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University President Bacow, Other Harvard Administrators Respond to George Floyd’s Murder and Growing Protests

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UPDATED: May 31, 2020, 3:31 p.m.

In the wake of the murder of a black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police on May 25, University President Lawrence S. Bacow sent an email to Harvard affiliates Saturday evening listing his “beliefs” in America, the legal system, and knowledge.

Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets across the United States to condemn Floyd’s death in police custody. Police officers and members of the National Guard in cities including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta have deployed tear gas and pepper spray against the crowds, who have blocked streets and burned structures in the demonstrations.

Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who pinned Floyd to the ground with a knee to his neck until he went limp, was arrested and charged with third degree murder and second-degree manslaughter Friday.

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In his Saturday email, Bacow stopped short of directly supporting the protests. He called Floyd’s death “senseless,” writing that he believes “no person is above the law regardless of the office they hold or the uniform they wear” and that justice is based on how “a society treats its most vulnerable members.”

In his email, titled “What I believe,” Bacow wrote that in difficult times, he returns to his beliefs in principles such as the “goodness of the people of this country—and in their resilience,” that “America should be a beacon of light to the rest of the world,” and “the American Dream.”

He wrote that the list is only some of what he believes.

“I hope you will pause during these troubled times to ask what you believe,” he wrote. “Even more importantly, I hope you will find the strength and determination to act on your beliefs—to repair and perfect this imperfect world. Those of us privileged to work or study at a place like this bear special responsibilities.”

Bacow’s email follows several other Harvard administrators’ responses to Floyd’s death.

Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Emma Dench wrote in an email to the school’s affiliates Friday that Floyd’s death was “disheartening.” She added that “the violence we are hearing about” is “particularly upsetting to our students of color,” though the email did not explicitly mention its impact on black students or express support for protesters.

“It is particularly concerning because the demographic bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic is also the group disproportionately affected by the violence we are hearing about,” Dench wrote. “It cannot help but affect us all, but I know it is particularly upsetting to our students of color.”

“The kind of thinking that leads to such acts runs counter to our stated values as a School,” she added.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay wrote in an email to FAS affiliates Sunday that "we are confronted again by old hatreds and the enduring legacies of anti-black racism and inequality."

“It’s a familiarity that makes me deeply restless for change,” Gay wrote. “Part of that change is the work we do here to learn and listen across lines of difference and to build a community grounded in trust and respect. Part of that change is our work to trace the roots of inequality and its pernicious effects and to equip our students with the understanding and insight needed to create a better world.”

She wrote that, for her, the murder of Floyd feels far from abstract.

“We are reminded, again, how even our most mundane activities, like running, which is something I am passionate about, can carry inordinate risk,” Gay wrote. “At a moment when all I want to do is gather my teenage son into my arms, I am painfully aware of how little shelter that provides. It shouldn’t be this way.”

“The death of George Floyd is a singular tragedy for his family, the mother he cried out for, and all those who cared about him,” she added.

Gay encouraged FAS affiliates to have “resilience” as they “fight for change.”

“I urge you to lean on this community as you lean into the work that brought you here and the better world it seeks to create,” she wrote.

Leverett House Faculty Deans Brian D. Farrell and Irina P. Ferreras wrote in a Saturday email to Leverett residents that “the cruelty and inhuman treatment” of George Floyd demonstrated the racism endemic to many parts of American society, but also called riots “socially destructive and self-defeating.”

“We firmly believe that nonviolent means are the most potent ways to fight for our causes. Violence creates more social problems than it solves,” they wrote. “However, we need to look deep into the conditions which cause people to participate in riotous activities.”

Farrell and Ferreras added that riots are “symptoms of disease, not the disease itself.”

“America continues to fail in looking for ways to erase the inequality and the conditions in which minorities must live," they wrote. “Large segments of our society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.”

“As long as America continues to ignore and delay justice, we stand in the position of having these repeated recurrences of violence. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention,” they added.

Lowell House Faculty Deans Nina Zipser and David I. Laibson ’88 wrote in a Saturday email to Lowell residents that House affiliates should “non-violently protest and use the ballot box to advance the intertwined goals of social, economic and racial justice.”

“We write to emphasize that we are here to support you during this terrible moment and during the ongoing struggle, as we jointly battle the legacies of slavery and racism that continue to impoverish, sicken, and, in so many cases, kill black people,” they wrote. “The sharp racial disparities that have emerged in COVID-19 deaths are yet another indicator of the toxic inequalities that afflict our nation.”

“It is our duty to use our educational and economic resources to tirelessly work against racism and racial disparities and their debilitating effects on our society,” they added.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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