Protesting, at Home and on the Streets
On the morning of Saturday, May 30, Elijah C. DeVaughn ’21 dressed in an all-black outfit—Adidas track pants, a shirt with “melanin” printed on it, and a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers—donned a protective facemask, and drove from his home in Compton, California, to Pan Pacific Park in the Los Angeles Fairfax District. There, he joined thousands of demonstrators to protest police violence against black people, a manifestation of the movement that erupted in Minneapolis last week and has swept across the nation.
While standing in a large group, he saw a sign that read, “Love, but justice is what love looks like in public”—words he had heard Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard Divinity School, speak in class. “It was amazing to me,” he recalled, “to see how the words that Dr. West had said in the classroom were now material, that what had been discussed at Harvard was now material at home and on the frontlines of this protest.”
DeVaughn is among hundreds of Harvard students who have expressed solidarity with black communities in the wake of the loss of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other black Americans who have died from police violence in the past few months. These students are using their Harvard platform to amplify their words and actions, taking part in protests that demand sweeping changes to American institutions and civil society. “I’ve spent a lot of my life watching black men walk in and out of prison,” DeVaughn said. “I grew up for the first 13 years of my life with my dad in prison. When it comes to matters of justice, of criminal justice, it just really hits home for me.”
While driving home the day before the Fairfax protests, DeVaughn found himself contemplating the material and psychological consequences of anti-black racism. He said to himself, “I go to Harvard, but that don’t mean shit, because when I walk out of my house all they see is this: black face, black hands, black arms, black body.” He posted his thoughts on an Instagram video that now has more than 7,500 views. The next morning, he decided to take his voice to the streets.
Virtual Activism, Real Support
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, not everyone is able to physically protest. Harvard students have turned to the Web, from online petitions and fundraisers to informative social-media posts, to offer virtual support to the Black Lives Matter movement.
On Saturday, the Black Community Leaders (BCL), a group of leaders of black student organizations and communities at Harvard, released a public solidarity statement with 15 co-signatories, including the Undergraduate Council (UC), decrying Floyd’s murder and expressing their confusion, pain, and outrage. “Clearly, justice was not served,” the letter reads. “This is now a question of human and civil rights. A question of morality and compassion. That is why we challenge our community to take action and keep spreading awareness during this difficult time. Donate to freedom funds and campaigns. Check-in with all your Black friends and peers as they wrestle to keep moving on. Use your privilege to help create a difference and encourage those close to you to do the same. Make your voices and activism extend beyond your immediate surroundings.” Beneath the list of signatories is a collection of links: virtual events to attend, organizations to donate to, anti-racist literature to read.
Students are flooding email lists and Instagram feeds with resources like these, explaining to followers core tenets of supporting the movement, or providing friends and family with concrete steps to get involved: petitions, donations, phone banking, and more. Glenn Foster ’22, who lives in Maryland and is pursuing a joint concentration in government and African and African American studies, is a culture critic and longtime advocate for communities of color. He had been sharing his views on YouTube, Instagram, and other social media long before last week, but his recent posts relating to the Movement for Black Lives—a coalition of activist groups across the country that includes Black Lives Matter—have seen heightened engagement. “It is important to use your platform because you have the power to influence—regardless of having a million followers, regardless of being on the news—you have the power to influence your community, your family, your friends,” he said. “And it’s your duty to use that for this community that is marginalized.” He hopes this social-media engagement will turn into sustained donations, political canvassing, and increased voter turnout. He has also been attending protests in Washington, D.C.
The Movement for Black Lives has come to span the globe, just as Harvard students do. Mayi Hughes ’23, who lives in London, said protests near her have not only expressed solidarity with activists in the United States, but also highlighted racism and police violence in the United Kingdom. She’s been active on social media and has seen her virtual engagement evolve: at first she shared a video of Ahmaud Arbery’s death, but has since come to believe that sharing such videos risks replicating trauma. “I can get my point across without actually showcasing the murder,” she said.
