“Occupy Harvard” begins on Harvard Yard 4

CAMBRIDGE — Occupy Harvard, the latest local manifestation of the Occupy Movement, started with almost 30 tents last night in the Old Yard directly in front of the iconic statue of John Harvard. Police kept those without Harvard ID out of the Yard. Some protesters have complained about treatment by police, but no reports arrests or injures have been reported. Once the encampment was created, between 50 and 100 stayed there peacefully through the first night.

In the tense first moments of occupation, protestors scramble to erect tents in the middle of a protective circle of their comrades. (Blast Staff photo/John Stephen Dwyer)

In the tense first moments of occupation, protestors scramble to erect tents in the middle of a protective circle of their comrades. (Blast Staff photo/John Stephen Dwyer)

This encampment took form after weeks of planning and appeared seven days after 70 Harvard students walked out of Greg Mankiw’s lecture after delivering an open letter that said “Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University and our greater society.”

Closing of the gates

Hours before the encampment was put in place, a reported 500 protestors assembled in Harvard Square but were prevented from entering Harvard Yard by police and security people who locked most of the university’s wrought-iron gates. Police and security positioned themselves at the few gates that were not padlocked and intermittently allowed either no one at all or only those possessing Harvard ID to enter. Several graduate students and a faculty member said they couldn’t recollect any time in the past when the university experienced such a severe lock down of the campus.

During one point in the night, a mass of people tried to force their way into the Yard as police pushed the gate closed, making for a chaotic scene. Hannah Hofheinz, 32, a student at Harvard Divinity School later described the police “slamming the gates on us and crushing people – a very violent response.”

More accounts of roughness emerged later including a Facebook post by Taras Dreszer that said “as we were trying to enter Harvard Yard, a Police officer grabbed me by my collar and forcibly stopped me from moving forward. I showed him my ID and he said ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ He then said ‘I want to sock you in the face but I decided not to.’”

While some students with ID had to wait before getting in, throughout the night there were a few people with no Harvard ID who successfully made it inside the Yard by climbing over (or, at one specific spot, under) the fence without being observed. It was reported that one move obvious fence climber was seized by police but was released without being arrested as protestors chanted the questions “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” to the uniformed law-enforcers. Security also prevented media from entering the Yard, but Blast was able to get inside.

Assembly at the Law School

“Adrenaline was present for a good portion of the night,” Hannah Hofheinz later described, “we heard that Harvard was closing the gates at around 5:30…the question was ‘What do we do? Only Harvard people can come inside, but occupations are about openness.’” After meeting inside the gates the group decided to move. “The choice was made to gather outside the gates where we could all talk. So we did so, and we started to march in order to get out, then they closed all the gates,”said Hofheinz, “but we were able to go out, and we walked up the street, and ended up over at the Law School.”

Around 8 p.m., with hundreds of protestors in attendance, Occupy Harvard held a General Assembly at Harvard Law School (which stands near but outside the university’s iron gates). The meeting was heavily Tweeted about and was broadcast over a live feed creating interest and drawing more supporters to Harvard Square as the night went on. The General Assembly discussed the idea of erecting tents at Harvard Law School but the group ultimately remained committed to occupying the Old Yard location that had been previously discussed and decided upon during a series of meetings over past weeks.

Occupying the Old Yard

Those protestors who made it inside the Yard assembled in front of the statue of John Harvard. This group was mostly made up of those with Harvard ID (student, faculty or staff) but did include a few people who gained entry to Harvard Yard by stealth. One woman, who asked not to be identified but is associated with the Direct Action working group at Occupy Boston, said “Harvard police seemed to have some issue with our right to assemble. I’m not sure what that is. That’s their issue. But we got in. We managed it.”

Around 10:30, as if on cue, about a dozen people suddenly and hastily began erecting tents in front of the statue while protected by a circle of about 100 of their fellow protestors. The people in this human barrier were initially tense and stood with their arms locked but they relaxed when it seemed apparent that police and security would not interfere with their efforts. They also got assurance from the presence of Suzy M. Nelson, Dean of Student Life and overseer of the Harvard College residential system (Harvard College is the division within Harvard University in which full time undergraduates are matriculated).

