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Lessons to be learned from Johns Hopkins’ handling of police protesters

A pair of Hopkins students lay in the road in front of a police van carrying fellow protesters. Seven people were arrested after authorities ended a monthlong sit-in at Garland Hall on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus last May.
A pair of Hopkins students lay in the road in front of a police van carrying fellow protesters. Seven people were arrested after authorities ended a monthlong sit-in at Garland Hall on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus last May. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Johns Hopkins University officials and some faculty are far apart on their views of how the university handled a 35-day student sit-in protest last spring that ended after Baltimore police got involved.

A highly critical report by a faculty group condemned university officials for missteps in the handling of the protest, which was staged over concerns about developing a private police force on campus. University officials failed to meet with students early on, the report said, and university security failed to assist students asking for help after a fight was instigated by a rogue professor (later fired) who tried to cut through chains that protesters had used to clamp administration doors shut.

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Students didn’t believe the administration had good intentions when it tried to negotiate a meeting, and were unsure of potential penalties they might face, the report also concluded. And officials were too quick to rely on a heavy police presence to disperse the students, with 80 police officers sent to deal with eight students holed up inside the administration building. The summer sit-in ultimately ended with the arrest of several students. While no one was injured, that was likely the result of luck, not because of a sound plan to end the protest, the faculty committee contends.

Hopkins officials see their actions as largely appropriate, according to several posts about the incident on the school’s website. University President Ronald J. Daniels extended a personal olive branch to meet with the protesters, who never showed up, the school says. The university allowed students to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and only intervened when the safety of the protesters and other students was jeopardized, and the fact that nobody was hurt proved their strategy was a success.

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The one thing the two sides found agreement on was Hopkins failure to enforce its policy of shutting down the protest after the first day, which officials say won’t happen again.

We see areas of improvement for each side, with the university bearing the ultimate responsibility for the way things unfolded. They’re the grownups in the situation, and the students are the charges whose well-being they should protect. That’s the whole point of creating the police force in the first place, isn’t it?

So where do things go from here?

The university has not given any indication the report would influence how they handle potential protests in the future, though we expect the attention to this incident and wide reaction from inside and outside the university is not lost on officials. Still, the faculty committee, made up of members of the Johns Hopkins University Homewood Faculty Assembly, has no power to force the university’s hand, though it sometimes acts as a mediator between students and the university, and the university did cooperate with the committee’s information gathering, including extensively answering a number of questions from the group.

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It doesn’t seem as if the two sides are likely to come to agreement regarding fault anytime soon, and the fears and raw feelings among university groups aren’t likely to dissipate without a concerted effort by the university to quell worries. In the report, some African American protesters said they worried that the way security treated them was an indication of how private police might one day act, for example. University officials must bend over backward to ensure that’s not the case.

We supported creating a police force at the university, as did the Maryland General Assembly, which voted to allow it. But we share student concerns about the potential for the targeting of African Americans, given the police corruption and brutality cases that continue to make the news in Baltimore and around the country. Hopkins too should be hyperaware of this as it presses forward with the police force the protesters were so vehemently against.

As the police force progresses, it won’t just be the students and faculty holding the university to account, but members of the community and public officials as well. The process Hopkins has created to set up the force, and ultimately hold officers accountable, is more transparent than policies the Baltimore Police Department must follow, and we’re glad for that. The student and faculty should make sure they are an active part of that process, and the university should work hard to build trust with its many stakeholders. The futures of the students, the community and the university depend on it.

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