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The lessons of the Hopkins occupation

Police on Wednesday arrested protestors at Johns Hopkins University who had locked down Garland Hall, the campus' main administration building, since May 1. The students are protesting the creation of a private police force and the university's contracts with ICE. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun video)

With the arrest of student protesters Wednesday at Johns Hopkins University, a five week stand-off (including, most recently, a one-week lock-in) has come to a close. While there is still something of a denouement to unfold — whether those students responsible for shutting down Garland Hall will face any punishment from the school, for example — the main spectacle is over. What are we to make of it? What impact did the protest have? What lessons are we to take away?

First, let’s acknowledge that some serious issues were being dealt with here. The protesters’ main concern was Hopkins’ effort to establish its own police department, a move that’s been more than a year in the planning but was made possible only recently when the Maryland General Assembly approved enabling legislation that Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law last month. In the past, Hopkins used its security staff and armed, off-duty city police officers. It now has the authority to establish its own police department, a common practice with public universities but a first for a private college in Maryland. Some at Hopkins and in the surrounding community have expressed trepidation about that — the Garland Hall protest being the most visible example. Others, including Hopkins’ leadership, have concluded it was a necessary upgrade given the realities of violent crime in Baltimore.

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We have long supported the idea that Hopkins should have its own police force, but only with the protections Hopkins agreed to in the legislation requiring, for example, a police accountability board and other steps to promote community engagement. In this regard, we shared student concerns that Hopkins police not fall into the same trap that has hurt the city’s own police department — the loss of trust that was so evident during the Freddie Gray unrest in 2015 and since. In low-income neighborhoods, aggressive police tactics had caused many in the community to see officers as foes, rather than allies, in their struggles against crime and poverty. Even now, the more recent emphasis on community policing, prosecution of Baltimore’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force and turnover in the police commissioner’s office haven’t entirely ameliorated the unease.

We believe the protesters did not sufficiently appreciate the dialogue and compromises that went into the police enabling legislation, but we certainly respect their right to express their views on the matter, along with their opposition to Hopkins’ involvement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the agency for which the school has providing some training, much of it having to do with emergency medical care. The protesters (four of the seven arrested were reportedly students, the other three were members of the community) sought media attention, stated their cause clearly and forcefully and never resorted to violence.

But their lock-down of Garland Hall changed matters, given legitimate concerns about safety (including the protesters’ own violation of the city fire code as they had chained doors shut in an older building that lacks sprinklers and other emergency measures), as well as the loss of certain student services that were based there and the concerns over whether sensitive student records contained in Garland Hall offices might have been compromised.

Respect for First Amendment rights was necessary, but eventually, Hopkins had to get back to the business of educating its students and could not ignore the risks to the protesters’ own safety. A final offer of amnesty in exchange for a stand-down was delivered. The next day, police came knocking in the predawn hours, and the occupation was brought to a close. We hoped that could be avoided, but it’s heartening that the arrests were conducted without injuries or use of force. The city state’s attorney wisely chose to drop criminal charges not long after the protesters were taken into custody.

Now what? Hopkins is committed to moving forward with its plan for a police force, but the student protesters need not view that as a defeat. These passionate, engaged Hopkins students need to participate in the process, make “noise” when appropriate, organize further protests, if necessary and generally help guide the school toward making good decisions. In a democracy, such involvement is not just useful, it’s crucial.

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