Dear Members of the Harvard Community:
As the world turns its attention towards Minneapolis, I thought I would tell you just one story from a few years back, just one of many I could tell. I was stopped on my way home from a Bikram yoga class after work. The squad car followed me for several miles, my elevated heartrate turning to palpitations when seven police cars surrounded my vehicle. Long arm rifles drawn, readied, and aimed at my person from crouched positions behind open car doors, the lead officer ordering me out of my vehicle. My neighbors had now stopped to watch what was quite the spectacle in my sleepy Wisconsin suburb. I made my way to the officers—carefully walking backwards as directed in my yoga clothes with my arms raised. Since only a few of you have met me in person, I will let you know that I am barely five feet tall. I am sure that I will never forget the sound of the high caliber round being charged into the chamber.
I do not know whether it was the sheer ordinariness of the moment, or perhaps the fact that I had already finished law school by this time (a fact I was too afraid to mention) that kept me calm. Even the accompanying officer remarked directly to me that she had thought I was too calm to be a “perp” from the time her partner had first started following me. Through a series of probing questions, I was able to figure out I was being stopped because my car had been reported stolen three years earlier, but never logged as found. My license and registration matched and the vehicle in my possession was indeed mine. Neither these factors nor the presence of the near dozen officers now on the scene served to deter them from placing me in the rear of a squad car, hands behind my back (for their safety they said) while the officer investigated—presumably at this point—whether I had falsified an insurance claim. I hope it goes without saying that I had not.
I wish this was my only story, sadly it is not. Individual stories when taken in the aggregate reveal the impact of a system in which police have vast discretion to stop people on suspicion of minor offenses. It is in fact the sheer ordinariness of the encounters that makes the killings of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Adam Toledo so harrowing for many people of color. This reality begs the question: Is the system of policing actually working exactly as it is intended? This is not a question without an answer. For those who have not seen it, I encourage you to explore Unequal, a multipart series highlighting the work happening here at Harvard to address issues of race and inequality across the United States.
As we heard from University leadership today, regardless of the outcome in Minneapolis, there is much unfinished business of creating a more just society. We can and must do better, for ourselves and for our nation. We owe it to ourselves to ask the tough questions and find the needed answers.
We also have much work to do here on our own campus and I want to assure you that we are committing ourselves—as individuals and as a University—to making sure that we are holding ourselves accountable to our commitment to reimagine policing here at Harvard. We are moving forward on the recommendations of the independent review of the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) and of our public safety processes. Action has already been taken to convene a community advisory board to help reimagine HUPDs relationship with campus and reform the culture at HUPD with a greater focus on building relationships and community engagement. I know that many members of our community want to hear about the progress, and we will continue to communicate the various ways university leadership is working to rebuild trust and accountability with the community. To be sure, effective public safety requires police to be a part of the community. This is a watershed moment in our history as a nation and is an opportunity to consider who we are, who we want to be, and make affirmative steps towards who we want to become.
I know that no words can fully capture the hurt, fear, anger, and grief felt about these tragedies by so many in our community, across this country, and around the world. We will provide space for members of our community to draw strength from one another by hosting a Space for Reflection, Remembrance, and Response in collaboration with colleagues from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard Extension School. The space will be held next Wednesday, April 28, 5-6 p.m. ET by Zoom.
As always, please take care of yourselves and one another. As a reminder, students can access Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services. Faculty and staff can also find a qualified health care provider at the HUHS Behavioral Health Department.
Sherri Ann Charleston
Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer