Contrary to its progressive self-branding, the City of Cambridge supports Israeli ethnic cleansing, overfunds the policing of its Black and Brown residents, prioritizes the interests of university and business elites over the needs of its working class communities, and facilitates the mass displacement of longtime community members through gentrification.
The City of Cambridge recently reaffirmed its longstanding commitment to Israel and Zionism by refusing to pass a 2021 BDS policy order which called upon the city to stop buying products from Hewlett Packard, a company which services the Israeli government, military, and prison system, and which has profited from ICE deportations and US prisons (see entry on Hewlett Packard Enterprise). As Lana Habash and Noah Cohen wrote following the hearings on the policy order in May 2021:
the [Cambridge] City Council made its real position clear: it affirmed "Israel’s right to exist and to defend its citizens from attacks, such as those launched by Hamas." Especially revealing was the extensive effort of Councilors Patricia Nolan and Denise Simmons to shut down any attempt to actually name the relationship between the state of Israel and Palestinians---any mention of colonialism, apartheid, racism or any other form of oppression. According to these councilors, discussing these issues is 'divisive'---the standard complaint of all who defend a racist status-quo.
The Cambridge City Council's actions in May 2021 were but the latest iteration of the city's commitment to Israel and complicity in its crimes. Members of the Cambridge Police Department including Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas and Cambridge Police Lt. Stephen Ahearn are known to have participated in an ADL-sponsored, all-expenses-paid delegation to Israel to learn about “counterterrorism” in 2008. Cambridge Police Deputy Superintendent Paul Ames participated in the ADL Northeast Public Safety Executive Terrorism Training in Israel in 2010. Even the chief of the Cambridge Fire Department Gerard E. Mahoney participated in one of these ADL-sponsored counter-terrorism training junkets to Israel in 2011. During these ADL-sponsored delegations, New England police, ICE, FBI, and other law enforcement officials meet with Israeli military, police, and intelligence agencies, with whom they train and exchange tactics including surveillance, racial profiling, crowd control, and the containment of protests. While the participation of the Cambridge Police in these ADL-sponsored Israel trips became the subject of a Cambridge City Council hearing in 2011, the City of Cambridge has taken no actual accountability for the trips to date and has made no commitments that Cambridge officials will not participate in similar trips in the future.
Contrary to its stated commitment to racial justice, the City of Cambridge has consistently supported and emboldened the city's police department. Despite resounding calls from Black and Brown community members in the summer of 2020 to defund the Cambridge Police, in June 2021 the Cambridge City Council voted down a resolution to reduce the city's police budget by $3.7 million, and instead approved a $68.7 million budget for the Cambridge Police Department for the forthcoming year, increasing the Cambridge Police Department's funding by over $3 million from its 2020 levels. The Cambridge Police Department has used this ever-ballooning pool of city resources to buy Lenco "Bearcat" armored vehicles along with military assault weapons, including sixty three Colt M4 assault rifles, eleven sniper rifles, and eighteen Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns -- a source of ongoing outrage amongst Cambridge residents.
In telling contrast, as of the time of this writing (March 2022) the City of Cambridge continues to drag its feet on committing to allocate a mere $6 million annually and $2 million start-up costs to fund the implementation of the Cambridge HEART Program, an alternative emergency response program unaffiliated with the Cambridge Police which Black and Brown community members could actually rely upon for support in emergency situations without fear of experiencing police violence. The Cambridge HEART Program emerged from a community feedback process facilitated by The Black Response Cambridge, Muslim Justice League, and other community groups, received wide support from Black and Brown community community members, and was (nominally) approved by the Cambridge City Council in June 2021.
Throughout the City of Cambridge's history, wealthy landowners and business elites have successfully fought for so-called "civic reform" movements, aimed at weakening the ability of working class residents to elect city councilors and mayors who would be more directly accountable to their needs and interests. In the ward-based system that existed in Cambridge in the 1930s (comparable to what exists today in Somerville), winning a seat on the city council required candidates to gain support from neighborhood ethnic, religious, and labor institutions, and while this system included a certain level of corruption (Bill Cunningham, Belonging [unpublished manuscript], 26) the small constituencies enabled Leftist candidates to gain more traction (John Trumpbour, How Harvard Rules [South End Press, 1999], 182). The power of these “false local attachments” was exactly what Harvard and other elite entities with material interests in Cambridge wanted to sever when they proposed a new system of government called "Plan E." In How Harvard Rules, John Trumbour notes that, "Under the Plan E proportional representation proposal, all city councilors would be elected by citywide vote, and then “appoint a centrally powerful ‘professional’ city manager. The city manager then makes all other major appointments.” (HHR, 182)
Plan E worked for Harvard’s interests on many levels, and Harvard Dean James Landis chaired the group that pushed for it (Belonging, 24). Harvard student (and later Mayor of Cambridge) Edward Crane explicitly recommended the plan because it centralized power (writing in 1935, he cited a study favorably analyzing how the Nazi Party had made use of the German proportional representation system) (HHR, 182). The new system would also allow for money to go farther in city politics, as citywide candidate slates replaced individual ward races (Belonging, 27). Though Plan E failed to pass in 1938, it did pass in 1940, in part as the result of Cantabrigians' fears about rising tax rates and the deteriorating real estate market (HHR, 184). (Cambridge neighborhoods with majorities of Black residents were redlined for investment by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1938, as part of a national effort to enforce racial segregation, which likely contributed to this, as did the Depression-era deindustrialization of Cambridge.) In How Harvard Rules, John Trumbour argues that Plan E shifted the tone of Cambridge politics towards “the mysticism of the professional municipal problem-solver” embodied in the unelected politician of the city manager (HHR 185). This shift served a larger goal of “separating administration from politics” and moving actual decision-making power out of the hands of voters (Belonging, 27).
