In Episode 1 of Under Review, hosts Matteo Wong and Olivia Oldham explore an incident of police violence against a Black undergraduate from April 2018, the resulting review committee, and its reverberations to the present day. Listen and subscribe on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
MNW: Before we get started, just a heads up that this episode contains descriptions and discussion of police violence against Black individuals.
Hilda M. Jordan: We're the Chosen Few that allegedly have made it and you know, are the golden ones, quote unquote, by Harvard's own reputation, and not even that can save us while walking home
Drew G. Faust: Harvard is likely the most diverse environment in which most of our students have ever lived
Daryl G. Smith: Too many reports will say things like we urge deans and department chairs. We are long past the urging.
Cornell Brooks: You have 18,000 police departments, of which Harvard is but one.
MNW: I'm standing on a strip of sidewalk in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue, buses and cars zipping past me. To my left is Cambridge Common, to my right is the Harvard Law School campus. A couple 100 feet behind me is Pound Hall, a law school building, got a dark brick facade that in normal times has a university health clinic for law school students. This is almost exactly the spot where about three years ago, just after 9pm, Cambridge Police Department officers attacked and arrested a Black male undergraduate student at Harvard College.
MNW: A warning that what follows is audio from a recording a bystander made of the arrest. It can be difficult to listen to, if you’d prefer not to you can skip ahead 30 seconds.
Hilda M. Jordan at protest: Black lives matter at Harvard, too.
MNW: I’m Matteo Wong,
OGO: And I’m Olivia Oldham. You’re listening to Under Review, a podcast from The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes, in which we’re exploring the way Harvard most often seems to deal with race, racism, and policing — a performance review.
MNW + OGO: Performance reviews are how Harvard deals with inclusion and exclusion with regards to race, but also more broadly. Here’s an abridged, brief list of some recent reviews: “the College Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion”, “The Harvard University Review Committee”, “The Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging”, “the interfaculty initiative on identity, politics, and culture”, “the interfaculty initiative on higher education, inclusion and belonging, and organizational change”, “the inclusion and belonging pulse survey”, “the AAU campus climate survey on sexual assault”, “the task force on managing student mental health”, “Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery”, “The Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage”, “the committee to articulate principles on renaming”, “The University Discrimination and Bullying Policy Steering Committee and Working Groups”, “External Review Committee to Review Sexual Harassment at Harvard University”, “University-wide steering committee on human remains in the University’s museum collections” — sorry, that was not so brief.
OGO: These kinds of reviews can be found as early as 1980. Reading them it sometimes seems like not much has changed, in either the problems at Harvard or the University’s attempts to study them. What role have such diversity reviews played in changing the University — or, conversely, in keeping it the same?
MNW: We started thinking about these questions this summer, when on June 2, Harvard University Police Department officers were seen assisting Boston police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dorchester, many miles from Harvard’s campus.
Abolish HUPD protest, june 2020: Even closer to home, we know about the Harvard police being called in as reinforcements to intimidate protestors in Boston who filled the streets to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd.”
MNW: There was an outpour of anger and protest at Harvard’s involvement, heightened by how the Movement for Black Lives was erupting across the nation in response to police violence.
MNW: Within days of June 2, University President Lawrence S. Bacow sent a letter to the Harvard community, writing that HUPD presence at the BLM protest raised troubling questions about policing at Harvard. He appointed an external consulting group, 21 CP solutions, to review and provide recommendations to improve policing and public safety on campus. The final report, released in December 2020, proposes some significant changes, and Harvard is in the early stages of considering them. Yet to us, the anger and protests at Harvard police — and the University’s subsequent response, to launch a review committee — felt strangely familiar.
OGO: We almost immediately thought about the events and aftermath of April 13, 2018 — when a Harvard student asked the University Health Services to respond to their friend’s medical emergency, but instead of University medical personnel or police arriving to the scene, it was Cambridge police who responded, physically beat, and arrested the student. Why couldn’t the University help a distressed student a few dozen feet off of Harvard property in 2018, but Harvard police officers could help Boston police at a Black Lives Matter rally many miles from campus?
Emanuel: People were rightfully kind of angry at the university, for allowing this to happen as a student, and so why was the student being brutalized by the Cambridge police department?
MNW: Shortly after the events of April 13, 2018, following an outpouring of student protests, then University President Drew Faust also convened a review committee to examine what went wrong that night and make recommendations for improving HUPD, University Health services, and Harvard resources more broadly. Two years later, as BLM protests swept the country, it seemed to us like our campus was asking similar questions: is policing in its current form the best way to provide community safety? Students’ questions, however, had grown sharper alongside the evolving national tenor around policing and racism:
Abolish HUPD protest June 2020: Why does an institution that claims to embra ce dialogue and debate need a private army with untold rounds of live ammunition?
OGO: We asked why, two years after one review of racism and policing at Harvard, does it seem so little has changed, to the point that Harvard had to launch another review of racism and policing? And why are the findings and recommendations from 2018 and 2020 so similar? In this first episode we’re rewinding, from summer 2020 to spring 2018, to do our own review: An exploration of the night of April 13, 2018 and its aftermath — events and consequences that reverberate to the present.
