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Harvard Against the Police

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Harvard Against the Police

An arrest of a drug-crazed black student sends the campus into familiar hysterics. May 2, 2018
Public safety

The Black Lives Matter movement may no longer have a megaphone in the White House, but academia is more than ready to take up the slack, as an ongoing policing controversy at Harvard University shows. On Friday, April 13, a little after 9 pm, campus health and police authorities began receiving calls about a student causing a commotion in the middle of one of Cambridge’s busiest streets. Twenty-one-year-old Selorm Ohene, a Ghanaian native, was high on LSD and naked, having thrown his clothes into a female passerby’s face. Three Cambridge Police Department officers and a transit cop arrived at the scene and for several minutes tried to calm Ohene down and persuade him to accept assistance. Their efforts were met with escalating “opposition and hostility,” according to Cambridge Police Chief Branville Bard, Jr. Ohene stepped toward one of the officers with his fists balled, according to the police report. Fearing that Ohene could run into traffic and harm himself or others, the officers decided to take him down.

As captured in a widely circulated cell phone video, one officer tackled Ohene from behind. Once on the ground, Ohene began swinging his arms and flailing wildly; the officers were unable to secure his arms for handcuffing. Another officer punched him five times in the torso with what are known as “compliance strikes,” designed to weaken a resisting suspect’s strength and reduce his drive to fight. As soon as the officers were able to cuff Ohene, they backed off. Two Cambridge officers were injured during the struggle. In the ambulance, Ohene spit saliva and blood in the face of a medical technician. The officers charged him with indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, assault, assault and battery, and resisting arrest, but the district attorney has yet to bring an indictment. Two weeks after the incident, Ohene was still being held in the hospital for psychological observation.

Harvard administrators—those noted experts in public safety and police tactics— immediately racialized the incident and shoehorned it into the Black Lives Matter narrative. Ready-to-hand was the ever-growing diversity bureaucracy and its hackneyed rhetoric about threats to the “safety” of students of color on American campuses. President Drew Gilpin Faust announced via email that this “profoundly disturbing” arrest comes during a period of “increasingly urgent questions about race and policing in the United States.” It raised questions, she wrote, about whether “people from all backgrounds and life experiences can come together confident in their ability to do their best work in a safe, supportive, and constructive environment.”

Actually, the only background and life experience that were relevant to the officers’ actions was the fact that Ohene had recently ingested enough drugs to render him out of control. His race, background, or life experience had nothing to do with their response. Faust, however, has always known better about the endemic racism of American police. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana also called the incident a “disturbing arrest.” Harvard Law School dean John F. Manning doubled down on the racial interpretation. “What occurred last night reminds us again of troubling questions about the relationship between police and the community nationwide—and particularly encounters with members of the Black community,” Manning wrote. The school’s “immediate focus,” he said, would be to provide support to members of the Harvard “community.” Manning is sometimes wishfully characterized as a conservative by conservative pundits. His reflexive resort to racial rhetoric casts doubt on that gloss, and is particularly regrettable in a law school dean, who should have a higher standard of proof before making racially volatile statements.

At the Graduate School of Education, various deanlets urged students, faculty, and staff to avail themselves of counseling and mental health services. The hapless Kennedy School Dean, Douglas Elmendorf, sounded all the right notes about the incident’s “impact” on the Kennedy School “community” and about the school’s support for “distressed students.” He invited students via email to join him in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, along with the school’s new diversity dean and the associate dean for degree programs and student affairs, to reflect on the incident. Not good enough, according to the students. Elmendorf’s email was “unsatisfactory,” wrote these commissars, because it failed to identify the victim as black, and was not sent until the Monday after the incident. At that point, the psychological damage to the Kennedy School “community” was presumably irreversible. Elmendorf penitently explained that he had been trying to learn more about the event from central administrators before reaching out, but confessed his error in not immediately sending out a response.

The Dean of Freshmen (incredibly, that term has yet to be ushered into the dustbin) convened a student-support meeting in a dormitory, along with the Ivy Yard Dean, the Elm Yard Dean, and the “specialty proctor for race relations.” Dean Thomas Dingman opined that a call to help “should not result in somebody being beaten.” If Dingman acknowledged that Ohene had been violently resisting arrest, the Harvard Crimson did not report that fact.

Presiding over this bureaucratic outpouring was Harvard’s Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion, who issued regular alerts about the administration’s ongoing investigations.

Naturally, students snapped into crisis mode. A new organization, Black Students Organizing for Change, sprang into existence, with the mission of holding Harvard University “accountable for the safety of community members, particularly Black and Brown students.” On April 21, BSOC members protested throughout Harvard Yard, holding signs reading “I Don’t Feel Safe” and “Will Harvard Call the Police on Me Too?” Organizer Hilda Jordan ‘19 tearfully initiated a chant of “Treat me, don’t beat me,” reported the Crimson. Consistent with all such outbreaks of student racial agitation and self-pity, BSOC demanded more diversity infrastructure—in this case, the expedited hiring of “Black and Brown counselors at Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services.”

