Arrests reveal intolerance
Four years ago, Senior Vice President William R. Dickson '54 ordered the arrest of eight MIT students and the dismantling of a "shantytown" at a peaceful anti-apartheid protest on Kresge Oval. The action was widely condemned. President Paul E. Gray '54 asked that the charges be dropped because "MIT's purpose was . . . not to punish students." The faculty voted 59-35 to call for the dismissal of the charges and for MIT to pay the students' legal costs. Then faculty members complained that "communications had been replaced by paddy wagons and police" and that "the individuals upon which the violence was perpetrated are now in court."
Apparently, the administration learned nothing in the past five years. When the Coalition Against Apartheid erected a shanty at a peaceful protest on Friday afternoon, Dickson again ordered arrests -- this time 26 protesters, including a black South African, were taken to prison for protesting MIT's investment policies. Six more were arrested at a demonstration yesterday, including a Tech photgrapher who was merely covering the event. Through these mass and sometimes random arrests, MIT has sent a clear message to the student population that visible dissent will not be tolerated if it is not conducted on the administration's terms. If students erect a symbol that the administration does not approve of, they will be sent to jail. This policy is intolerable. A university campus should be a place where open debate and symbolic speech should be valued, not crushed with violent police action.
MIT's action appears especially excessive when compared to Harvard's response to a protest on the very same day as the anti-apartheid demonstration. At Harvard, over 50 law students calling for more diversity in the faculty and the student body occupied the dean's office. Even though the occupation effectively interrupted building operations, the dean, regarded by many as a hard-line conservative, did not order arrests or expulsions. Rather, he let the protesters stay in his office overnight with no adverse consequences. The law students ended their occupation of the law school building of their own accord seven hours before MIT decided to arrest 26 demonstrators for merely sitting in and around a shack on a piece of unused land.
It is pathetic that MIT took such harsh action against a group that was at most creating an eyesore for administration officials. The protesters were in no way interfering with university operations. The fact that the shanty was an "unauthorized structure" is not a compelling reason to arrest peaceful demonstrators. The administrators could have "authorized" the shanty after it was built, and they clearly would not have given permission for its construction had the students asked in advance.
The administration decided it was easier to cart students off to jail than to tolerate a prolonged demonstration. MIT once again demonstrated that it does not view itself as an institution of learning where dissent is welcomed, but rather as a place where dissent is merely a nuisance to be removed. How can the Institute expect to train leaders willing to work creatively with complicated problems when its officials seem to consistently resort to the simple use of force and arrests to resolve prolonged conflicts with groups of students?
Associate Provost Samuel J. Keyser said that "whenever students are arrested in a protest something has been lost in an academic institution." He was right on target, noting that "a big part of that loss is the sense of trust that must exist between all members of an educational institution if learning is to go on."
But Keyser was very wrong when he said that the 26 people arrested Friday (far more than the "usual suspects" involved in most campus demonstrations) "chose arrest" as a way of protesting. The students chose to build a shanty as a way of protesting; it was the administration that chose to arrest the students. The only way the students could have avoided jail was to abandon the protest. The MIT community should commend the 26 who were willing to assert students' right to protest and to face arrest for expressing disagreement with administration policy.
It is very sad that the current administration now views mass arrests and destruction as the first tool to use when faced with an organized demonstration. MIT has fallen far below the high ideals it sets for itself and has failed to show even the mild restraint of its sister institution up Mass. Ave. The Institute removed a symbol which could have served as the center of a divestment debate and sent its own students to jail. This is an embarrassment to the university and diminishes the ideals of open debate and creative problem solving which it should stand for.
Andrew L. Fish '89 is a student at Harvard Law School and a former editor in chief of The Tech.