Alexandra René ’23 marching with protestors in Boston
Photograph courtesy of Alexandra René
Engagement in the digital realm means not only social media, but also virtual actions. The same day they co-signed the BCL solidarity statement, UC leaders announced a public fundraiser, with all donations going to a list of BCL-selected charities. “The thought process behind conducting the fundraiser was: ‘How can we, as a virtual campus, get together in some way toward collective efforts that would enable us to take a stance in what’s happening?’” said UC vice president Ifeoma White-Thorpe ’21, who founded the Harvard Black Premedical Society and previously chaired the UC Black Caucus. As a black individual, she says, she has no choice but to be cognizant of and active on issues of race. The UC had initially planned to use its operational budget to match $1,000 in donations, and then $5,000. But within 24 hours, $14,000 in donations had rolled in; within 48 hours, it was more than $20,000. And so on Monday, the UC voted to double its match amount to $10,000.
Similarly, the Harvard College Democrats organized a phone-banking campaign on Saturday, compiling resources: scripts and contact information for police departments, mayors, and other influential people in Minneapolis, Louisville, and Tallahassee, the cities where George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade were killed. More than 400 students made phone calls and sent emails urging local officials and organizations to arrest and prosecute the police officers responsible for these three deaths. Representatives of both the UC and Harvard College Democrats emphasized they were not taking the lead, but listening to and working with Harvard’s black community.
On Monday, the Black Students Association (BSA) hosted a virtual town hall, providing a comprehensive resource guide and answering questions about solidarity, allyship, and activism. “People can’t always just go outside and protest—it may be that family members may be immunocompromised, or the people themselves aren’t able to,” said BSA president Opeoluwa Falako ’22. “We wanted to make sure people had the resources to give back and show their solidarity.” Attendance reached almost 500 people.
The Generational African American Studies Association (GAASA), a group that promotes activism and community among black students descended from enslaved Africans, organized a week of Black Lives Matter solidarity, beginning June 1. Speaking about Harvard, GAASA vice president Cierra Brown ’23 said, “Its history with black people has mirrored a lot of the United States’ history.” She highlighted Harvard’s roots in slavery and instances of police brutality on or near campus. The recent torrent of activism is invigorating, Brown added, as people across the nation express awareness of a reality that permeates her own and other black students’ lives, and pledge solidarity with the effort to change that reality. “George Floyd is a tragedy, but not an exception to a rule that has been written once again throughout the course of our history,” she added, which she believes makes it the responsibility of the entire Harvard community to join the Black Lives Matter movement.
Some non-black race and affinity student groups at Harvard have done so, while allowing Harvard’s black community to lead the way. The Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association (AAA) published its own solidarity statement, co-sponsored the BSA town hall, and has partnered with several other Asian American-Pacific Islander organizations, as well as alumni, to mobilize a fundraiser for community bail funds and civil-rights organizations. They have pledged to match up to $9,000 in donations. The South Asian Association, Fuerza Latina, and other organizations have taken similar steps. “It’s important that Asian Americans recognize past instances of complicity with white supremacy,” said AAA board member Alexander Park ’23—and more vital now than ever, he added, to “call upon those positive experiences where we as Asian Americans have stood with our brothers and sisters of other communities of color across the country and taken a stance against this white supremacist system.”
Many students feel not only that they have a duty to stand in solidarity, but also that they are uniquely positioned to do so. “We need to recognize the weight that the name ‘Harvard’ carries, and understand that when Harvard says move, oftentimes the world moves—it shakes,” White-Thorpe said. She and many of her peers hope the University administration, too, will use its influence to help the movement.