OGO: April 13, 2018 was the day of Yardfest, an annual music festival at the college typically headlined by a pop musician most students don’t really care about, and a time when students get up to typical music festival antics, drinking and dancing with their friends.
OGO: April 13 was also less than three weeks after the University published the final report of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, a 16-month effort involving dozens of faculty, staff, and students. In a letter announcing the task force’s findings, President Faust wrote, “it is incumbent on all of us to do our part, to reach across difference, to find ways to ensure that every person on this campus has the chance to find intellectual, professional, and social fulfillment.” That commitment would soon be put to the test.
OGO: That night at 8:36 p.m., a college student called Harvard University Health Services to request assistance for their friend, a Black student at the College who had been standing naked on Massachusetts Avenue and was having a possible mental health crisis.
OGO: At the time, the Harvard College amnesty policy stated that “Any student may bring an intoxicated or drug-impaired friend to Harvard University Health Services or to a hospital, or seek assistance from College residential life staff or HUPD, and by doing this, neither they nor the friend will face disciplinary action from the College for having used or provided alcohol or drugs.” This policy, it seems, broke down that night.
OGO: Three minutes after the initial call, HUHS followed standard protocol and contacted the Harvard University Police Department. HUPD transferred the call to the Cambridge Police Department.
MNW: So I'm again standing on the concrete strip of sidewalk in the middle of mass ave, where on April 13 2018, Cambridge police officers assaulted and arrested a Black male student. Apparently one of the reasons that Harvard police officers didn't respond and Cambridge police did, is that this technically isn't Harvard's property, so it may not be under the HUPD jurisdiction. It's technically under Cambridge police jurisdiction. But as I'm just across the street from the law school, I'm going to walk onto Harvard property from the spot where the student was arrested and attacked. Starting to walk now … on the sidewalk … And now I'm on Harvard's property, I guess, under HUPD jurisdiction. In fact, to my right, there's a little blue light. It's one of those stations where I can request HUPD assistance or a night escort. And let's see, that light is another 10 steps away. So in total, maybe 33 steps from where the student was attacked to a blue light that in theory, Harvard students can use to ask for police or other assistance.
OGO: At 8:43 p.m., Cambridge police went to Cambridge Commons looking for a Black man who was quote-unquote ‘tripping,’ but saw no one meeting this description. The officers left.
OGO: Then, between 9:08 p.m. and 9:11 p.m., emergency communications received six calls, including from the original caller, about a naked Black male student near the Commons.
OGO: As a warning, the events I am about to describe depict police violence against a Black man. CPD arrived at the scene at 9:09 p.m. and located the student. A video that surfaced later that night, published by the Cambridge Police Department, depicts three officers, eventually joined by a fourth, surrounding the unclothed man and speaking with him for approximately two minutes. During this time, CPD requested an ambulance to the scene. Two minutes into the video, the student appears to take two steps toward one of the officers, toward the right side of the screen. Then, as the student begins to step back, an officer tackles him from behind.
OGO: Hilda M. Jordan, a college student in the class of 2019, saw the video that night after returning to her dorm after Yardfest:
Jordan: I remember being in my dorm. I probably had come back actually from yardfest festivities, I was a bit tired and I'm like, Okay, I’m going to turn in sort of earlyish for the night. And I remember being called by a couple of friends from the law school and then all of a sudden being sent the video and being told like, ‘Do you know what's happening?’ Like, this is happening, and before I knew it, I was just sort of in the midst, right. My first priority was figuring out, was the student okay.
OGO: Within hours of the arrest and the video circulating online, various groups and student organizations began to respond. Not surprisingly, undergrads and law school students, versus the Cambridge Police Department, interpreted the night quite differently. We’re going to compare those accounts. Matteo will be reading a statement by the Harvard Black Law Students Association the next day, and the other voice is that of Cambridge police commissioner Branville G. Bard.
CPD: At Friday evening at approximately 9:09 pm, our officers responded to the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Waterhouse call for service.
HBLSA (MNW): “On the evening of April 13th, a number of our current Harvard Black Law Students Association (HBLSA) members and admitted students witnessed a brutal instance of police violence at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Waterhouse Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A naked, unarmed Black man, stood still on the median at the center of Massachusetts Avenue across from Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church.
CPD: Officers responded, located the male, and verbally engaged him on the intersection, on the median area of Massachusetts Avenue. At some point it was learned from his acquaintances that he may have ingested hallucinogenic substances. Numerous attempts were made by the officers to calm down the male, but they were met w/ opposition and hostility and it escalated while officers attempted to speak with him.
HBLSA: He was surrounded by at least four Cambridge Police Department (CPD) officers who, without provocation, lunged at him, tackled him and pinned him to the ground.
CPD: After he was observed clenching his fists and moving toward officers, the decision was made to take the individual down. (1:52) his legs were grabbed, he was taken to the ground. Once on the ground, the individual continued to resist arrest. Three officers from the CPD and another officer from the transit police department were required to gain compliance with the male and place him in the handcuffs to avoid further injury to himself, responding officers, or others in the area.
