councillors that CPD is committed to just and legitimate policing.
"I know that the Cambridge Police Department takes great pride in serving and protecting the City of Cambridge," DePasquale wrote. "They are committed to ensuring legitimacy and procedural justice in their policing efforts."
As mandated by CPD policies, CPD plans to conduct an internal review of the event in the wake of the arrest. DePasquale wrote he is confident that CPD will use the review "as an opportunity to reflect on lessons that can be learned from this incident."
Kizza-Besigye added he does not think the University does enough in general to protect its black students.
“I don’t feel safe on this campus. Ever,” he said. “I don’t feel safe walking alone here.”
Catalano did not respond directly to a question asking about black students’ safety on campus.
When asked to respond to students’ criticisms, Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane pointed to several diversity initiatives the College recently undertook, including the fact that Davis was recently elevated to the position of associate dean, the fact that the College recently renovated Grays Hall to provide a space devoted to equity, diversity, and inclusion, and the fact that administrators moved the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion offices—formerly at 7 Linden St.—to centrally located Harvard Yard.
Several Faculty Deans sent emails to students in their Houses following the arrest Friday. Some announced they plan to hold House events to discuss the details of the incident and to offer students a space to respond and reflect.
In an email to Winthrop House residents sent midday Saturday, Winthrop Faculty Deans Stephanie Robinson and Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.—who serves as an advisor to BLSA—wrote they plan to provide students with a place to share their thoughts about the arrest.
“Winthrop House will provide a space for students to process the incident itself, as well as the broader issues implicated by this particular incident,” Sullivan and Robinson wrote. “We will be in touch soon with specifics, but we want our community to know how deeply concerned we are and that we are committed to listening to your concerns and thinking with you about solutions.”
Faculty Deans and House staff for Adams House, Currier House, Dunster House, Eliot House, Kirkland House, Quincy House, Mather House, and Pforzheimer House later sent similar emails.
Pforzheimer and Dunster staffers hosted open discussions Saturday evening. Adams and Currier administrators will hold similar gatherings in coming days.
Some student groups also organized conversations following the incident. Marcus K. Granderson ’18—president of Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, a choir and cultural group that performs music of the African diaspora—sent an email Saturday to members of Kuumba inviting them to a discussion at the building that houses the Signet, an undergraduate arts society. He wrote the conversation will “continue indefinitely.”
Kizza-Besigye said undergraduates will continue meeting and planning a response to the arrest in the days to come and that College students will collaborate with BLSA as part of these efforts.
“Black students on this campus are organizing,” he said. “I don’t know specifically what next steps are because we need to think about respecting the victim of this action, but we’re absolutely not going to let this happen idly and we’re going to keep organizing such that Harvard has to hold itself accountable for systematic failures.”
“Our primary focus in terms of next steps is to ensure that the victim of this action receives every resource that Harvard has to offer,” he added.
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