It wasn’t very long ago that another unarmed black Harvard man was arrested in Cambridge, making big headlines.
The last high-profile incident involved Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who was seen by police as an unknown black man breaking and entering a home—it happened to be his home—in 2009. The story went viral internationally, leaving a pox on the city I live in.
Now, the recent arrest of another unarmed black Harvard man is going viral—internationally, as the student is from Ghana. All in a city that, since the Gates arrest, publicly takes pride in being woke. Following those events, Cambridge released a report in 2010 titled “Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities.” One of the many findings in the document is: “When police believe they are not in physical danger, they generally should deescalate tensions … [which] can be a tool for helping to reduce danger by calming a person who is upset or unstable.”
On Friday, April 13, Selorm Ohene, a 21-year-old mathematics major, was charged with indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, assault, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on ambulance personnel. One fact that all parties—Cambridge Police Department officers, Harvard Black Law Students Association (BLSA) members, and eyewitnesses—seem to agree on is that Ohene was in a significant state of crisis as he stood naked on a traffic island in the middle of Mass Ave, across from Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church.
According to reports, calls by witnesses to Harvard University Health Services were transferred immediately to the Cambridge Police Department (CPD), rather than the Harvard University Police Department. At the time of this writing, groups, including BLSA, which are watching the developing story closely, were still waiting for answers on that front.
As can be seen in a video that one witness submitted to police, officers repeatedly punched Ohene in his torso. A subsequent CPD report depicts Ohene as being so wildly combative that three cops from Cambridge plus a transit officer were needed to restrain him and to place the perp in handcuffs in order to “avoid further injury to himself.”
“Numerous attempts made by officers to calm the male down were met with opposition, and his hostility escalated while officers attempted to speak with him,” a CPD official wrote in a later tweet. “After he was observed clinching both of his fists and started taking steps towards officers attempting to engage with the male, officers made the tactical decision to grab his legs and bring him to the ground.”
In recalling the event, BLSA members have offered a counter-narrative suggesting the officers had insufficient training in managing trauma, crisis intervention, and de-escalation techniques. Since officers apparently did not “adhere to their stated commitment to using body cameras” and are reported to have obstructed bystanders who made attempts to record the arrest, doubt looms in Cambridge about what happened in its entirety.
“[Ohene] was surrounded by at least four Cambridge Police Department (CPD) officers who, without provocation, lunged at him, tackled him and pinned him to the ground,” a BLSA statement read. “While on the ground, at least one officer repeatedly punched the student in his torso as he screamed for help.”
One has to wonder if a white Harvard student standing naked in distress near Cambridge Common would have been so dehumanized and humiliated. As was noted by the Grio, the largest online news source of black America, in its reporting on the Cambridge incident:
Boston and Cambridge Police Departments are no different than those in the rest of the country. According to the ACLU, 63% of police stops in Boston between 2007 and 2010 targeted Black residents, even though Black residents make up less than 25% of the population. As of 2015, the Boston Police Department (BPD) had spent approximately $36 million to settle lawsuits, most of which were tied to wrongful convictions and police misconduct.
Concerning Cambridge specifically, CPD Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr., who is African-American, is an expert in the study of ending racial profiling. With just eight months under his belt, Bard holds a doctorate in public administration from Valdosta State University as well as a leadership certificate from the Harvard Kennedy School. His doctoral studies focused on racially biased policing, immigration, the Bill of Rights, and public policy, and Bard is the author of the 2014 book Racial Profiling: Towards Simplicity and Eradication. Bard promises a cultural shift within the police force under his watch but has bothered many Cambridge residents—some of African descent, others who were stunned and shocked to see the incident play out firsthand—by saying the use of force against Ohene was an appropriate tactical decision within police protocol:
“In a rapidly-evolving situation, as this was, the officers primary objective is to neutralize an incident to ensure the safety of the involved party(ies), officers, and members of the public,” Bard wrote in a statement. “To prevent the altercation from extending and leading to further injuries, particularly since the location of the engagement was next to a busy street with oncoming traffic, the officers utilized their discretion and struck the individual in the mid-section to gain his compliance and place him in handcuffs.”
Excessive force is frequently tolerated and called things like “appropriate” when it is used against black men. All too often, the outcome is fatal. With Ohene, some say he’s lucky because the altercation didn’t end in death. Nevertheless, some questions remain.
Why did a pool of Ohene’s blood remain on the pavement as an ambulance transported him to a nearby hospital for evaluation? Why does this situation look like it fits into the broader disturbing narrative of America’s culture of police violence and systemic civil rights violations? Had the arresting officers read the aforementioned report, and did they employ the appropriate techniques?
With two Harvard Law School professors defending the student moving forward, the public might just find out.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.