This article originally appeared in The Harvard Crimson on January 7, 2004.
In November four Harvard undergraduates were arrested in Miami for failing to disperse from a protest, although they were walking backwards on a sidewalk, hands over their heads, shouting “we are dispersing.” Only a George Orwell, with his ironic sense of officialspeak, could have conjured such a scene. The students were arrested for following orders.
For good measure, they were pepper-sprayed, held for over 12 hours and charged with such offenses as “criminal mischief.” The police arrested over 240 people in three days, and many, myself included, had guns pointed at our heads or chests while taking notes or photos. The police display was unconstitutional overkill. I suspect that Miami prosecutors will drop the charges before they allow a jury to hear the evidence.
These four students, all members of my Institute of Politics (IOP) study group on social protest movements, were victims of an extraordinary show of police power which drew sharp criticisms from the Florida Council of Churches, the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter and eyewitness observers like John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. The police presence cost $8.5 million in federal funds, diverted directly from the Iraq war budget. Miami’s mayor called the preventive arrests and closure of downtown a “model of homeland security.”
After Sept. 11, 2001, many of our citizens may feel they can’t be safe enough, that civil liberties should be suspended in the face of mere street demonstrations. But there is a proven alternative to throwing out the Constitution. U.S. officials can take a lesson from the Mexican government and police. During quite militant demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Cancun last September, unarmed Mexican police held their positions without using pepper spray or clubbing and arresting demonstrators. They proved that the state can de-escalate repressive police tactics and still preserve trade forums. Our FBI and Miami police observers were there in Mexico. They deliberately chose the repressive Miami model over the more effective Cancun model.
What the Harvard students experienced may be a harbinger of things to come. The FBI recently announced a resumption of spying on protest movements, a practice that was prohibited after Watergate. The federal forces that brought us Miami overkill are usurping local control to manage protests at the Boston and New York political conventions this summer.
The Harvard community should be standing up for these students. They were not even planning to be arrested. They were present as eyewitnesses to the unfolding of a social movement which has rocked the establishment since Seattle in 1999. They were there to explore the new mechanisms of power protected by the police—for example, closed ministerial decision-making meetings and new global rules that protest investors’ rights more than labor or the environment—that may constitute the architecture of government for the rest of their lives.
When I was editor of the Michigan Daily in 1960, I was run out of a Tennessee town while writing about disenfranchised black sharecroppers. In 1961, I was dragged from a car and beaten while covering a civil rights march by high school students for a national magazine. In those days, we expected support from our liberal northern campuses in the struggle to open the closed society of the South. We should expect no less today.
What could the Harvard community do? Law School faculty could offer to defend the students and join class action suits against the Miami police and city government. Campus officials could join Human Rights Watch in calling for an independent inquiry into the Miami events. Kennedy School of Government academics could do a comparative study of the Cancun and Miami models of policing protests. Most importantly, now that Harvard has formally contracted with the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent watchdog over its licensing practices, faculty and students can identify and reform the flagrant sweatshop abuses that abound in “free trade zones” that will be expanded by the Free Trade Zone of the Americas proposed in Miami.
At times news coverage, headlines and quotes by student leaders in The Crimson seemed to suggest that University officials should investigate the students themselves as well as their $2,000 in travel funds from the IOP. Did they conspire to have themselves arrested? Was their “study group” only a ruse for radicalism? Was the questionnaire they distributed among street protestors really an objective survey instrument? Should the IOP be subsidizing such activity?
These are the wrong questions. There was no conspiracy, no plan to be arrested and nothing out of line about studying a social movement first-hand. As for the IOP, it funds an eclectic range of options. During my semester at the IOP, the Institute was subsidizing a former Republican congressman to fly Harvard students for a day on Capitol Hill. On another occasion, they were paying the fare for Katherine Harris, the Florida official blamed by many for partisan manipulation of the 2000 election, to share her wisdom at Lowell House. Another IOP fellow, the campaign manager for Mass. Gov. W. Mitt Romney, offered popcorn at seminars on how he utilized the media, opposition research and fundraising techniques for his candidates. I had no complaint about these Harvard-subsidized ventures into hardball politics. I thought that was what the IOP was all about.
When I came to the IOP, my mandate was to stretch the meaning of “politics” beyond merely learning to be a candidate or technician of power, to reach out to many students who identify with service and social activism. I did so, and was delighted to find so many young people motivated by a concern for justice, not simply personal achievement.
If the IOP’s mission is to be evaluated, I would not waste time writing prohibitions against activity that is unlikely to happen again. If a future IOP student group wants to consider controversial social action—for instance, siding with workers at a repressive sweatshop making Harvard sweatshirts—it should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Now that the Miami episode is over, the need is to stand up for the students, not retroactively prohibit what they weren’t planning to do anyway.
Between electoral politics and civil disobedience, however, there is the vast realm of advocacy by non-governmental organizations who constitute a new and growing force in civil society. They work at the grass-roots on such causes as curbing AIDS in Africa, saving rainforests in Brazil, building literacy in Central America and tutoring American youth in high schools or juvenile halls. Harvard students have led the way towards living wage and anti-sweatshop standards. Though not political in a narrow sense, their work impacts the climate of politics and often leads to government action. It would be in the interest of Harvard students and the IOP to support participant observation in many of these advocacy groups, which are often on the cutting edge of social change and which are fostering a new generation of global leaders.