HBLSA: While on the ground, at least one officer repeatedly punched the student in his torso as he screamed for help.
CPD: The male was subsequently transported to a local hospital for evaluation. While under transport he proceeded to spit a mixture of blood and saliva into the face of the paramedic or EMT.
HBLSA: The officers held him to the ground until paramedics arrived, placed him on a stretcher, and put him in the ambulance.
CPD: As a result of the incident, the individual is subject to being charged with indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, assault, resisting arrest, and assault and battery of ambulance personnel.
HBLSA: A pool of blood remained on the pavement as the ambulance departed. Shortly thereafter, firefighters came and cleaned up the blood with bleach and water.
OGO: HUPD officers arrived on scene at 9:19 p.m., three minutes after CPD requested Harvard police and by which time the student had been arrested and was in an ambulance for transport to Mt. Auburn Hospital. Harvard officers never saw him.
MNW: Hilda and others began organizing a student response that night:
Jordan: I mean as students this was really alarming and shocking because during orientation, I remember being told that you know HUPD will come get you in Boston, if you have a problem right, if you're too intoxicated… And here was a young Black man who was knocked over, but was actually shrieking and not responding to, was not responding coherently. And instead of meeting this need that the student had with what we believe to be competent and honestly just basic care, they disregarded this and actually made it a more violent interaction.
MNW: She and other undergrads formed a group called Black Students Organizing for Change and held a series of community conversations where students could support one another and come to a mutual understanding of what had gone wrong, and what they wanted done.
Jordan: I think for us the biggest issue was just questioning who would protect us, even when, especially when the systems that were designed to actually help us, literally turn their backs on this. So it was really about getting Harvard as an institution to recognize where it failed to protect the students, where it failed to, promoted a false sense of safety for a student and how in the height of police brutality… They would leave us to their hands, so it was just very insensitive and irresponsible from the institution standpoint, and our organizing was really about getting Harvard to reconcile with that and to really look at those the promises that it gave to students and what sort of institutional and system infrastructure was actually in place to care for students.
MNW: They began researching alternatives to police response and were in regular conversation with the Harvard Black Law Students Association, who were coordinating the students’ legal strategy and representation. On Saturday night, the HBLSA organized an event at the Law School in response to the event, which over 100 people attended.
Emanuel Powell: pretty much all I was doing all day was planning this event
MNW: This is Emanuel Powell, who at the time was on the HBLSA’s political action committee. The event was a healing space and a time to plan.
Emanuel Powell: We created a space for people to process how they were feeling. We invited local organizers to come and speak and engage with us on kind of what actions are already happening, and then shared what we as students were doing to support the student who was harmed. And so a big part of that was providing legal — there was an attorney, the Criminal Justice Initiative, I believe, at Harvard, or Criminal Justice Institute, we worked with them. The lead of that is BLSA’s faculty advisors. So they took on the case.
MNW: That May, the Cambridge Police dropped all charges against the student. This incidence of police violence didn’t occur in a vacuum, but with the backdrop of national outcry against police brutality, and near the campus of a university that has a 400 year history tied to slavery and hierarchy.
Emanuel (8:25): This is 2018, so we're not too far removed from, you know, exceptionally violent killings of people like Michael Brown, Jim Wilson — sorry. Michael Brown is who I'm thinking. But Eric Garner, trying to think what, who had happened at that time. Right before we had come in Alton Sterling had died, had been killed in 2016, before I started in law school. So like, all of these things were happening. And it wasn't that far removed. So I think people were just really struggling with this being so close and being thankful that this student lived. But just seeing how close this violence was, I think, and people were rightfully kind of angry at the University, for allowing this to happen. Cause this was a student, and so why was the student being brutalized by the Cambridge police department? Why hadn't anything been done to make sure that that didn't happen? And the other side of it was, Why hasn't Harvard had a stronger stance on making sure that violence didn't happen in the Cambridge community, generally, not just students, but period?
MNW: Afterwards, HBLSA published their own letter, which we read from earlier. They demanded “that Harvard University create an internal crisis response team to support students, faculty, and staff that does not involve CPD.” For Cambridge Police they wanted accountability, writing, “The conduct of the CPD on the evening of April 13, 2018 was unacceptable. We are reminded, as soon-to-be-graduates of an elite law school that we cannot protect our bodies with our degrees — and that is why we also call our current students and alumni to embrace these demands as inclusive to all Black people, not just Harvardians.”
Jordan: We had, you know, multiple conversations with different stakeholders from the Harvard police department, the Harvard Dean of Student Life, the office I think for Diversity and Inclusion also was heavily involved. So we had different deans and administrators that were also trying to quickly understand what students were feeling and what students were thinking, as we were working.
