It wasn’t a perfect evening for a demonstration. The night was cold and damp. On the rain-slick concrete stairs of Harvard’s University Hall, thirty-five undergraduates crowded together, hoping for news coverage and bantering nervously. After weeks of planning, finally the day had come, and we were all assembled. It was time to hurry up and wait. The year was 2007. I was an idealistic, outspoken sophomore majoring in African-American studies and government. The issue was simple: Black Harvard students were being racially profiled.
I reflected on the events that had led us to this point. Earlier that semester, two black student organizations had met for an event on the quad, many of us clad in Harvard crimson. As we mingled, students in nearby dorms had looked out their windows, decided we were suspicious characters, and called the police. The police arrived fifteen minutes later. Two HUPD officers, with dark sunglasses and growling motorcycles, pulled up to our group. We exchanged confused glances as they approached. What business could these men possibly have with us? Tension grew as officers talked to one student a couple of yards away from the rest of us. We felt stuck in limbo as the officers stepped back from the conversation but made no move to climb on their motorcycles. The spectacled neurobiology major the officers had initially summoned came back to the group to explain that we had to provide our Harvard student IDs and prove we belonged on the quad. We looked at each other first with shock and then with frustration and disenchantment. We obliged the officers’ request, but our resentment grew.
The backlash didn’t take long to form. Articles, opinion columns, and comments sections overflowed in the local press. Arguments erupted across campus. One professor, clumsy in his enthusiasm, referred to Harvard as a racist community and compared our experiences to South African apartheid. A cadre of glib undergrads assumed the role of junior pundits. In the college’s most popular publication, The Crimson, right-leaning students attacked. Several went so far as to call for the director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, our most outspoken supporter, to resign.
As the arguments devolved, the situation took on a tribal character. We attacked each other so routinely and vigorously in emails and comments sections that students on both sides changed class schedules and social circles to avoid their antagonists. The time for respectful discourse had ended.
That didn’t bother me, though. I knew that I was right, smarter than these racists, and certainly on the side of the angels. And so here I was on that May night outside University Hall, ready for protest and publicity. The sound of dorm doors clicking open snapped me out of my contemplation of the preceding weeks and back to the moment at hand. More students trickled into the area, milling around and talking while we waited for the show to commence. Each year, hundreds of undergraduates meet in Harvard Yard just before midterms and finals for Primal Scream, a ritual that eases stress, builds camaraderie, and raises spirits before the exams begin. Some students shed their clothes and run naked and screaming around the rectangular yard; others watch and cheer. Everyone loves it—and that’s why we chose it. The Harvard Black Men’s Forum and the Association of Black Harvard Women would use it to draw attention to campus racism.
Clad in my hoodie, I squinted through the rain at my peers as the president of the Black Men’s Forum shouted directions through his bullhorn to get everyone organized to march. Other students eyed us warily, giving us a wide berth. I recognized many faces from classes and activities; I heard words of support and snorts of derision from the crowd. Mostly, though, the others stood dumbfounded, bundled in their jackets and hoods, anemically observing as we ambled by. They were there for hijinks, we for racial justice. As they awaited a naked, elated romp, we paraded around the Yard shouting, “My skin belongs at Harvard!” and “Harvard is here for us, too!” As I flashed my “I am Harvard” sign, I watched for some sort of response from the surrounding students.
Nothing. Primal Scream was what they were here for, and they were disappointed at the delay. I noticed three juniors that I’d hung out with in Winthrop Dining Hall for conversations after dinner, and their confused gazes unsettled me. They peered into the crowd of marchers and began to mutter and point with sarcastic smiles on their faces. The disinterest was palpable. Students stood around awkwardly, as if waiting for something more compelling to happen, and then, deciding there was nothing more, meandered back to dorms, libraries, and dining halls until the real event began. Their indifference puzzled me; how could they be so blasé? We were their friends and peers, part of their beloved Harvard community!
The incuriosity I saw in those faces gave me pause. It forced an unpleasant conclusion. We weren’t part of the community; we just went to the same school. Too often I had only been able to turn to other black students for support and understanding. Why should I have expected anything different now? As black undergrads, we’d exchanged lengthy, passionate emails about adversaries in need of rebuke. We had bombarded the comments sections of college publications and run campaigns to handle racist professors, demand black student spaces on campus, and prove the lack of support for black students. Mostly we had shared our outrage among ourselves, letting it boil, bubble, and congeal into the mortar that solidified our community. The email lists were where we forged our resistance. We called for boycotts of local pizza places to promote diversity. We organized rallies to stall government cutbacks of programs benefitting black and brown students. We protested when Westboro Baptist Church was said to have targeted our campus. I found these experiences cathartic and communal. I needed the commiseration; I loved the support.
