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Building an MIT Police State

Brice Smith

Hello. Welcome to MIT. I won’t tell you my name, but I’ll be your police officer this morning.

For most of the hundred or so people who braved the cold and rain last Friday to try to present an alternative voice at graduation, that is sort of how their day began. As the group marched across the Harvard bridge, they were met by a mob of state troopers waiting to pen them in on the far side of Memorial Drive. The troopers prevented almost everyone from going over to talk to the parents, even though the protesters had informed the administration that they would be doing just that -- and had heard no objection.

For the twenty students (of whom I was one) who had been chosen to sit and watch Mr. Wolfensohn talk for an hour the day started a little differently. When we arrived at the agreed-upon location, we found police and a continental breakfast, as planned. Around 8:00, though, when we were scheduled to go in, two vans and several police vehicles appeared. We were told to get into the vans, which would transport us to an undisclosed location. They didn’t even tell the drivers where we were going. I asked the World Bank spokesman who was present whether this had been the Bank’s idea. While we were waiting to pass through the metal detectors, he told me that it hadn’t and that he found it rather funny how insistent MIT was about secrecy and tight security.

After the meeting, which deserves its own column, I went to join the protesters still stuck on their corner. It was clear right away that the cops were overreacting, and all this was before the riot police showed up.

Let’s begin with one of the more mild abuses. An MIT policeman stopped a student and her guest from handing out copies of The Thistle, a newspaper published by an ASA-recognized student group. They were not blocking traffic, nor were they disturbing the parents; they were merely doing what the group was chartered to do: hand out papers on campus. When they told the cop that she was a student and that it was an MIT paper, the cop said he didn’t care, and he forced them to move across the street, to where there were no parents.

Later, an MIT staff member, after spending time corralled in the “protest zone,”surrounded by so many orange-coated troopers that it was nearly impossible to see anyone, stopped by the parents’ line on her way into work. She was quickly approached by a state cop and ordered to leave. She refused and said she was from MIT. He demanded to see her ID and she demanded to know his badge number;they both refused. He then took hold of her bike and began to drag it, and her, away from the line until she was gone.

Inside Commencement, one of the students from the meeting, who had been seated in the front row, held up a sign giving the World Bank an F. He was immediately approached by a cop and told, “Alright, buddy, let’s go” -- in his cap and gown. Even after an administrator intervened, the cop still demanded to see the student’s ID to verify his alleged identity.

Outside Killian Court, more than two dozen riot cops had shown up to further isolate the peaceful protesters. It was at that time that the media requested an interview with those of us who had been in the meeting with Wolfensohn. Four of us tried to cross the street to find the TV cameras and were literally stopped every few feet by police from different commands telling us “no, No, NO.” After many attempts and many threats, we finally stopped in front of a dorm to think about what to do. It was at this point that a cop threatened to arrest us if we didn’t go back to “where we belong,” and announced that he didn’t care if this was our campus or not.

Finally, and most seriously of all, two guests of MIT students were walking down Massachusetts Avenue from Cambridge, on their way to the protest, when an MIT police officer stopped them and demanded to see the man’s ID. They were walking with a group of people, but the male guest was the only black man with dreadlocks. He told the officer that stopping him was wrong and that the cop had only chosen him because of his race. The cop responded that, even if that were true, he still wanted to see his ID and to know what he was doing here. This, from one of our own police officers. No matter how you feel about the protesters, nothing can justify treating a person with such disrespect, much less someone who is a guest here on campus.

It is important to realize that this list of abuses is far from complete. The overreaction by the MIT administration and the police to a totally peaceful protest was disgraceful. To be fair, only the MIT police took orders directly from the administration. Still,as the organizer of the event, MIT clearly had strong voice in any tactical decisions. On a day that was supposed to celebrate people’s ability to think and to figure things out for themselves, 12,000 persons experienced something more akin to a bad day in a Stalinist dictatorship. From intimidating graduates, to violating basic constitutional rights, to silencing student groups, to overt harassment of guests, we saw the MIT administration allow the many different police units present to turn Commencement into an occupation. In doing so, MIT’s administrators turned their backs on everything they claim to stand for as leaders of an institution seeking knowledge and promoting discourse. Let us hope that in the future MIT does things a little differently.