Cambridge City Council Considering Resolution Supporting Pro-Gaza Tent Protesters at Harvard and M.I.T.

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Cambridge city councilors are considering a resolution expressing support for students at Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who are protesting Israel’s invasion of Gaza by living in tents on the campuses.

Supporters of the resolution note that the protests on the Cambridge campuses have been peaceful so far, and they say they are supporting free speech. Several city councilors also say they support the substance of the students’ protest.

“We are seeing this nationally that there are many challenges that are before us and our students on campuses across the nation are continuing to express and utilize their right and their commitment to really act for the end of this atrocity that’s happening,” said city councilor Ayesha Wilson, the main sponsor of the resolution, during the city council meeting Tuesday, April 30.

Pro-Gaza tent protests on college campuses have led to intense conflict and arrests – most notably at Columbia University, where protesters occupied an administration building before New York City police arrested about 300 people on Tuesday, April 30.

The protests at Harvard and M.I.T. have not drawn the same sort of attention.

Even so, Harvard’s Administrative Board on Monday, April 29 called more than 30 tent protesters for disciplinary hearings, according to The Harvard Crimson.

City councilor Burhan Azeem said during the council meeting Tuesday night that the tent protests so far are not shutting down university business at either school.

“And quite frankly, the longer that the conflict in Gaza has been going on, the more and more I feel like protests are validated, in that I feel like otherwise it’s not going to stop, and people need to do something. And I feel like this is a fairly peaceful way to do about it,” Azeem said. “And I think that while M.I.T. and Harvard have the right over their property and to, you know, call the police if they want to, I just frankly think that they shouldn’t and I think it’s bad for their publicity.”

Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, told The Harvard Crimson on Monday, April 22 that while he wouldn’t rule out bringing in cops to remove the tent protesters, the protest would have to clear what he called a “very, very high bar” to go that level of response.

During the city council discussion this week, the city manager, Yi-An Huang, himself a graduate of Harvard College, said Cambridge police have an obligation under the city’s mutual aid agreements to assist university police at Harvard and M.I.T. if they are asked to do so.

He also said the original draft of the proposed pro-protesters resolution conflates free speech with civil disobedience.

“Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment but allows for time, manner, and place restrictions that are viewpoint neutral. The 24-7 encampment is not protected under the right to free speech or peaceful assembly,” Huang said. “More accurately, the encampments are an act of civil disobedience, a nonviolent action to refuse to obey a law or rule for moral reasons. As a form of protest, civil disobedience is powerful. It calls attention to the moral reason for the protest. The violation of an existing law or rule and the disruption of the day-to-day is part of the point of protest.”

The city manager also said that government has an obligation to enforce the law.

“Even if there is an affinity for the moral cause of the campus protests, we cannot choose to ignore our obligations to the rule of law,” Huang said. “Under the Constitution, we cannot choose which actions of civil disobedience should be allowed and which should not. Further, if all civil disobedience is to be allowed regardless of content or advocacy position, then we would lose our ability to enforce rules. I don’t think the end result would be complete lawlessness, but certainly we would find ourselves unable to regulate our public spaces and we would be absent from our duties to uphold the rules of the city,” Huang said.

City councilors agreed to delay action on the resolution until its meeting scheduled for Monday, May 6, to allow time for making adjustments to the language.

Discussion of the resolution took place during the Cambridge City Council meeting of Tuesday, April 30, from 51:47 to 1:06:04 of the video.


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