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Harvard’s Pro-Palestine Protests are Now Led by Unrecognized Student Groups. Will Harvard Sanction Them?

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{shortcode-2a6d20b36bf1a51403bdb27028b331b88db39b7c}fter Columbia and Brandeis sanctioned and banned pro-Palestine student groups, members of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee worried Harvard would follow suit.

In the month following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the PSC was one of the main drivers of pro-Palestine student protests on campus — and of a national media frenzy over campus activism — but the group has taken a back seat in recent weeks.

Now, the organizations spearheading Harvard’s pro-Palestine protests do not have recognition to lose.

Since early November, the PSC has not organized any on-campus protests. Instead, protests have been led by two relative newcomers, the African and African American Resistance Organization, an undergraduate-led group formed early this semester, and Harvard BDS, a group of graduate student union members who refer to themselves as an unofficial caucus of the union.

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Both groups, neither officially recognized by the University, are technically not permitted to stage on-campus demonstrations. However, despite calls for disciplinary action from members of Congress and Harvard Hillel, the University’s Jewish center, Harvard administrators have signaled hesitation to sanction the groups for their protests, which have included class interruptions.

‘We speak for those who feel they can’t speak’

The PSC has been a primary organizer of pro-Palestine campus activism for years, holding protests at major campus events and an annual “Israel Apartheid Week.” In October, the group received widespread national backlash and faced doxxing attacks for issuing a statement that held Israel “entirely responsible” for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

However, the group has since taken a quieter approach. It has been over a month since the PSC last held an official public protest on Harvard’s campus.

A spokesperson for the PSC, whom The Crimson granted anonymity to due to safety concerns, wrote in an emailed statement that while the organization has hosted “education events, teach-ins, film screenings, creative displays, and collaborations with groups across campus” they are “thinking about how we can best maximize our bandwidth in this time.”

“We are committed to advancing our call for justice in Palestine through a range of approaches,” the statement reads.

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Instead, two groups that had virtually no public presence before October have taken on the mantle of protesting. The first, AFRO, is an unrecognized undergraduate group formed for Black student activism.

At Harvard, student organizations must apply for and receive recognition before they can access resources such as space reservations, marketing materials, and funding. Without official recognition, student organizations are not technically permitted to hold protests on campus.

During the 2022-23 academic year, the PSC received approximately $1,400 from the Harvard Undergraduate Association, the College’s student governance body, tasked with disbursing funding to recognized student organizations.

Members of AFRO have been among some of the only protesters willing to speak on record at PSC-organized protests, a move that AFRO organizer Prince A. Williams ’25 said was taken to protect other organizers who face personal risks.

He also said the group never sought recognition as a student group, though the College is also not currently accepting new applications.

“We assess our own risk, and we speak for those who feel they can’t speak,” Williams, a Crimson Editorial editor, said.

The second group, Harvard BDS, is also an unrecognized group and consists of rank-and-file members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers. The group was initially formed in 2021 when its union first endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel.

HGSU-UAW also voted to sign two letters calling for a ceasefire and endorsing the BDS movement Nov. 16. Despite the union’s publication of an additional statement condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia, more than 30 HGSU-UAW members announced their resignation over the votes.

Harvard BDS’ first protests were specifically in response to the University’s decision to indefinitely relieve a first-year proctor following his involvement in a protest confrontation, which a spokesperson said they believed to be “a basic violation of our labor rights.”

While Harvard BDS is not an officially recognized working group within the union, HGSU-UAW members have legal protections for political speech that non-unionized student workers do not. A Harvard BDS spokesperson wrote in a statement that the group might ask to be officially recognized by the union later.

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The National Labor Relations Board prohibits employers from disciplining or firing workers who engage in “concerted activity,” a broad category that includes discussing working conditions, circulating petitions, and most strikes.

But these activities could also apply to political protests not directly related to working conditions, like those undertaken by Harvard BDS in recent weeks.

“This is a group of workers who are getting together and discussing a social justice issue which the NLRB has clarified as protected concerted activity,” said Koby D. Ljunggren, a UAW staff organizer and former HGSU-UAW president.

Last week, the two groups jointly held a slew of events including two protests to cap a “week of action” where protesters chanted “globalize the intifada” and “from the river to the sea.”

While organizers argue the chants aimed to advocate for Palestinian freedom, the latter chant has been specifically condemned by University President Claudine Gay, who referred to it as “eliminationist” in a Nov. 9 email to Harvard affiliates.

The rhetoric also came under fire from Hillel, which released a statement last week calling on Gay to “hold both the individuals and organizations involved in this protest accountable, including the PSC who promoted these actions that are inconsistent with University policies.”

The email statement also asked Gay to clarify speech and protest regulations in an email to Harvard affiliates Nov. 30. The next day, College administrators, including Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana, sent such an email to undergraduate students, “writing to reaffirm that the College will continue to enforce all rules according to regular procedures.”

A Line in the Sand

As pro-Palestine demonstrations have continued on campus, only one protest is confirmed to have drawn a disciplinary response, when last month, the College initiated disciplinary hearings against eight undergraduates who participated in a 24-hour occupation of University Hall. The eight students were affiliated with Harvard Jews for Palestine, another unrecognized student group.

Though Gay has faced intense pressure from donors and, as recently as Tuesday, from members of Congress, she has continued to grant wide latitude to what speech is permitted on campus.

But the specific threshold for what will provoke a disciplinary action remains unclear.

The clearest articulation of Gay’s line in the sand came on Tuesday, when she testified to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce for a hearing about antisemitism on college campuses and faced aggressive questioning about the University’s disciplinary standards.

One line of questioning by Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) specifically addressed the University’s decision not to take disciplinary action against students involved in protests during which students interrupted classes and chanted “globalize the intifada.”

“Do you believe that type of hateful speech is contrary to Harvard’s code of conduct?” Stefanik asked, referring to the chant, which references Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza against Israel.

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Gay called the chants “thoughtless, reckless, and hateful,” but said that action would be taken only when “speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment, or intimidation.”

In Hillel’s Nov. 30 email, the organization claimed that interrupting class sessions amounted to such a violation, though University policy remains ambiguous.

According to the University’s free speech guidelines, which were linked in the Hillel email, the University does not protect speech that creates a “disruption,” which “must extend over an unreasonable period of time.”

“The definition of disruption is any repeated or continuous action which effectively prevents members of the audience from adequately hearing or seeing the event,” read the guidelines, which were adopted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1990.

In the coming weeks, protesters plan to test the University’s limits further, and Gay’s administration will need to make hard decisions about what constitutes free expression and what amounts to misconduct.

But Williams — the AFRO organizer — said the rules of protest on college campuses, to the extent they exist, were made to be broken.

“Those guidelines, whether or not they’ll be put into place, undermine the whole concept of protest. And if your protest is completely accepted by the entity in which you’re protesting, it’s not very much a protest,” Williams said.

“We aren’t concerned about guidelines,” he added.

Correction: December 6, 2023

A previous version of this article misstated the name of the African and African American Resistance Organization.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at sellers.hill@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @SellersHill.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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