by Mario Boozang
Student activism has played a crucial role in recent American history, from protesting segregated schools in the 1960s to participating in the Black Lives Matter movement today. Both high school and college students can gain enormous political power through organizing and demanding change from elected officials. To gain insight into what one individual student can accomplish, I interviewed Mike Miccioli, a recent Harvard graduate, who organized a protest on behalf of Julian Assange at the Harvard graduation ceremony on Sunday, May 29, 2022.
Background on Assange
Julian Assange is the Australian founder of the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks worked to reveal classified information exposing various human rights violations by the United States government, including video footage of a U.S. helicopter killing civilians in Iraq, as well as hundreds of thousands of other classified war documents related primarily to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2010, the U.S. began a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks, attempting to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917—an act that makes it illegal to obtain any information, recording pictures, or descriptions with intent to cause injury to the United States or provide an advantage to foreign nations. Placed under house arrest in England in late 2011, Assange appealed for political asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador in London. He lived there for nine years until his arrest by British police in April 2019. Most recently, the High Court in London ruled that Assange be extradited to the U.S to face 18 charges related to his disclosure of classified information. British Home Secretary Priti Patel approved this ruling. Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General, is the last line of defense with the power to drop all the charges against Assange. However, since replacing Bill Barr, Garland has yet to make any comment on the case. This reticence does not provide much hope for Assange’s future, yet the movement for his release continues. One of his strongest advocates is Mike Miccioli, a graduating student who chose this year’s commencement at Harvard to make his case for Assange’s freedom.
Before getting into the specifics of the Assange protest, it is important to cover Miccioli’s history as a student activist. Throughout his time at Harvard, he worked with both Harvard Students for Bernie Sanders and the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee. The committee was fortunate enough to host renowned political scientists, such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. The Harvard Students for Bernie Sanders group canvassed, held informational events, and invited speakers to a Class Warfare event. Overall, Miccioli is a phenomenal example of the power of student activism and how people can incite change at any point in their life.
Miccioli chose to organize a demonstration at the Harvard commencement ceremony because Attorney General Merrick Garland had accepted an invitation to speak there. “I wanted to focus on Assange’s case because this is the greatest threat to press freedom in our lifetime,” Miccioli said. The difficulty, he explained, is that there is very little media focus on Assange’s case, and the coverage Assange receives is biased. Lack of openness and honesty about the case is partly why many Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, are either unaware of the human rights abuses that Assange has suffered or do not believe it is worth fighting for his freedom.
For students, it can be challenging to organize any sort of event, let alone a protest outside of a graduation where a high-ranking U.S. official is speaking. In addition to typical struggles students face when organizing protests, Miccioli faced another roadblock: this year’s commencement ceremony included graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 (whose commencement had been delayed due to the pandemic) as well as the class of 2022 graduates. Consequently, Miccioli had to coordinate with students who had already graduated to encourage them to hold “Free Assange” signs while Garland spoke. Although initially, Mike faced many difficulties in organizing the protest, he also received support from progressive organizations such as Assange Defense, a national coalition fighting to free Assange (You can view their conversation with Mike Miccioli and Julian Assange’s wife Stella here). Assange Defense helped through sending protesters, signs, and pamphlets to the event. Members of Massachusetts Peace Action also provided help, as did Jill Stein, who led a chant while Mike was demanding that Merrick Garland free Julian Assange. What may seem to some like a surprising source of help, Harvard dining hall union leaders also provided their support. According to Mike, those union leaders are often very active in helping student activists on campus; for the commencement event, they gave advice on what strategies the protesters could use based on how the commencement ceremony would work. While Assange’s future is still undecided, the Harvard demonstration showed Merrick Garland that this case is not something to be ignored while also being a fine example of the ways students can make their voices heard—and the kinds of help and support they may muster if they reach out for it.
No matter what the result of Assange’s case, Mike’s organizing of the commencement protest reinforces the idea of activism at all levels being able to play an important role in pushing elected officials to listen to the wants and needs of the American people. Unfortunately, neither the Harvard administration nor Garland commented on the protest. Not every protest or demonstration will result in an immediate victory; however, without constant pressure and exercising of the First Amendment, lawmakers will continue to strip away our rights and make decisions to serve their own interests. The message is clear: students unite!
—Mario Boozang is a rising junior at the University of Connecticut. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science and works as an editor at the University’s newspaper.