The Harvard Black Law Students Association released a statement on “Police Brutality at Harvard.” It was grammatically and logically challenged, like many victimology manifestos, though none of the dozens of additional signatory groups seemed to notice. The statement began awkwardly: “We are not contextualizing this event in the broader instances of police violence.” The reason given for this lack of “contextualization” was “respect for the victim’s privacy.” It was already unclear how such “contextualization” would violate the victim’s privacy, but the authors then reversed themselves and asked that “our conversation be focused on the broader issues of police violence against Black and Brown people . . . and not this particularized incident.”

Punctuation and usage problems mounted in the peroration: “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.”

Perhaps these writing deficits will not affect the careers of these “soon-to-be-graduates of an elite law school.” But their apparently casual approach to the truth should be more troublesome. Their “police brutality” statement claimed that the Cambridge Police Department tried to “obstruct videotaping” of the arrest. There is no evidence of such alleged obstruction. According to the most-circulated video, passersby were free to record, and indeed had been told that they could do so by one of the officers, according to Chief Bard.

Members of the Harvard Undergraduate Council released a statement denouncing “anti-Black racism at Harvard, in Cambridge, and in our world at large.” Such racism is “systemic and institutional,” according to the council members. Overlooked was the fact that Harvard has spent tens of millions of dollars on diversity sinecures and strives mightily to admit and hire as many blacks as possible.

Cambridge’s mayor likewise denounced the incident as a symbol of systemic racism, selling out his police officers. “Cambridge affirms that Black Lives Matter, but it must be true in practice as well,” Marc McGovern wrote in a statement. “As Mayor, I will continue working with my colleagues to make sure that the horrific treatment of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement has no place in Cambridge.” The implication was clear: the “disturbing” arrest was an example of the “horrific treatment of black Americans” generated by his officers’ systemic racism. McGovern failed to point out that the Cambridge Police Department is one of the most “progressive” in the country, according to liberal norms, embedding social workers inside the organization and devoting enormous resources to community outreach, the homeless, and the mentally ill.

So was this a “brutal instance of police violence,” in the words of Harvard’s Association of Black Law Students? It was not. The officers used force proportional to the need to subdue Ohene and ceased once he was restrained. Someone who is high on hallucinogens is beyond reason and often unresponsive even to his own physical pain. Had the officers allowed Ohene to run into traffic, and had he been hit and injured, they would have been blamed for indifference to black life. Harvard’s administrators, like the rest of the public, have no idea how hard it is to subdue a resisting suspect. “If someone does not want to be handcuffed, it is almost impossible to handcuff him without multiple officers holding down the four quadrants of the body,” explains Jim Glennon, a police trainer with Calibre Press. Robert Stewart, a former director for the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives and the chief monitor on the Ferguson and Newark police consent decrees, insists that “any use of force expert would deem [the officers’] tactics justified.”

CPD Chief Bard, to his credit, has backed his officers. “I do agree that there is a history of law enforcement and race in this country,” he told me, “but this incident does not fit into that category. The officers did not respond because of [Ohene’s] race but because they got calls. They took actions based on his actions.” The alternatives to the physical takedown would have been Tasers, chemical spray, or closing off all traffic around the area until Ohene came down from his drug high and became compliant. But Cambridge officers are not armed with Tasers, due to the city’s liberal politics. Chemical spray would have disabled the other officers, since they were too close together. Shutting down the streets would have required taking more manpower off the beat and would have caused major disruptions to traffic flows for an indefinite period of time. Under the circumstances, the physical takedown was a reasonable option.

But the consequences for policing are not so reasonable. The knee-jerk attacks have been “horrible for morale,” says Robert Stewart, who has been advising Chief Bard since he took office last fall. Cops know that this was a legitimate use of force, Stewart says; they can only conclude that the public “has no idea what this job is like.” A police chief in an uber-progressive New England town dismisses the black law students’ claim that the takedown, in the words of the “Brutality Statement,” was “without provocation.” A “mentally ill man high on drugs running naked down busy city streets is a provocation,” the New England chief says. “These are people who have never had to physically struggle with anyone in their lives. Police who are following this episode are disgusted. There is nowhere left to go in some American cities: the police are simply not being permitted to police.”

Some observers date the roots of our current anti-police climate to 2009, when President Barack Obama accused Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley of “acting stupidly” for arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and alleged that the nation’s police were “picking up blacks and Hispanics . . . often for no cause.” The Obama administration may be gone, but the poisonous racializing of public-order policing lives on in university culture, at Harvard and elsewhere. Until that poison dissipates, the result will be more street disorder and more racial tension.

Photo: Cambridge Police Department

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