One email chain focused on a man we all assumed was a graduate student who had a habit of walking around mumbling what we assumed to be racist epithets under his breath before flashing a disingenuous smile and skulking away. We never actually knew what he said; we just didn’t like his vibe, and that was enough. Many of us shared our experiences with the man and went into painstaking detail about how offensive it was to interact with him. My roommate had the best story. He encountered the mumbling man in a computer lab and actually confronted him. The man appeared to be in his early forties, of short stature and thick around the shoulders. He wore a dark blue jacket, slacks, and loafers. My roommate was working on a project in the lab and not really paying attention to his surroundings until he looked up, straight into the man’s gaze. As the man stared and mumbled, my roommate stood up, walked to his desk, and asked him what he had said. My roommate wasn’t confrontational or disrespectful. He just asked calmly and quietly what the man had said. The man mumbled something resembling “nothing” and scampered off the premises. At least that’s how my buddy told it. We emailed back and forth about the man’s cowardice and disrespect, and what we should do when we saw him again. It was nice to handle him together.
No matter how comfortable I was in my community, I couldn’t escape the impression of how binary my experience was becoming. I even had friends in the opposition. A few weeks after the Primal Scream event, I heard that a classmate had called us “hypersensitive.” I was furious. How could he put down our concerns, my concerns? Walking into our dorm’s computer lab one day, I almost tripped over him. We exchanged uncomfortable eye contact. I got aggressive, asking how he could see his peers as second-class citizens in an environment we’d all worked hard to gain access to. Who was he to label us hypersensitive when he’d never experienced discrimination? He broke eye contact, staring expressionlessly into the screen saver on the desktop to the left. After a long silence he answered, sheepishly. He felt that racial injustice was a serious issue but didn’t see the quad incident as a real example. In short, we were being unfair to the community and to the quad students; it was all a misunderstanding blown out of proportion. In that instant, I forgot the times he’d shared his anthropology notes when I didn’t make it to class, our pickup basketball games at the athletic center, and the hours we’d spent arguing and laughing in Dunster Dining Hall. I stormed off toward the courtyard.
I thought a long time about what that experience meant. I couldn’t possibly be wrong about the issues—that much was clear. Had I been wrong about my friend? What did that say about my judgment? The pain I felt was personal and blinding. It didn’t matter what my classmate’s thoughts were. In attacking the movement I was a part of, he’d rejected me.
In the midst of the Primal Scream controversy, a right-leaning pundit, consistently critical of our ideas, sent me a personal email. He wanted me to know that I was spelling his name incorrectly in my comments on the Crimson website and my Facebook page. Otherwise, his note seemed genial. I was taken aback. I’d labeled him a racist idiot who was taking advantage of legitimate pain to conjure up images of spoiled Harvard kids wallowing in their feelings. He was a conservative buffoon, uncouth and insensitive. His commentary was idiotic and overly simplistic, his perspective distorted by privilege and arrogance, his ideas shallow and feeble. But up until that point, he’d been a name on a screen, not a person with feelings. Humbled and a little ashamed, I wondered how someone whom I had spoken about so nastily on a personal level wasn’t more hostile. If he was so pleasant, how could he attack us like that in his writing? If he wasn’t angry, why was I?
Eventually, the quad episode faded into memory as the summer before my junior year began. I got a job working as a junior counselor coordinator for a network of summer camps and lost track of all the anger that was so powerful just a month or two before. And it wasn’t until several years later that I saw an echo of our protest, prompting me to consider what I’d learned, though only half-recognized, from my experiences that May.
The first time I encountered the Black Lives Matter movement, I wasn’t fully attentive. It was the winter of 2014, and I’d begun working for a test preparation and college admissions company and was developing materials for our students. As I drafted a lesson plan for SAT prep, the news droned on in the background. I’d always used white noise to help me focus while working, but this time I looked up, startled, as I heard the words “stormed the stage.” Don Lemon was on CNN narrating video footage of a group of young people taking over an event, snatching the microphone and the spotlight from Al Sharpton and his handlers. In the coming months, I researched this group in an effort to decipher their goals and what kind of effects they might have on the black community.
The information I found on the Internet about Black Lives Matter wasn’t promising. Even Vice, a left-leaning news organization, said their protests occasionally devolved into violence and their movement lacked leadership and structure. It looked less like an advocacy group than like young black rage, barely restrained. I watched video clips and read articles about the rallies, and was put off by the aggression and ignorance. Youths screamed in the faces of police officers and politicians. BLM supporters allegedly even chased Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti offstage and attacked his car. I sifted through angry tweets and media coverage, waiting for an agenda other than general disruption. I watched them interrupt a speech in Seattle by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the presidential candidate most likely to support them. What I saw perfectly encapsulated the movement: emotional pain, enormous passion, and no solutions. From what I could tell, they had made little headway beyond stirring up people’s emotions, just like my Harvard peers and I nearly a decade earlier.
Back in college, we were right to be frustrated and had legitimate cause for concern. Racial prejudice played a significant role, and the pundits at The Crimson were limited and obtuse in their responses to our concerns. But we wasted a valuable opportunity to reach them. I saw something similar in Black Lives Matter. Yes, the concerns are real, but the activists have only estranged and offended the people they wish to persuade. It was a hard lesson for me, but in my own activism, I had to learn that we must be willing to act with patience, understanding, reconciliation, and love. We must love the way Jesus loved if we’re ever to find ways to overcome human malice and frailty. The enjoyments of righteous indignation are brief. In this disconnect from our brethren, we fail our mission from our Father. Love is the way to win.
Malcolm Rivers is an educator in Washington, D.C.