Amos’s Sermon: How Does One Defend Charging a Black Resident of Harvard Housing with Trespassing in His Own House? Apparently, by Remaining Silent

BY AMOS JONES

CAMBRIDGE, Dec. 5, 2005 – I am very disappointed. And so are a number of other Black Harvard Law Students, some of whom have had their own problems with the Harvard University Police Department.

In the latest conflict, officers’ questionable conduct implicates James J. McCarthy and Suzanne McCarthy, Co-Masters of Pforzheimer House. Acting on behalf of Francis D. Riley, Chief of Police of the Harvard University Police Department, the two have failed to answer serious and direct questions about a disgraceful matter recently reported in The Harvard Crimson that has roiled the community.

I question the Wednesday October 12, 2005, trespass accusation against 22-year-old Harvard undergraduate Uchenna Aguoji. On October 14, 2005, The Crimson reported that the student was enrolled in Harvard College and was taken by force at 9 p.m. from a television lounge on the third floor of Jordan South, where he had been living this semester and where, according to House-system tutors who have commented on the matter, he was widely known as a Harvard undergraduate. Four police officers placed Mr. Aguoji under arrest. Whatever the validity of the other charges, and regardless of the student’s questionable conduct, I am alarmed that he was charged with trespass even though he obviously was known to be a resident.

He is Black.

Although Mr. Aguoji’s arrest was widely publicized, the trespassing charge has not been explained sufficiently. Pforzheimer House Administrator Sue Watts confirmed to The Crimson that he, at the time of his arrest, was registered as a student living in Pforzheimer House. Peculiarly, Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) spokesman Steven G. Catalano told the newspaper: “Because he failed to identify himself as a student or produce a Harvard I.D., we operated under the premise that he was not connected with the University and therefore had no right to be in the building.” Mr. Aguoji was subsequently told to stay off campus pending action by the College Dean’s Office, Mr. Catalano added.

The scenario is strangely similar to one in which I found myself with four or five other Black Law students two years ago. We were standing inside Pound Hall in the 9 p.m. hour discussing matters of constitutional law after a scheduled student-organization meeting had concluded. About 30 minutes into our conversation, two white police officers entered the building and demanded that we show our student identification cards. Somebody walking outside had called the police and reported that it appeared as though a fight was about to commence.

That notion was preposterous; we all have been on friendly terms throughout our relationships, which began here at Harvard Law School. In any event, we all sighed and showed our identifications even though we were not obligated to do so, and the officers left without incident. We understood that if we had refused to comply, then we might well have been arrested and charged with trespassing. We also might have faced abuse at the hands of the very police officers who were hired to protect us, as has happened continually to Black Americans since our country’s inception.

Notably, we made no fuss whatsoever about the episode, most probably because it was consistent with our expectations of Greater Boston’s social climate. Boston, after all, is known widely as a bulwark of white racism. Personally, I was not surprised that my first-ever run-in with police would come in this metropolitan area, rather than in one of the others where I have resided as an adult: Lexington, Ky., Atlanta, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., and New York City. All my life I have been outspoken. Yet, even I did not raise issues at that time.

But what happened in October must be addressed. The official conduct and explanation in the Pforzheimer dispute are manifestly nonsensical. Considered from an informed perspective, the trespass charge smacks of the kind of discrimination that Harvard practiced in barring Black people from living in undergraduate houses until only decades ago. In light of Harvard’s former practices, today’s University officials should tread cautiously prior to accusing Black students of trespassing.

Before drawing certain conclusions about the October arrest, Harvard people should first be given answers to three key questions:

1. Under what circumstances are residents of Harvard housing subject to being charged with trespassing and told not to return to the housing for which they have paid?

2. Had any Harvard housing residents been arrested by Harvard police and charged with trespassing prior to October 12, 2005? If yes, what were the names and racial identities of those residents?

3. What do the University’s housing policies require of student residents to prevent them from facing trespassing charges, and for what do the policies call to subject residents to arrest by Harvard police?

In instances like these, it is right for concerned students to demand and to expect answers from our University officials.

Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, Ky. Reach him at amosjonescomment@aol.com.

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