Nelson participated in the General Assembly that then took place. The dean, like all who spoke, used the repetitive call-and-response technique of the “people’s mic” so as to be better heard by the circle. Expressing a desire to minimize the negative impact on students’ efforts to sleep and study, Nelson asked the protestors to move their tents from the Old Yard to Tercentenary Theater, an adjacent area (framed by Widener Library and Memorial Church) that is not so closely surrounded by student residences. Some questioned the validity of the noise concern. Through consensus, the General Assembly decided not to comply with Nelson’s request but will discuss it again when it meets today, at 5 pm, with more of the student body in attendance. Nelson promised to help publicize this assembly so that as many students as possible might participate.

By the time the General Assembly finished after 11 p.m., almost 200 people (perhaps a dozen of them bystanders) were gathered in a wide ring around more than two dozen tents. An ad hoc group made mostly of Harvard College students gathered on the stairs to the left of the John Harvard statue to compose a press release while the last few tents were being set in place. Later, some students took a sign that said “Welcome, we’re glad you’re here,” propped it on John Harvard’s lap, and took pictures with him.

Response and reaction

While the above events were unfolding, Harvard University released a statement that said, in part, “speech and the free exchange of ideas are hallmarks of the Harvard experience, and important values for the university community to uphold…(but) it is important that we assure the safety and security of our students, particularly those who live in the Yard.’’

However many members of the Harvard community expressed displeasure at the way in which the situation was handled. Rick Heller, an alumnus of Harvard Kennedy School of Government, microblogged “where you stand depends on where you sit…In other words, the office you hold biases your perspective. I believe this accounts for the defensive and bureaucratic decision of supposedly progressive Harvard leaders to lock its students out of the Yard…Harvard is mostly progressive on social issues. On economic issues, it promotes the theories and behaviors that caused the crash of 2008.”

While the campus was under lock down, some students not involved with the protest complained about Occupy Harvard subjecting them to inconvenince. Most protestors, conversely, place that blame squarely on the actions of law-enforcement.

The ninety-nine percent

Hannah Hofheinz, when asked about what Occupy Harvard might accomplish, said “I think occupations are not about demands…My guess is this occupation will be like the many others in which various voices will raise various concerns and expect that they’re answered. And there will be actions that spin out from this site. But I think the main point is…to set up tents here and say ‘the ninety-nine percent are here, and we’re living together – we’re really human.’ She added, “what I care about is people realizing how deeply our system is hurting, and how deeply people are hurting, even here, at Harvard….at this point Harvard is admitting a good number of people that come from everywhere, and anywhere, and all kinds of backgrounds, whose families may not have homes anymore and that’s a hard reality…the Harvard population is part of the ninety-nine percent.”

Gabriel Bayard, 18, one of 70 students who walked out of Greg Mankiw’s Economics class last Wednesday, agreed that Occupy Harvard should address society-wide concerns. But he also expressed keen interest in the occupation addressing Harvard-specific issues such as labor contracts and said “I definitely think this occupation has the ability to make an impact directly on the ninety-nine percent. Theoretical issues are important, but we here can make a difference in the next week in the lives of hundreds of janitors. I think that immediate impact is really important. I think we should keep that in mind as we go forward.”

Another student who participated in the class walkout, Rachel Sandalow-Ash, 18, added, “I would agree that union contracts are very important, especially since they don’t come up for negotiation very often and this is a real, immediate and pressing issue. I also think that Harvard’s use of its 32 billion dollar endowment – that makes it the largest university endowment and the second richest non-profit in the world after the Vatican – is important because where Harvard puts its money has a huge effect. Right now Harvard invests in [HEI Hospitality] hotels, which are basically the worst places for labor. They invest in land grabs in Africa, denying people’s basic human rights…Harvard, like many other very rich corporations, does a lot of harm to people in the ninety-nine percent in the United States and around the world. I think we have the power to change that, here.”

Gates still guarded

As of this morning, only about three of Harvard’s gate were unlocked and each of these was guarded by a group of police and security people. A Harvard cop guarding the gate from Quincy Street told Blast that this state of security would be in affect indefinitely. When asked how they would deal with Harvard Extension school students (who take evening classes but don’t have Harvard ID unless in a degree program) the officer laughed and said “I won’t deal with it. I’ll be home in bed then so it isn’t my problem.”