MNW: Three days after the incident, on April 16, then-University President Drew Faust addressed the events in a letter to the Harvard community, writing, ‘The events of Friday night are profoundly disturbing.’ She mentioned ‘the backdrop of increasingly urgent questions about race and policing in the United States.’ She vowed the University would review the issue and make needed improvements. Hilda was heartened by Faust’s response, which she saw as a sign of good-faith effort. But as an activist, she was also wary of being pacified.
Jordan: That was an asset to balance, primarily because we wanted to make sure that we were still being impactful with our actions. So for example our actual protest was organized offline, so that the institution couldn’t close off the yard or you know try to curtail traffic and weaken the event. So we did it sort of just by word of mouth and text messages. The day of and we were able to get, you know, nearly 300 people to show up and protest around the Harvard University building, like that gray building in the middle of the yard.
MNW: The protest was held during Visitas, the visiting weekend for admitted students at Harvard.
OGO: Weren’t we admitted students visiting campus at the time? We were high school seniors in 2018, freshly admitted. I remember walking around campus for the first time, Visitas itinerary in hand, and seeing some students wearing masks standing silently next to the John Harvard statue.
Jordan: This is one of the few weekends that Harvard really cares about, I think. Harvard, like most universities, but maybe even more so than other universities, is really concerned with its appearance and how it's perceived to the outside world and incoming students and alum. I don't know that they care as much about the students while they're there, but getting us there and getting our money once you're out is really key.
MNW: That weekend, leading up to the protest, BSOC — that new organization founded immediately after the incident — published a letter to the Harvard administration, making a set of 10 demands. They wrote, “the incident of police violence raised fears about the actions of the Cambridge Police Department and shed light on structural failures of Harvard University’s emergency response policies.
MNW: Their demands included support for the students’ needs, an extensive report on what happened, establishing an internal crisis response team, a formal designation of all drug- and alcohol-related calls to HUHS as medical emergencies, hiring Black and Brown mental health counselors, mental health response training for all HUPD officers, and more.
MNW: During Visitas, over 200 students, mostly dressed in Black, first gathered at the Phillips Brooks House to prepare. At noon, they paired off and spread themselves across Harvard Yard, holding signs reading “I Don’t Feel Safe” and “Will Harvard Call the Police on Me Too?”
Jordan: We had folks team up in groups of two, so the idea was like, if you're holding a poster you wouldn't talk. One of you could hand out the papers to ongoers.
MNW: The pairs of students, one speaking and one with red duct tape over their mouth, stayed this way for 40 minutes, what they said was the length of time between the first call for help and HUPD officers arriving.
Jordan: Protesting is an act that is both for the observer and the onlooker to raise awareness, but also to build internal solidarity and consciousness, right. For us it was really about how we spread through the yard, right. Like we spread out in an X, with University Hall as the center, and tried to get you know the main exit and entry points through the, through the yard, so that folks could, wouldn't really walk — like maybe you could walk past the first person and not really know what's going on, but then you see another person about 10 steps away. Then you also look back and you're like, ‘Oh, well, there's another one and there's another one.’ When you start to read the signs and it's like, ‘Wow, this is what's happening here.’
MNW: After 40 minutes, they gathered around University Hall and observed two minutes of silence, the time between CPD calling for HUPD officers and Harvard officers getting to the scene. Then they began to chant
Protestors: Treat me, don’t beat me
MNW: Hilda hadn’t intended to give a speech that day, but the moment overcame her.
Jordan: the day of, I ended up getting a mic handed to me as we sat around University Hall [...] and I just started to think about how many folks with mental illnesses had been killed by the police that year […] and how our response to dealing with societal failures or even like people's personal needs is to truly just beat them or kill them when they are Black and Latino and marginalized and brown people. So it was really a powerful time when we were able to sit there and just realize that so many other people see this and understand this problem, and are fighting to make the world better. And I just, you know, sat there in that moment and recognized that like wow, as the world is realizing the long history of police brutality that has plagued the United States and particularly the Black community in the US, right. We're fighting it right on this campus that's supposed to be the beacon of privilege and elitism and that we have, we're the Chosen Few that allegedly have made it and you know, are the golden ones, quote unquote, by Harvard's own reputation, and not even that can save us while walking home, right. So, it was just fitting in how close to home this came and how genuinely and truly this could be any one of us, how it has been friends, family members of people, and how it always happens without reason
Jordan: to see how many folks were using their voice, were lifting up and taking up the call and wanted to be present and be a part of this change. And so it was, there was a lot, and I remember, ultimately being on the mic and as we yelled just treat me, don't beat me…
Jordan: ...really feeling it with every fiber of my body and starting to cry, because I truly felt like I was just crying to the institution to have them care for us and not leave us dejected to violence, right. And as a first generation college student, immigrant Black woman Latina, it just, it felt so true for all of the times that Harvard had caused me true like mental and emotional duress and hadn't provided me with any resources to accommodate for that and how often, and how quickly or easily even it could have been me intoxicated unresponsive to my friends being brutalized by the Cambridge police department. And, you know, unsure whether or not I was going to graduate, ultimately because I was under this ridiculous amount of pressure and isolation that I couldn't really explain to a lot of my non-Black peers and that most people at Harvard sort of look at me and be like, What are you talking about?