Response from Harvard Administrators
This past weekend, three of Harvard’s administrative leaders sent out letters addressing the protests and unrest. On Saturday, President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in a letter to the Harvard community: “Our nation has once again been shocked by the senseless killing of yet another black person—George Floyd—at the hands of those charged with protecting us.” Recalling the unrest of 1968, he offered a series of declarations meant to communicate, as he put it, “what I believe”: “I believe that no person is above the law regardless of the office they hold or the uniform they wear. Those who break the law must be held accountable.…I believe that one measure of the justness of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
Expressing more explicit support for the protestors in a letter to undergraduates, dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and dean of students Katherine O’Dair wrote, “We know that so many of you share our outrage and frustration, and we are writing to you today to tell you that we stand with you. Black lives matter, and we must do better.” Claudine Gay, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), also expressed her support, in a letter to the FAS community: “Even as the global fight against the pandemic has forged new bonds and inspired acts of profound generosity, 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, who is African American, also spoke from her own personal experience in the letter: “For some in our community, and I count myself among them, the events in Minneapolis, Brunswick, Louisville and beyond, feel anything but abstract; to the contrary, the headlines stir an acute sense of vulnerability. We are reminded, again, how even our most mundane activities, like running, which is something I am passionate about, can carry inordinate risk. 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. Our presence and our voices make these experiences visible—and that, too, is part of the change. Together with the many who know these fears only vicariously, we must actively work to build a more just society, where no one is above the law and where each of us is treated with the dignity that is our birthright.”
Students found the statements from Bacow and other administrators promising, but said they wanted more. For instance, some students wanted to see the explicit inclusion of the words “Black lives matter” in Bacow’s letter, direct support provided to black students, or pledges of donations to support civil-rights efforts or material support for black businesses. “While the administration has been great in sending out encouraging emails, it would be even better if they were to put their money where their mouth is,” White-Thorpe said.
Students in the Streets
And, of course, like Elijah DeVaughn, other Harvard students marched in person. Reflecting on histories of complicity and solidarity, Sahaj Singh ’23 decided the best way for him to show support was to protest. “I don’t have a lot of monetary capital to donate, but the best I can do is to show up and provide physical capital,” he said. Singh ended up putting both his body and security on the line. On Monday, he joined protests in Dallas. Two police brigades trapped the demonstration of more than 300 people on a bridge, advancing from either end and deploying tear gas and rubber bullets. Police handcuffed every protester for several hours before arresting or releasing them. Singh arrived home at around 2 a.m.
Alexandra René ’23, who lives in Milton, Massachusetts, had never considered herself an ardent activist. “I did become more active recently because it was just kind of astonishing—within the span of about three months it just feels like murder, after murder, after murder,” she said. “And there’s a silence from anyone who wasn’t black.” She began by sharing everything she could on social media. Soon after, she decided to join a rally in Boston. For her, she said, the issue of police violence outweighed the threat of the pandemic: “As much as coronavirus is dangerous, right now the attack on black lives is more dangerous.”
On Sunday evening, René and some friends joined a protest that began in Nubian Square in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The event began peacefully, and they walked to the Boston Common to demonstrate in front of the State House, arriving at around sunset. Demonstrators knelt there in a moment of silence for George Floyd, and continued marching. Then, the dynamic between police officers and protestors seemed to shift. “I wish I had recorded it because it was the most frightening thing I’ve seen in my life,” René said: two or three police cruisers speeding toward a crowd. She said she also saw the police close off the exit to Boston Common, trapping protesters, and then firing tear gas. “It felt like no one was listening to us,” she said. “We had just walked for hours, I’d been screaming for hours, I could barely even talk. And then just to see that happen, I was just so mad. I was confused also, because you’re being accused of brutality, and then what do you do? You act brutally toward people. That doesn’t make any sense. That just enraged me in my soul, I wanted to scream, I wanted to hit something.” At nearly 10 p.m., as the protests turned violent, she and her friends looked for the safest way home. (As of press time, the Boston Police Department had not responded to requests for comment.)
For many in the Harvard community, the past week has been one of reckoning—with racism that is endemic to America’s past and present; with how to best support the Movement for Black Lives; with the role that Harvard students, faculty, and administration have to play in this global activism. “What are you going to be in this moment?” DeVaughn said. “Are you going to be someone who stands up, or are you going to be someone who sits down? Are you going to be someone who speaks up, or someone who stays silent? I think this moment begs that question to all of us, and I hope people think intently of what their answer is.”