Harvard University police officers held four Black undergraduate students at gunpoint this week while responding to a 911 call alleging someone was armed in their suite, the Ivy League school’s student-run news outlet reported.
At least five officers responded with their guns drawn to Leverett House, one of the university’s largest residential buildings on the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, early Monday morning, according to the Harvard Crimson.
The four students, all seniors, were woken up by loud bangs on the door demanding they “open up” around 4 a.m.
While the 911 call turned out to be false, the experience could have a lasting adverse effect on the students targeted.
Jarah K. Cotton, one of the students, told the Crimson the officers aimed their rifles at the suitemates and told them to exit with their hands raised.
“All I can recall having in my mind is ‘I haven’t done anything,’” Cotton said. “I really had no clue why they were raiding our suite.”
Cotton added: “It was a very crazy experience — and terrifying.”
Cotton said the students feared for their lives and were aware that the color of their skin could factor into the police response.
“We were all extremely scared, particularly because my roommates and I are Black students who have been bombarded our whole lives with stories and images portraying how situations such as this had ended up terribly,” Cotton told the Crimson “We felt our lives were in danger. We are traumatized.”
Giving Skip Gates Vibes
In July 2009, a 911 caller falsely alleged that Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. was breaking into a home that was actually his own house in Cambridge.
Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley arrested Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct while investigating the alleged burglary. Gates alleged he was a victim of racial profiling. Charges were later dropped.
The practice of false 911 calls is commonly called “swatting” and was particularly employed last year when dozens of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were targeted with bomb threats.
To be sure, “swatting” is a dangerous hoax where emergency services are informed of a threat such as a shooting, bomb, hostage or otherwise violent and dangerous situation at a specific address. Oftentimes the caller, or “swatter,” uses technology like a caller ID or Voice Over Internet Protocol technology to disguise their identity and make it appear as though they are calling from the same area as the alleged incident.
‘Swatting Can Be Fatal’
In December 2017, a Kansas man named Andrew Finch died after a SWAT team arrived at his front porch with their guns drawn. When Finch, a Black veteran of the U.S. Marines, failed to raise his arms as directed by the officers, the 28-year-old was fatally shot.
More recently, in April 2020, a man named Mark Herring died after police came to his Tennessee home responding to a swatting call. Herring died from a heart attack after being scared by the traumatizing incident.
The “swatting” news at Harvard comes on the same week it was reported that the University admitted a lower number of Black students compared to the year before.
This is America.
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