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Racial Profiling In the Library?

If you were studying in the MIT Humanities Library the night of Tuesday, Dec. 11, around 10 p.m., you would have looked up and seen a Middle Eastern-looking man hauled out of there by three cops.

If you were curious, like me, you would have gone out of the room, into the stairwell, and listened while the cops handcuffed and interrogated the man, accusing him of stealing the backpack he was carrying and of holding someone else’s credit card.

When he finally spoke, the man said softly, “I don’t understand what I’ve done.”

“Are you a student here?”

“No, not right now, but I ...”

“Then you can’t be on the property.”

“But plenty of people who aren’t students use this library, I don’t understand what makes me special.”

“You can’t be here. Talk to Dean ... [I forget the name] about getting you back home. Does that make sense to you?”

“Dean who? I don’t see what I’ve done wrong.”

A fourth cop showed up, and they took the man downstairs, where, according to a librarian, one of them cracked, “Your ride’s here.”

When a librarian asked a policeman what had happened, he made vague allusions to bad things the guy had done before, and that he wasn’t allowed on the premises. That may be true. But during the time I witnessed the police interrogating him, they made no reference to a criminal history. They simply asked him if he was a student. He said, “No.” They told him he couldn’t be on the property.

That is simply not the policy of the library. Visitors are allowed; they just have to sign-in. As a non-student and regular visitor, I should know. Even if I snuck into Harvard’s library, however, as a white American I couldn’t imagine being handcuffed and taken away by four policemen.

What I’m left thinking, with a sense of collective embarrassment for all Americans who have allowed this climate to seize the country, is that this was nothing but the same racial profiling and harassment that is taking place all over the country.

If you were a good activist, you would have said something to the cops, such as, “What has he done wrong? He’s right, non-students are allowed to use the library.” If you were a wuss, like me, you would have stood silently and watched them lead this man, humiliated, out of the building.

Needless to say, this was shocking for me to see. I have traveled in a lot of countries where this would not have been shocking, but I have never had this feeling here. Pathetic to say, but I think the reason I said nothing was simple fear.

I’ve called the MIT police several times to get the full story, but my calls have gone unreturned.

Brendan Cooney