OGO: Two weeks after her initial statement and shortly after the Visitas protest, Faust announced a committee led by several members of the Harvard faculty to review mental health resources, community policing, and more at the College.
Jordan: I think for us, it did have an effect because that was, it was shortly thereafter that the committee was sort of formed, or at least it was announced that the committee would be formed. In my time at Harvard I hadn't quite seen a response so quickly. Where typically you know it's like, okay, after a month or two months, then we will create a committee, we will talk about creating a committee, it will take us a whole summer to found it, to create a committee. Then once we create the committee it'll take us another year to have investigations and conversations and then we'll release our findings, you know, in another three months, which will only be recommendations. And then we'll have another six months to talk about implementation and before you know it, it's been two years, and the students who were first complaining about this are either, you know, are seniors, juniors or have already left. And by the time you're that far through your Harvard career you have a lot of other things that you're just sort of trying to keep up with and worrying about. So for us it was really, we were really pressed to make the University respond before we left campus.
OGO: The review committee consisted of seven members of Harvard’s faculty and staff, tapping into leading scholars on law, racial justice, mental health, and more. It was led by Annette Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, and included professors from FAS, the business school, medical school, and graduate school of education, as well as a senior policy adviser and a dean of faculty development. All seven declined or did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.
MNW: The committee’s charge, Faust wrote, was as follows: “The committee will start by determining the sequence of events leading to the student’s arrest. It will seek to gain an understanding of how the College, HUHS, and HUPD responded to (and were able to respond to) events such as those that occurred in this instance. That understanding, in turn, will inform a more systematic examination of opportunities for improvement across a range of institutional activities.”
OGO: It’s worth noting that just the previous month Faust had announced the findings of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, a giant, two-year effort to assess and reorient Harvard to make it more inclusive. We’ll dig into that presidential task force in our third episode, but this event clearly showed the urgency, the life-and-death stakes, of turning that task force’s recommendations into reality.
MNW: Yeah, the final report of this 2018 HUPD review actually highlights the presidential task force as evidence that, “The University has recently taken various steps that demonstrate its commitment to building and fostering a community that is inclusive and welcoming for its members.”
OGO: I might emphasize the word demonstrate — it’s a display of commitment, but in and of itself not evidence of change.
MNW: This review committee met several times throughout the summer of 2018, gathering information about what happened leading up to, during, and after the arrest. They broke into smaller working groups, reviewed documents, and spoke with HUPD officers, students, administrators, HUHS workers, and more. After Hilda so cynically described the Harvard review committee process and her skepticism of it, I wanted to hear what she thought of this particular committee, the one that she was hopeful about because of the speed of its formation. But, during two calls she had with the reviewers over the summer, she was disheartened.
Jordan: they were very dismissive, and it felt very condescending from the student angle. Which was hard, but not unexpected because again right, here are a bunch of quote-unquote experts on these issues who don't care to hear what a group of kids who are going to be leaving anyways have to, like have to say about how to use University dollars. And their biggest thing I remember was that they kept focusing on you know, the student's drug use. They tried to make this an individual instance and talk about how the student had failed. And I remember one of the questions even being like, how much sleep had he gotten. And it was, the turn very much was the move away from any institutional failure or even system failure and to try and focus more on like, well, was this a reasonable thing to expect from a student or like, should he have handled this better [...] So I would say that I, I don't say that I have a cynical view in as much as I feel just like, an accurate view, if that makes sense, the expense of what these committees are also meant to do, right.
MNW: The question, then, is what are such review committees intended to do — respond to a crisis, enact structural change, or something else entirely? What was this particular committee intended to do? Hilda was, to say the least, suspicious.
Jordan: I don't think that the folks that are, that usually end up on these committees are really seeking to fundamentally change something about the institution or to really understand what the student issues are.
MNW: The answer lies in the committee’s final report, 34 pages and issued in November. The reviewers split their findings and recommendations into four subcategories that all fall under what the reviewers called a “Foundational commitment,” which was: “As an academic institution committed to expanding opportunity and creating a diverse community that enhances the learning of every student, Harvard should be proactive, innovative, and resourceful in its efforts to create the conditions that allow the members of our community to reach their highest potential.” Hilda remembers,
Jordan: we were disappointed to the extent that like, we wondered when and how these would be implemented. But I do think we were happy to see that our calls had been heard, right. I think it was like, there was a clear recognition that this issue was being contextualized in a larger setting and I think we were, we were satisfied with that to some, to some extent.
OGO: I mean, this ‘foundational commitment’ is vague, but neither of us would disagree with it: Yes, Harvard should be supporting everybody in the community. But there’s no specific who — Harvard should support everyone, but perhaps some groups of people, like students of color or first generation students, could reap more benefit from that support.
