Syd Sanders, 21, led the protest of more than 100 students at Harvard calling for the firing of embattled professor John Comaroff.
Belfast native Syd Sanders, holding the "believe survivors" sign, was at the helm of a protest at Harvard University that has garnered international attention. Sanders said he learned about the power of activism while growing up in Belfast. Credit: Courtesy of Ben Roberts

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A protest at Harvard University last week has garnered international attention thanks in part to the Belfast native who led it.

Syd Sanders, 21, led a Jan. 24 walkout and protest of more than 100 students at Harvard calling for the firing of John Comaroff, a professor who has been accused of sexual and professional misconduct.

Sanders, a junior, has spent his time at Harvard working with activist groups. But that hunger to instigate change dates back to Sanders’ time in Belfast, where he was born and raised to support his community. He has since brought that spirit of activism to Harvard.

“I feel like I grew up strong because of Belfast and Maine — and I’m putting that strength to use,” he said.

Sanders, a member of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement, was among a group of 10 activists who organized the protest.

Three female students accused Comaroff, a professor teaching about postcolonial Africa, of sexual harassment and professional misconduct, according to a 2020 investigation by the Harvard Crimson. An internal investigation subsequently found Comaroff guilty of violating school policies, and he was placed on unpaid administrative leave in 2022. But Comaroff returned to classrooms in the 2022 fall semester and is now teaching another elective class this semester.

Last Tuesday, Sanders and 100 protesters packed into Comaroff’s small classroom. At the start of his first class of the semester, another student gave a speech demanding the university fire Comaroff, and Sanders began a chant of “justice for survivors” while leading protesters out of the classroom.

The protest quickly went viral and began making international headlines.

“It’s obviously cathartic to be taking action against a predator, but it’s also really encouraging to see so many people turn out, so much support be shown for our side of things, we’ve been reached out to by every major news network … it’s crazy,” Sanders said.

While Sanders’ spirit of activism has flourished at Harvard in different activist groups, it all began in Belfast.

Sanders, son of Mayor Eric Sanders and Daily Soup owner Courtney Sanders, was born and bred in the city. Sanders graduated from Belfast Area High School in 2020 as Maine’s first transgender valedictorian. Before he even graduated, Sanders led gun control and climate change walkouts, served on the city’s climate change committee and helped organize the city’s first LGBTQ Pride Parade.

Courtney Sanders said Syd’s impact at Harvard has been years in the making.

“He’s very good at rallying people around him … It’s been very clear [for a long] time that he wants to make a difference in the world,” Courtney Sanders said.

Sanders said Belfast’s principle of strong community support is at the root of what he hopes will be a career in organizing.

Belfast is known, in part, for its legacy of activism. Activists can be found on any given day demonstrating on “Resistance Corner” at the intersection High and Main streets in downtown Belfast. There, Sanders led a crowd of more than 200 people in a Black Lives Matter demonstration to protest the death of George Floyd, who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. It was also Sanders’ first experience witnessing the power of collective action.

“The fact that Belfast and surrounding areas came out so strong for that protest was really encouraging and showed me that you just have to get on the ground and do it. That’s [a lesson] I’ve made a lot of use of at Harvard,” Sanders said.