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Johns Hopkins protesters and administration need to find middle ground

Johns Hopkins University students stage sit-in to protest an armed police force on campus. (Catherine Rentz/Baltimore Sun video)

Something has to give. Protesters have taken over the Johns Hopkins University administrative building for a month now with little indication they are willing to give up on their demands. They have disrupted university officials so much that Garland Hall, home to the offices of President Ronald Daniels, has been shut down.

Meanwhile, Hopkins administrators have dug in their heels as well. They say they have reached out to the protesters many times, and while they support freedom of expression, they won’t meet as long as students continue to occupy the building, which they say is against university policy, is unsafe and violates fire codes. Mr. Daniels said he would meet with protesters, who are against a private campus police force and the university’s handful of training contracts with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, as early as this weekend if they would simply remove their belongings from the building. The demand has not sat well with students.

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The hard-lined stances from both sides have resulted in nothing but gridlock with neither side achieving much of anything except more animosity toward the other. Relations escalated this week when students chained themselves to the stairs inside Garland Hall. University officials have now said the protesters, which they said include people other than students, have harassed staff and security officers, chained the doors of the building closed and covered security cameras. Their actions interrupted exams for students with disabilities, prevented student workers from being paid, and disrupted student services, such as financial aid, according to a letter sent to the Hopkins community Thursday.

In an ideal world, the university and protesters would come together and find some common ground, but we believe the discord has reached a level where that is unlikely to happen. We suggest Johns Hopkins and the protesters find a mediator to help ease tensions. A neutral person from the community, such as a religious leader, who has no interest on either side.

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Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels sent a letter to the campus community calling for an end to student protest over a private police force and ICE contracts.

In a time when younger generations are often criticized for being coddled and not caring about serious issues, we are glad to see the students stand up for something they believe in, even if we don’t necessarily agree with their demands. They are taking a lesson from activists before them in realizing they will get a lot more attention outside the president’s office then on the campus yard. But they also have to realize that at some point, things become counterproductive. We certainly wouldn’t condone any kind of violence, for instance, and we believe the university’s concerns about safety are legitimate. As things stand, people wouldn’t be able to get out of locked door if a fire broke out.

We understand the students’ concern about the possibility of brutality by a private police force, given the countless stories we see about such incidents around the country. Just last month, Harvard police were criticized for using unnecessary force on a black student. At least one protester told The Sun he has felt surveilled by campus security. Those feelings shouldn’t be discounted. At the same time, the protesters should recognize the legitimate safety concerns that led Hopkins to pursue authorization for its police force and the steps it has taken to provide accountability to the community well beyond what’s required of the Baltimore police.

University President Ronald J. Daniels had called the continued occupation of the building 'an untenable situation'

The students are also protesting three contracts totaling $1.7 million with ICE — primarily with the medical school for emergency medical training and leadership education. Mr. Daniels has said he would not end the contracts, which the university also said have no relationship to the enforcement of Trump immigration policies. The contracts are set to expire soon anyway.

Could the university have prevented things from going this far if it had bent its own rules and met with the students? Alas, we will never know. But Hopkins’ options at this point are limited. Trying to force the students out would be a disaster.

The end game for students is also not clear. Perhaps they should realize they are not going to get everything that they demand. The governor has signed legislation for the armed police force. It’s coming, but it will take a couple of years at least. The students might be more effective figuring out ways they will hold Hopkins accountable for the actions of that force. Remember, public criticism and protest is what led Hopkins to agree to tougher accountability measures. Further scrutiny — and protests if necessary — will keep them on their toes.

It might also go a long way if Mr. Daniels could extend an olive branch regarding ICE contracts. He has spoken out publicly against Trump administration immigration and refugee policies, but he should explore whether there might be other ways to show solidarity with the protesters’ goals.

At the end of the day, Johns Hopkins is a private institution and can do what it wants, including having the students removed by police officers. (Something it could have already done.). The university now says the latest actions of the protesters put them in violation of state and municipal laws and have moved beyond peaceful protest. But police hauling away people worried about overly aggressive policing would be a terrible PR move, and would only validate the protesters’ concerns. The university has struggled enough to overcome a legacy of poor relations in some of its neighboring communities without having to deal with that.

But the longer this protest lingers, the worse things will become. The protesters are putting themselves in danger. The university’s operations are disrupted and its image is suffering. Both sides need to find a way to meet in the middle.

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