Today, Cambridge continues to be ruled under this system in which nine at-large city councilors share power with an appointed city manager. The city manager retains ultimate power over decisions relating to the allocation of city resources, reducing the city council to a largely advisory role in most such matters. The consequences of this grossly undemocratic system of municipal governance are staggering. Even measures approved by unanimous vote within the Cambridge City Council can simply be ignored by the unelected City Manager.
By prioritizing the interests of university and business elites over the needs of its working class residents, Cambridge facilitates the mass displacement of working class community members from the city (what is often termed "gentrification"). Harvard University and MIT, along with an expanding slew of tech, biotech, and pharmaceutical corporations, have collectively gobbled up vast quantities of real estate in Cambridge, causing housing, rental, and living costs in the city to skyrocket (see figure below), and driving out Cambridge residents who can no longer afford to remain in communities they have called home for years if not decades.
As Hakeem Angulu from the Harvard College Open Data Project (HODP) reports that Harvard alone currently owns a staggering 9.56 percent of the total land in the city of Cambridge. Writing in the Harvard Political Review, Andy Wang further elaborates that this ever-expanding presence of academic and corporate behemoths within the city, "brings with it newfound jobs, educational opportunities, and spaces, but they are often mismatched to the interests and desires of the pre-existing community. Rather, jobs at an institution like Harvard and the immediate spaces surrounding it tend to serve a small subset of the population: well-educated and, more often than not, well-to-do." Angulu proceeds to explain: "For people with relatively low and stagnant incomes, this makes Cambridge a harder city to live and do business in than Boston, and incentivizes emigration. The change in rent, in particular, is important because low-income families are likely unable to buy property, and these graphs show that rent is outpacing housing prices."
(Image source: here)
Contrary to its stated commitment to racial justice, the City of Cambridge has consistently supported and emboldened the city's police department. Despite resounding calls from Black and Brown community members in the Summer 2020 to defund the Cambridge Police, in June 2021 the Cambridge City Council voted down a resolution to reduce the city's police budget by $3.7 million, and instead approved a $66 budget for the Cambridge Police Department for the forthcoming year, increasing the Cambridge Police Department's funding by over $3 million from its 2020 levels. The Cambridge Police Department has used this ever-ballooning pool of city resources to buy Lenco "Bearcat" armored vehicles along with military assault weapons, including sixty three Colt M4 assault rifles, eleven sniper rifles, and eighteen Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns -- a source of ongoing outrage amongst Cambridge residents.
As Hakeem Angulu from the Harvard College Open Data Project (HODP) reports, Harvard currently owns a staggering 9.56 percent of the total land area of the city of Cambridge.
The City of Cambridge currently purchases HP products for city offices, schools, and other public building through a contract the city holds with HP distributer WB Mason. The city previously contracted with HP directly for the same purpose.
In May 2021, hundreds of community members in the city of Cambridge MA mobilized in support of a policy order submitted by members of the Cambridge City Council which called upon Cambridge to end its business ties with Hewlett Packard and other companies supporting Israeli apartheid. Cambridge city councilors opposed to this BDS policy order submitted a last minute "substitute policy order" which revised the language of the original policy order by removing HP, drawing false equivalences between Israeli ethnic cleansing and Palestinian resistance while stating that the city should review all of its contracts for violations of human rights. A majority of Cambridge City Councilors voted to replace the original policy order (which hundreds of residents had testified on) with this last-minute, watered-down substitute policy order, after which the city council passed the substitute policy order.
In March 2022, the Cambridge City Manager responded to the watered-down substitute policy order, claiming that the city was not equipped to make determinations as to which companies were engaged in human rights abuses. Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan, who sponsored the original policy order, wrote the following in response to the City Manager's decision:
The City Manager has finally responded to the policy order from last term that asked him to identify vendors and manufacturers the city does business with which are in violation of International Human Rights Laws. The administration is effectively refusing to comply, claiming that the council did not provide enough specificity in terms of which purchase orders and which human rights violations were to be reviewed.
This response is unsurprising given the council's effective neutralizing of the initial order, which very specifically called into question the city's purchasing contract with Hewlett Packard over their facilitation of apartheid in Israel via being the exclusive provider of computers that are used to biometrically track Palestinians, deny them access to water and healthcare in the Gaza strip, and imprison them without access to a fair trial. It remains beyond disappointing that a majority of the council refused to directly confront the situation in Israel despite the city's long and storied history of terminating purchasing contracts with companies that facilitate discrimination or other ethically questionable practices, including during South African Apartheid in the 1980s.
Clearly, the City Manager has no interest in establishing a human rights screen on procurement requests and is conveniently leaning on the council's amendments to absolve himself of any pressure to do so. I particularly take issue with the final line of the city's letter, which states that the city is "not equipped to make adjudications based on mere allegations of such violations". The mistreatment of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli Government is happening clear as day and we cannot allow ourselves to turn a blind eye to that gross injustice by considering it merely an allegation. To do so is to be complicit in the oppression.
See also: This press release from BDS Boston (who mobilized community support for the original policy order) on the 2021 Cambridge City Council hearings.