OGO: It’s also important to remember that it’s not only the reviewers doing this work. A lot of the time, the labor to push Harvard to conduct these reviews falls on the students most harmed by the very problems they want addressed. Emanuel really stressed that when I talked to him:
Emanuel: I mean, the only thing that I’d probably add that we haven't necessarily talked about, it's like, a lot of that labor ends up falling on students of color, low income students, queer students. So a lot of this activism or a desire to change is somewhat personal, because you want the institution to be an institution that you feel comfortable at, or don't feel bad about being at.
MNW: And then the University tries to channel all of that physical and emotional labor into a 34 page document. Those pages have a lot to live up to.
Jordan: this wasn't just, this was about the individual student and this individual instant, but it was also about what Harvard is doing in a larger context to deal with police brutality and to deal with the isolation and fear and lack of safety that its marginalized students face.
OGO: That’s a high bar for seven reviewers, no matter how talented.
MNW: And it should be! Harvard is supposed to produce the best scholarship and thinking and leaders in the world. They don’t get the “Harvard A.” I think we should go through the report and its recommendations. The committee outlines what happened in great detail, quotes from community discussions, all the usual you’d expect. Then they list four principles, which roughly break down into: (1) reforming campus policing, (2) reforming mental health services and supporting students of color, (3) changing the Yardfest festival itself, and (4) coordinating across Harvard’s various schools to better act as “One Harvard.”
OGO: Alright, let’s review the review — something we’re going to do a lot throughout this podcast. What was recommended in each of those categories? And what came of those recommendations?
MNW: Before we take a closer look at the recommendations that came out of this University committee convened in response to the police arrest of a Black student at Harvard on the night of April 13, 2018, it might be good to recall our context in 2021, as well as that of policing and anti-Black racism in this country more broadly. We’ve just gone through what might be remembered as the summer of Black Lives Matter.
MNW: To understand the significance of the protests that erupted this summer, we spoke with someone much more knowledgeable about these issues than either of us.
Cornell W Brooks: My name is Cornell William Brooks. I serve as the Hauser professor of nonprofit organizations, and a professor for public leadership and social justice at the Harvard Kennedy School. And in my previous life has served as president-ceo of the NAACP, whereIit did a great amount of work with organizations around the country on police reform, transformation, abolition.
MNW: Thank you. Yeah, so I guess. Before we started talking about the Harvard specific context. Generally you yourself, and many activists, lawyers, and others have been working on sort of trying to reform and change police departments for decades, and I'm sort of wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the efforts that people take and the reforms they have tried to push for and what makes, kind of what makes these departments resistant to or difficult to change.
CWB: it's a good question at a morally poignant moment, namely in the wake of the George Floyd protests, where 25 million Americans across 550 jurisdictions across the United States and millions more people around the world took to the streets against police brutality. But those protests and the protests of the moment take place against a historical backdrop. So as you know the police departments, particularly in the south in this country, emerged from the slave patrols of the century before last. And so literally when you look at the badges of sheriffs and police officers they're often stars, and those stars literally look like the stars of the badges of slave patrols, but why do we know that similarity. Because policing in this country has been about law enforcement, but is also been about social control. [...]
CWB: This is a national problem in terms of its consistency is uniformity, its historicity. But it's also a local problem and it says that you have an 18,000 police departments of which Harvard is but one. And so the point being here is this is a long standing problem, deeply rooted in American history that's taken on a certain intensity. Literally, and come of age, if you will, at the time of your college attendance.
MNW: We’ll hear much more from Brooks in later episodes. What’s important to note is that, when Harvard announces an external review, in the summer of 2020 or the spring of 2018, of the Harvard University Police Department, more is at stake than the presence of police in dining halls or particular racist incidents. There is a history, a legacy, an infusion of anti-Black racism that stretches back 400 years to this country’s, and Harvard’s, origins.
MNW: Returning to the 2018 review surrounding HUPD, the first principle was, quoting from the report, “When members of our community need help, they should have the information they need to confidently access university and other emergency services, and to have an accurate understanding of what to expect from the response.” The specific recommendations were to better communicate what students can expect of HUPD, “assessing the desirability” of including mental health professionals in police responses, and clarifying Harvard’s relationship with surrounding police departments in incidents outside of HUPD jurisdiction.
OGO: Including mental health professionals is promising, as is clarifying to students the role of HUPD. But at the same time this focus on better communication kind of toes the line between reforming the police and blaming citizens for not understanding what they can expect of police, as if it were mostly an awareness problem, that the students should have known better and police did nothing wrong.
MNW: Part of it might stem from how the immediate facts of this incident don’t explicitly betray racism on the part of HUPD. Harvard police didn’t technically attack or arrest this student. They failed to respond in time. So from an administrator’s perspective this might have been just an infrastructure problem, a communications problem, an administrative problem — maybe not a policing problem, maybe not a product of structural racism. Of course that misses the point, but it’s plausible.
