Every semester at Harvard University, students take their clothes off.
The event is called Primal Scream, and it happens on midnight before the first day of final exams. As the hour approaches, there is a palpable buzz in the central quad, the Harvard Yard. Students gather in various states of undress: towels and trenchcoats, gym shorts and jeans. A whiff of alcohol scents the air. At the stroke of midnight, the crowd of nude students runs a lap around the Yard.
Sometimes community members and tourists come to watch; the University and city police don’t intervene. The event is greeted with a certain nostalgic indulgence, a college tradition—and Harvard College at that. The future leaders of tomorrow, the reasoning goes, have to blow off some steam.
That’s not the indulgence a naked, and allegedly intoxicated, black Harvard undergraduate was recently greeted with. The young black man was tackled to the ground by four Cambridge Police Department policemen in the middle of a Harvard Square intersection. He was beaten once he was down, punched five times in the stomach. Blood was left on the ground. Students and national media alike agree it was an incident of racist police brutality, with dramatically excessive force unleashed on a student for the “crime” of nudity, which on other evenings, from other bodies, is greeted with not only indulgence but humor. Following the attack, students have organized protests and discussions about racist violence and policing. In the wake of continued brutal police violence against black people in America, most recently the murder of Stephon Clark, the incident shows us that even in elite spaces, black people are not safe.
The Cambridge Police department claimed the student had threatened them, which eyewitness accounts and video footage disprove. Racist internet commentators claim the student deserved to be beaten because of his nudity and intoxication. But in those Ivy-clad gates, nudity and intoxication are not particularly rare—they are, in fact, ritualized.
Which brings us to the point: The student was tackled because he was black. Because his body itself was a body out of place. Because his black body was not read with the endless tolerance granted to elite Harvard bodies, assumed to be white male bodies, which can shed clothes and sobriety without a thought in the world. The student was beaten because his body didn’t belong—echoing the experience of so many other black people at Harvard and similar elite educational institutions, city sidewalks, coffee establishments, and their very own homes.
The question of race, the body, and belonging at the elite university is a deep one. Early on in its history, Harvard included an “Indian college,” an institution with the explicitly racist mandate of culturally colonizing indigenous Americans. Fueled on slave money, Harvard became a finishing school for elite white men. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the rule of the white, male, upper class body was further formalized through a eugenics experiment which lasted several decades: All incoming undergraduates were to be photographed naked in the guise of checking that they had “proper posture.” The ideology underlying these photographs, however, was about much more than standing straight: It was based on the idea that the body could tell you about the underlying traits of the person—and that some bodies were better than others. This is the mid-19th century racist pseudoscience of eugenics, which created a hierarchy of “ideal” bodies—and thus, “ideal” minds—according to race, with white males at the top.
Even after the specific project of eugenics was discontinued at the university, its traces remained. There is a meeting room in one of the dorms at Harvard (at least, I’m assuming it’s still there since I left in 2015—it’s the kind of awful racial artifact which is called “heritage”) whose walls are plastered with a mural of tall white men with sculpted physiques jogging and rowing. They are visions of vigor, rosy-cheeked and white, with the vague homoerotics of Abercrombie models. The aesthetics of the mural are unsettlingly reminiscent of idealized Aryan bodies in Nazi art, like the Nazi Olympics photographs of Leni Riefenstahl. Of course, these painted white bodies are practically naked. They are not beaten by cops.
More than decor, in my time as an undergraduate at Harvard, this hierarchy of bodies was a part of the landscape, both social and physical. Just walk down the main drag on a Friday night and you’d see women (appearances labored over with the knowledge that in these spaces, our bodies were our currency) queued up in front of unmarked mansions, elite social clubs manned and managed by squadrons of elite men. In this version of Harvard Square—protected by a sheen of wealth, an aura of generalized whiteness, and a “boys will be boys” tolerance for sexual violence in the name of fun—there was no penalty for nudity and drugs. Police did not enter the mansions to beat the cocaine-snorters into a pool of their own blood. When a tall, muscular, blonde-haired white man drunkenly walking past us one Saturday night slapped my friend’s belly, laughing like all women belonged to him, the police did not tackle him. When I stood in Harvard Square naked and intoxicated, a white woman participating in the esteemed College’s Primal Scream ritual, I was not beaten when down.
Yet just as this regime of elite white nakedness has persisted, there have been moments of interruption, of assertion by the people whose bodies who do not belong.
For example: Primal Scream, my senior year. It was a few months after Michael Brown was murdered and a wave of protests was shrieking across America. Cambridge, too: A group of black students organized a Black Lives Matter protest at Primal Scream. That night, the small group of protesters stood, a line of mostly black and brown students in front of the restive, naked, and mostly white crowd. They requested, demanded, begged a few moments of silence from the students. The crowd either didn’t hear or didn’t care. As the protestors shouted “Black Lives Matter,” a chant came from within the opposing mass of naked bodies: “USA! USA!”
Not only did the students, mostly white, many drunk, and in the garb of an elite college’s esteemed tradition run naked against the wall of protestors: They claimed all of America in doing it.
As I watched the recent video of the young black man being tackled, then beaten when down, I remembered another image, stark and ironic: A memory of a naked, intoxicated white man, proudly walking across the very same street.
It was after the Primal Scream with the Black Lives Matter protest. As the chaotic crowd dispersed, I saw him crossing the road. Athletic and blond-hair, blue-eyes-nude, he had draped a (real) fox fur across his shoulders, the image of an Olympic victor in a Leni Riefenstahl photograph. He walked toward the private mansion of the moneyed, all-male social club to which I knew he belonged. He projected the easy arrogance of a man whose body commanded other bodies (I too had smarted under his sexist comments, the sense of casual ownership they expressed). Like a figure out of that athletic wall mural or an animated posture photograph, he was the kind of body for whom the elite university was built.
The naked white man, of course, was not beaten to the ground.