Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, Harvard College students have mobilized to condemn anti-black police brutality and call for racial justice.
The recent spate of police brutality, which comes on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting, has spurred citizens across the country to protest institutionalized anti-black violence. Dozens of cities, including Boston, have erupted in demonstrations. At one such protest, held in Columbus, Ohio, recently graduated student and former Harvard men’s basketball player Seth E. Towns ’20 was detained.
Beyond physically participating in protests, undergraduates have also harnessed on-campus organizations to demand justice for Floyd and other victims of police brutality, raise funds for arrested protesters, and promote coalition-building among minority groups.
A contingent of Harvard undergraduates involved in campus arts organized an online variety show Saturday evening to raise funds for organizations combating racial injustice. Drawing more than 300 attendees, the event — dubbed Freedom Fundraiser Show — featured 20 performances from student musicians, singers, and stand-up comedians.
Throughout the show, audience members donated sums of money to organizers who plan to distribute the funds to organizations such as the Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, and North Star Health Collective. The fundraiser ultimately raised more than $12,500, surpassing the organizers’ original goal of $2,000.
Jasiel D. Lampkin ’20, who co-emceed the show, said she decided to help organize the event because she wanted to meaningfully use her platform as a recent Harvard graduate.
“There's a lot you can do as a Harvard student in terms of organizing, getting people together, and accessing resources that a lot of people just don't have access to,” Lampkin said. “I have always been looking for ways to be more active in my use of that network.”
“This felt like a very simple way to have a big impact,” she added.
Travis L. Harper II ’23, who performed at the show, said much of his organizing involved inviting black cultural organizations such as the Black Students Association and the Black Men’s Forum to co-sponsor the event.
During the show, Harper performed a cover of the song “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, which he said has a personal significance.
“My grandfather who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, this is one of his favorite songs by his favorite artist,” Harper said. “It was also just striking to me that this is such an old song — it was written in 1964 — and yet the lyrics are just still incredibly pertinent.”
“Most importantly, I think that song incorporates the feelings of despair and pain that comes along with racial injustice, but also it has just such a beautiful sense of hope,” he added.
Harper said that while it was a “very emotional experience” to share his art with other Harvard students, he felt vulnerability was integral to his performance.
“It's important for all of us to see how this is affecting us not just in terms of the statistics but the everyday emotional labor that we have to go through, and how it's actually affecting the mental health and lives of so many black people around the world,” he said.
In recent days, student organizations have also mobilized in other ways. The Harvard College Democrats organized a phone banking event via Zoom on Saturday. During the event, phone bankers called the offices of police departments, attorney generals, mayors, and lawmakers in the cities and states where Floyd, Taylor, and McDade were killed.
The group, along with 22 co-sponsoring organizations, compiled a resource guide with phone banking scripts, facts and figures about police brutality against black people, a list of funds to which people could donate, and mental health resources.
Nearly 400 people signed up to participate in the event, according to College Democrats president Menatallah N. Bahnasy ’22.
“We figured that mobilizing people to be able to do it together in one space, especially because phone banking isn't super easy when it's your first time to do it, and having resources that can guide people through it would be a really special opportunity,” Bahnasy said.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association, which also co-sponsored the phone bank, published a statement in solidarity with Floyd and all other victims of police brutality on Friday.
“One of the officers complicit is an Asian American man, who stood by as his partner brutally pinned George Floyd down in a chokehold up to his last breath. This instance is one example of Asian American complicity in systems of white supremacy,” the group wrote.
“We cannot be compliant in perpetuating the ‘model minority’ myth by staying silent,” the statement added. “We urgently need to recognize how Asian Americans can and have reinforced this myth by both committing and ignoring instances of anti-Black racism.”
AAA co-president Evelyn R. Cai ’22 said that the group was committed to rising above “performative allyship.”
“We really wanted to include action steps in our solidarity statement. So we included places to donate,” she said. “And we also included resources for Asian American specifically to read about how they can support the black community and recognize anti blackness within our own community.”
She added that the association’s educational-political chairs have started planning a fall event with Asian American and African American Studies professors to discuss how Asian Americans can champion the black community.
“We're hoping to ride this wave of awareness and extend it and keep it going and make sure it's not just this flash of performative allyship that disappears,” she said.
Harvard Fuerza Latina also released a statement to members Saturday asserting that it stood with the Black Lives Matter movement, calling upon its members not only to demand justice for Floyd but also to “fight anti-blackness” within and outside of the Latinx community.
Fuerza co-president Sheila De La Cruz ’22 said the Black Lives Matter movement is relevant to many members of the group, a number of whom are of African descent.
“It's really important to realize that we have a great diversity of students in our organization. And so Black Lives Matter really hits home for a lot of students in the Latinx community,” she said.
Fuerza co-president Luz A. Ramirez-Ramirez ’22 agreed, explaining that a group of Dominican undergraduates founded the organization.
“We were founded initially by a group of students that have ties to a country that is very much centered on African roots,” she said, adding that the group’s solidarity statement in part honored its history and founding members.
Harvard Expressions Dance Company also wrote to its members in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“As a hip hop company with Black American roots, and as a student organization that believes in the welfare of all individuals, we cannot stay silent in the wake of the wave of police brutality against Black Americans,” the directors wrote.
Co-director Nina S. Uzoigwe ’21 said black talent is central to the dance company’s character and success.
“We want to show that we really celebrate and understand where we've come from in terms of how the black community has contributed both their talents and leadership, and all of their creative ability toward making our company what it is today,” she said.
The Black Students Association has announced that it will hold a town hall on “solidarity, allyship, and activism” Monday evening in collaboration with the UC Black Caucus and other campus affinity groups, including AAA and Fuerza.
Harvard’s Generational African-American Students Association is also hosting a “5 Days of BLM Solidarity” event starting Monday. Throughout the week, the group will encourage Harvard students to sign petitions, make calls to politicians, and donate to health collectives and bail funds.
College administrators also responded to the murders over the weekend.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote to undergraduates in an email co-signed by Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair Sunday that they stood with students in their “outrage and frustration.”
“All of us who believe in our College’s mission must transform our outrage and pain into action. We must ask ourselves how Harvard College can be a place that contributes to a more informed and honest conversation about the inequalities both within Harvard and in society,” Khurana and O’Dair wrote, adding that current events called for re-evaluation around the College’s programming and support systems.
“Whether you are an incoming or returning student, we look forward to hearing from you in the coming months about how we can work together to create positive change, both on campus and beyond,” they added. “Black lives matter, and we must do better.”
Beyond the immediate events and statements, several students said they believe people must contend with the realities of racial injustice on a daily basis.
Harper said he believes that beyond changes in policy, the most consequential and necessary first step to rectifying racial injustice is normalizing discussions about race and privilege.
“We refuse to acknowledge racial injustice until a life is lost, or until we have to see a video of someone dying before our eyes,” he said. “But any black person knows that racial injustice is always happening. It's always occurring. And we have to be constantly calling it out. I take it upon myself, to always talk about issues of race to always bring it up because we can't forget about it.”
Lampkin said she urges her peers — and Harvard affiliates more broadly — to recognize their particular responsibility to educate themselves and others about issues of racial justice.
“I think we're in a very privileged position of having gone to one of the most prominent universities in the world. We have been given the tools to write and think about these types of issues in a very critical and educated way,” she said. “For us to not understand these issues and understand the history behind these issues would be a disservice to the education and the privilege we've been granted.”
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.