OGO: Sure, but then we’re isolating the issue, taking it out of the broader context of policing and anti-Black racism that Brooks outlined. And if you do that then you need accountability for Cambridge police. None of the Cambridge officers were disciplined. An independent review of Cambridge police officers’ conduct, led by a former Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice, stated, “I carefully considered all of the evidence and circumstances and conclude that the officers of the Cambridge Police Department acted appropriately and I found no evidence that they used excessive force.” After that review, CPD implemented some new trainings and guidelines, like implicit bias training for officers. So one could take this finding at its word — but four officers, beating up a 21-year old in distress? Come on. In which case, this finding that CPD officers acted according to policy may be just evidence of the policy, the system, being broken. And so if we absolve HUPD of responsibility, and then CPD, where are we left?
MNW: But I don’t think the review absolves HUPD. They include many voices highly critical of police presence at Harvard. That being said, you may have a point, that isolating the issue, not thinking big enough, might have been a problem. Because even if we assume best intentions and that these recommendations were at least considered, it’s not clear they were carried out, or at least not effectively. The same concerns about Harvard police from 2018 all show up, in altered wording, in the 21CP review from December 2020: distrust of HUPD, no clarity about their role, a need to consider medically trained first responders rather than police, and so on. I even talked to some students who sat in focus groups with the 21CP Solutions reviewers. One was Carter Nakamoto, who in 2020 was on the Undergraduate Council. Carter, after hearing about the recommendations in the 2018 report to consider having mental health professionals as first responders, had a curious recollection about the focus group:
Carter Nakamoto: there was a session at this meeting, obviously at length about, you know, the yardfest in 2018
MNW: and the 21CP reviewers brought up that after this incident, students were calling for mental health professionals to be first responders rather than police
CN: it sounds like this is something that they were heavily considering in their report [...] it's fascinating that they brought that up, specifically in response to concerns raised in the context of the 2018 yardfest incident. And given, given that like, I don't think any of the council members knew that like this was literally one of the recommendations in the 2018 report.”
MNW: One of the 21CP reviewers, Brenda Bond, told me she doesn’t remember whether they read the 2018 report, but even if they did, since they didn’t cite it in the final review it likely did not inform their findings.
OGO: So 21CP knew about what happened in 2018, but not about the 2018 report? Then why make the report at all in the first place, if nobody’s going to read it? It’s an institutional memory that is not supposed to be accessed, or at very least, that is not going to be accessed. Or, it’s almost as if, back in 2018, University admin expected this single report would resolve the problem — as if they thought no one would be talking about the same issues two years later.
MNW: It’s also this weird duality of, HUPD couldn’t help this student in 2018 because he was like 20 steps off of Harvard’s property, but then they could help Boston police at a Black Lives Matter rally that was most certainly not Harvard property.
OGO: Almost as if, if the University had taken the 2018 report seriously and truly reconsidered the role police have to play in Harvard and at large, student outrage at HUPD presence at a BLM protest in 2020 was avoidable. This is so frustrating — it’s also, because Harvard is big and decentralized and can be so opaque, really hard for us to say how much of that was decentralized administration struggling to implement things, or a resistant police force, or resistant leadership, or administration not taking the review seriously, or if good-faith efforts were made but what they thought of was ineffective, or some combination of all of those. But I guess regardless of the explanation, that first resolution, about changes to HUPD itself, fell short. What about the other three?
MNW: Maybe not so surprisingly, it’s mostly more of the same. The second principle centers around Harvard University Health Services, HUPD, and all of campus supporting, quote, “All members of our vibrant and diverse academic community” — in plain English, Harvard health and safety resources can fail students of color. The committee gave suggestions for how to remedy that, and Harvard has implemented many of those suggestions, like providing “training for multicultural competency in mental health support” or updating HUPD policy to serve a “diverse community” or more diverse hiring practices in HUHS.
OGO: We can’t exactly trace a cause-and-effect relationship between specific changes and this particular review committee. Again, it’s unclear how effective these changes have been, because the very problems these changes were meant to solve persist. For instance, if student experience is the metric here, there’s not been significant improvement on the mental health front.
MNW: Right. Just this past year the Provost’s office spent months producing a gargantuan report on mental health at Harvard, which they published in summer 2020. On the one hand that effort shows dedication to student mental health. On the other hand, that task force reported very similar problems and disparities regarding mental health services, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
OGO: Alright, so we could be cynical and say Harvard fell short or didn’t commit itself to principle two. But we could also be charitable and say this kind of change, to the culture and values and core systems of the University, is hard to make and will be slow. And maybe the problems are the same, but someone, somewhere, is thinking about them. Although maybe all that thinking gets in the way of doing. But let’s keep going. What about the third principle, changes to Yardfest?
MNW: I was just going to get there. That is the set of recommendations from the 2018 review that the University made the most explicit statements about and, from my reporting, for which it verifiably implemented almost all of the recommendations. These were changes like making a more secure boundary around Yardfest, having more water available, moving the concert to Sunday, increasing police presence — all of which happened the following year.
OGO: Wait a second. So you’re telling me that Harvard commissioned a team to systematically review College policy, mental health, and community policing, and the most explicit “improvement” to a “range” of activities it was meant to address was to Yardfest? A one-day event which I have never even attended?
