Opinion guest column

Antiracism or Oppression: MIT Must Choose

Just after 5 p.m. on November 9th the MIT community bore witness to a scene that belongs in a dystopian fever dream, not a 21st century hall of learning. Dozens of MIT police officers stormed into Lobby 7, batons and pepper spray at the ready. Their target? A peaceful sit-in by students protesting the university's complicity in the genocide of Palestinians. MIT police stood guard at all points of entry and barricaded the peaceful student demonstrators inside; even denying re-entry if students left Lobby 7 to access food, water or bathroom facilities. The next day, MIT police stood guard outside 10-250—where a pre-approved series of Palestine-related educational programming (documentary screenings, lectures, and teach-ins) was scheduled to take place—and barred anyone from entering. 

This was not the first time MIT police have oppressed members of our community under the guise of "public safety". From enduring a SWAT raid in dorms to having guns drawn at us in parking lots, Black and brown members of the MIT community have long faced pervasive racial profiling and interrogation (see minutes 33:00 – 43:00 here). The present escalation of oppressive policing that is being used to target students, faculty, and staff protesting genocide is rooted in the MIT administration’s failure to listen to Black students who have long fought to address anti-Black racism at MIT. The university cannot plausibly create an anti-racist environment while continuing down this path; now, MIT must choose. 

Empty Commitments to address anti-Black racism and public safety 

Nearly 4 years ago, students from the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and the Black Student Union (BSU) released the petition to Support Black Lives (SBL) at MIT. The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the summer of 2020 seemingly illuminated the reality that violence and racism are inherent to policing itself and that we must reimagine public safety in the U.S. The SBL petition was our way to bring this moment to MIT, and it was met with overwhelming support with over 5,000 individual signatures from students, staff, faculty, and others. 

One of the primary goals of the SBL petition was to reduce the scale of policing on MIT’s campus and reallocate resources to build other structures better equipped to address certain public safety concerns. In July 2020, former President Reif ensured that MIT would respond to this historic moment by creating a working group to reimagine public safety. This working group, which was composed of students, faculty, administrators, and MIT police officers, made a number of recommendations. One proposal, put forth in response to the MIT police department’s (MITPD) self-reported statistics that over 90% of calls for service are non-violent concerns such as stolen bicycles, was to establish unarmed community service officers (CSOs) and/or clinicians, who would respond to routine calls and mental health crises. This would have narrowed the scope of policing on our campus and prevented the current use of police force to surveil and intimidate MIT community members. The working group also recommended increased transparency on police policies and procedures, and a community advisory group to provide feedback regarding campus safety. None of these recommendations have been fully realized. 

MIT’s (in)actions show how little the Institute values the community members that devoted over a year of labor to the ‘Reimaging Public Safety’ working group, and the Black and brown communities chronically and disproportionately impacted by policing. MIT’s (in)actions reveal that the university's 2020 pledge to “address systemic racism at MIT” was only opportunistic alignment during the momentary “trendiness” of antiracism. MIT’s true values are revealed in the current moment, when the Institute is faced with a groundswell of justified anti-genocide protest. 

MIT’s Response to Peaceful Protest Against Israel’s Genocide of Palestinians in Gaza 

Over the past six months, students, staff, and faculty have raised alarms about the Institute’s complicity in the maiming, death, displacement, and starvation of 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza given MIT’s direct and unique research ties to the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Rather than grappling with this serious issue, nearly 4 years after MIT’s empty commitments to addressing systemic racism and policing, the Institute has turned to using its police force to heighten the surveillance and intimidation of its own community members.  

Without any attempt to gather broad community input, MIT has permanently stationed police officers in Lobby 7. These officers have reportedly conducted random and potentially racially motivated MIT ID checks that resemble racist Stop and Frisk laws. Dozens of cameras have also been installed on campus (in Lobby 7, in front of 77 Massachusetts Avenue, and along the path to the student center) without notification to community members. Police officers have consistently been stationed outside all events organized by student groups aiming to educate the community about the ongoing Palestinian Genocide; resembling the racist policies that the Reimagining Public Safety group recommended we discard. The Institute’s emergency alert system is constantly misused to notify the community of peaceful demonstrations passing through Massachusetts Avenue. In short, the facade of addressing antiracism and reimagining public safety has come crashing down. 

MIT Has A Choice To Make 

The suppression of anti-genocide and anti-Zionism protest inherently relies on and reinscribes racist policies, procedures, and policing. This reliance on policing has created fertile ground for the violent scenes we have witnessed at Columbia, NYU, USC, University of Texas at Austin, University of Minnesota, Emory, and in our own backyard at Emerson and Northeastern. If MIT is to seriously embrace its professed commitment to address systemic racism, MIT must abandon its carceral—surveillance, policing, and punishment—stance and engage with members of the MIT community in good faith. This means reinstating the Coalition Against Apartheid, rescinding the racist and unprecedented protest policy, and avoiding further police escalation. It also means engaging with and honoring the MIT community’s collective demands—to divest from research and financial relationships with the Israeli military and publicly call for a ceasefire. Finally, to affect long-lasting anti-racist change, MIT must re-allocate MITPD’s budget to develop evidence-based structures proven to create real holistic safety.  

We have laid out some steps on the path to anti-racist actions that MIT can take if antiracism, not oppression, is the value MIT wants to reflect. Every member of MIT’s community has a choice in this matter and must decide to either let oppression permeate our culture or take anti-racist action to build a better world. Now, MIT must choose.

This piece is cross-published in the faculty newsletter.