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A Lesson from Hurricane

Guest Column
William Hafer

To my great regret, my life has thus far been most un-movie-like. In twenty years, I have escaped from zero car chases; my only swordplay was with cardboard wrapping paper tubes and a reluctant younger sister; and the number of times I have liaisoned with treacherous international femme fatales remains firmly in the single digits. So, naturally, I was very eager to meet a man whose life had been made into a movie. And not just any movie, but an intense and tension-filled drama even by today’s cinematic standards.

The man was Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The movie is The Hurricane, and it is a quality movie. But I’m not discussing the movie. I’m discussing Rubin Carter’s life, the speech he gave at Harvard a few days ago, and what I have learned from both of these.

Carter is a black man. Whether morally and legally innocent or not, he spent much of his early life in jail. Upon release, he became a boxer and soon a contender for the middleweight title. However, in 1966 he was convicted of three murders despite strong evidence proving his innocence and rampant racism in the judicial process. He spent many years in various jails, before successfully overturning his New Jersey conviction in a federal trial. His experiences made him a man from whom many took inspiration, including myself -- which is why I was so eager to see him speak.

I saw the movie on a Saturday. Imagine my luck when I found out the very next day, while trying to buy his book (it’s no longer being sold in America, but may return to print soon), that he was coming to speak at Harvard that very week. The next day I learned the unpleasant part: tickets were required, they were being distributed for free by the event organizer, Harvard Book Store, and the last one was taken two weeks ago. However, I wanted to see this guy speak. After half-attempting a number of options, including but not limited to trying to charm the girl at Harvard Book Store into giving me an extra ticket, I did the natural and respectable thing: I snuck into the auditorium two hours in advance. I had plenty of time to savor the injustice of giving out only as many tickets as seats in this small auditorium, knowing that some people with tickets would not show up and plenty of people, like me, would be very happy to sit on the floor or stand the whole time just to hear Rubin speak.

I was especially warmed to overhear the Harvard Books senior representative say to two different event organizers, “oh, there will be so many people without tickets who are gonna try to get in, but you don’t admit a single one of them.” For some reason, this person was walking around with the impression that people who were worthy of attending had tickets, and the people without tickets weren’t to be worried about because they didn’t deserve to be here anyway.

Rubin spoke on a variety of subjects, about his life and life in general. I agreed with almost everything he said, so strongly I was amazed that someone else was saying it. When I disagreed, it made it all the better: his anger reminded me that I was but a young, stupid boy, and he had spent more time in jail than I had on this earth. I had no notepad to write with, and so will only quote him once. Rubin reminded us of the Biblical instruction, “Know thyself.” This is what he said: “We know the workings of our telephones, our wristwatches, our microphones, our televisions, our computers, our lawnmowers, our airplanes, our factories, our automobiles, better than we know ourselves.”

After spending months in solitary confinement, I think Rubin knows himself very well. I think he knows his imprisoners better than they know themselves. He knows why racism exists. He knows why men who had never met him could barely contain the urge to see him handcuffed, or imprisoned, or dead. He has pondered the things we give not a second thought, and it’s made him a wise man.

After his speech, I pondered these things too. Why did the policemen want to arrest Rubin? Why were the judges so eager to convict? And, the parallel I had been feeling throughout his speech: Why was that woman from Harvard Books so quick to look down on people who wanted to see the speech without a ticket? I’ll bet those corrupt officials never once examined themselves for the source of their bias, and I doubt it occurred to the Harvard Books lady to wonder what it was that pissed her off so much about people who didn’t have tickets.

What was it that went through those people’s minds, while they were busy being racist cops or snooty administrators? What were you thinking the last time you got mad at your friend and he or she had no idea why? Little things like this contain a lot of information. Become wise. Increase your happiness and that of others. Hurricane learned the lesson, and he’s here to try to explain it to us. He does a better job than I.

William Hafer is a sophomore in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.