MNW: Well, that’s one way to put it. But it’s not like the reviewers had the authority to implement their recommendations. And it does seem like updating Yardfest procedure would be easier than, say, rehauling HUPD.
OGO: Right, the review couldn’t require Harvard to enact specific policies — which is part of the problem. It almost makes the report into an act of image-preservation. And it’s not like the review made many actual policy recommendations. It’s so vague.
MNW: And we can say principle four, to act as One Harvard, is similarly vague and hard to trace. It’s about coordinating communications and health services across the schools, which probably happened, but is too general to really evaluate or trace to this specific report.
OGO: So the 2018 recommendations were precisely what they were labeled: principles, but not action items. Two years later, people may have suffered as a result, and we’re asking the same questions.
Abolish HUPD protest: Why does an institution that claims to embrace dialogue and debate need a private army with untold rounds of live ammunition?
OGO: There are new student voices calling out Harvard and its police force for the same things — new slogans, new particular grievances, more precise and articulated demands and criticisms, but all to the same tune as Hilda in 2018.
Jordan: Thinking through and trying to understand what is a reasonable timeline for institutional change. I think that's one of the hardest things to understand and advocate for as a student, because our time at these institutions are so short. And I think for me it's also like what like what is my ability to follow up on these things when it's not a part of, you know, my, it's not it's not a part of my coursework, I'm not getting paid to do this, it's emotionally taxing. I have to sort of relive and then do it [...]
Jordan: I am starting to see a bit more is that the students do have a lot more power than I think we realize oftentimes, but because we don't always have the institutional memory that the administration does or professors do, it's hard to see and understand that. So, yeah, I guess it's just a long way of saying that I'm a bit impatient when it comes to institutional change, but mostly because these problems, like you mentioned before, right, have been going on for years and years and years [...]
Jordan: I feel like, until the institution starts doing things differently or trying to do things differently, we're only going to keep identifying the new iteration of the same problem so we'll get the specifics of how it happened this time, but not really catch the larger problem, like the larger structural issue, if that makes sense.
OGO: So how do we make sense of all this? HUPD officers themselves didn’t attack the student, but the incident brings up enormous and valid criticisms of HUPD that seem to be as, if not more, valid today, two years later. Harvard listened back then, at least somewhat. But maybe not closely enough? Because everything the University missed, or willfully ignored, or even silenced — those issues are coming back to haunt it.
MNW: But rather than being a specter, it’s all too real. I think, and bear with me here, we need to take a detour. To understand 2020 and 2021, we turned back to a flashpoint from 2018 — a time that, despite not having been on campus to experience, we are hyper-aware of and is, in some ways, a part of our experiences as students.
OGO: This would be a good time to acknowledge our own positions — I’m a white person who does not feel the physical and emotional impacts of University and structural racism like Black and brown people do.
MNW: I’m half-white and half-Chinese, and in a similar position of privilege. We want to foreground the voices of students like Hilda or Emanuel, and we’re not claiming them as our own. Rather, we’re embarking on an exploration of racism and Harvard’s institutional responses to it. To that end, rewinding a bit further could help — to a time when you and I were not even alive, but which we, once again, might not just identify with, but feel is a part of us. Not our lived history, but an affect, a zeitgeist, that resonates all the same. Harvard may not remember this history, but we can dig it up.
OGO: Hmm. What are you suggesting?
MNW: Not 2018, or 2020, but May of 1980. A time when Harvard College’s population was somewhere between 15 and 20 percent minority, and the Lampoon had just published a cover of a Black boy shining John Harvard’s shoes, and the Crimson had just taken images of two random Black students and drawn bars over them to make art for an editorial on prison uprisings. We can, I think, trace many of the discussions we’re having today back to that time period, that May — because, early in that month, Harvard released the results of a multi-year effort to study diversity at the College, one of the earliest in a long string of reports trying to do the same. They called it, “A Study of Race Relations at Harvard College.”
OGO: Under Review is a podcast from the Harvard Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. It was produced by Zing Gee and Thomas Maisonneuve. Music by Ian Chan. Art by Meera Nair. Thanks also to James Bikales, Ben Naddaff-Hafrey, and Marcus Montague-Mfuni for their insights into this episode.
About Under Review:
How can Harvard, an institution with so much history, have so little memory?
The racial reckonings and Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country this past summer brought attention to a trend in how Harvard seems to deal with student activism and concerns surrounding race, racism, and diversity: to commission a diversity review. These committees and reports long predate this summer, and reading them it can seem, at times, like some things have not changed at the University — in race relations, Harvard’s review process, or the findings and recommendations. What can these diversity reviews accomplish, and what can’t they?
“Under Review” is a podcast from The Harvard Crimson, hosted by Matteo Wong and Olivia Oldham, chairs of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Each week, they will explore controversies and diversity reviews stretching across 40 years of Harvard history, speaking to dozens of students, activists, experts, and more, to try and understand how the Harvard diversity review works — or doesn’t.
“Under Review” is produced by Zing Gee and Thomas Maisonneuve. Music by Ian Chan. Art by Meera S. Nair.