Editor’s note: John Stephen Dwyer, a contributing editor for Blast, has been writing about Occupy Boston and spending several nights a week in Dewey Square since the protest began on September 30. He also reports on Occupy Harvard, the protest that began on November 9 and continues behind the locked and guarded gates of Harvard Yard.
CAMBRIDGE — On November 9, a group calling itself Occupy Harvard set up camp in Harvard Yard. As the university has closed the gates to anyone without a Harvard ID, all of the occupiers are Harvard-affiliates (mostly students, plus some faculty and employees) and only a few have previous involvement with Occupy Boston or other occupations. Their unofficial logo, as shown on the @Occupy_Harvard Twitter account, is the Harvard coat-of-arms with the word “Oc-cu-py” replacing “Ve-ri-tas” on the three open books.
They’ve been there more than two weeks. Camille, a member of Occupy Harvard and a post-doctoral fellow who asked that her last name not be used, told Blast, “…we will be camping during Thanksgiving break. We will have our GA at the usual time (Thursday at 6pm) and will still be here next Monday.”
Tents and attention
The occupation has about 30 tents. But unlike Occupy Boston, which supports dozens of people with no where else to go, no one can honestly call the Occupy Harvard encampment “home.” Instead, these tents are occupied between classes or other responsibilities — scholastic, social and otherwise. Harvard’s occupiers donate considerable time to the business of the movement, and some do sleep in tents when they could be in beds just hundreds of feet away, but they make no claims about roughing it, much less mortification of the flesh. The tents, say Occupy Harvard members, are a specific form of protest used as a gesture of solidarity with people living in poverty and with the Occupy Movement in general.
Idyllic compared compared to the ramshackle tent city of Occupy Boston, the cluster of tents in the Old Yard is new, clean, and safe at night under the constant gaze of both John Harvard’s statue and the Harvard Police. The activists have the falling autumnal leaves of the Harvard elms and all the amenities of the university. But undergrad and Occupy Harvard organizer Sandra Y. L. Korn shook her head at media accusations that the encampment consisted of Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean tents and answered “most of these tents cost forty-something bucks.”
But the tents aren’t the occupation, the people are. Occupy Harvard has a decent-sized group of activists — around 100 — and they get attention. They were featured in the national media just for walking out of a particular Economics class a week before they pitched tents in the Yard. More recently, they stole the spotlight from Newt Gingrich when they mic checked the presidential hopeful at the Kennedy School and caused him to cancel a book signing at the Harvard Coop. And they’re definitely on people’s mind around campus. Last week, before “the Game,” student entrepreneurs having nothing to do with the protest were outside the Science Center selling $20 t-shirts that said “Occupy Yale” on one side and “We are the 6.2% (referring to Harvard College’s acceptance rate) on the other.
Harvard’s occupiers seem to have leveraged this attention effectively. “Theoretical issues are important, but we here can make a difference in the next week in the lives of hundreds of janitors,” said Gabriel Bayard, 18, when the Occupy Harvard encamped on November 9. Bayard’s prediction seemed to come true last week when SEIU Local 615, a union representing many of the janitors working at Harvard, avoided a strike and won a new, five-year labor contract with competitive wage increases and benefits improvements.
The shutting of Harvard’s gates has determined the character of the protest and the criticism made against it. Whereas Occupy Boston has attracted all kinds of wild characters, the atmosphere at Occupy Harvard is calm and polite. The occupiers are almost invariably well-groomed and articulate. The donation jar took in $130 one day, most of it in $20 bills, and it didn’t disappear when no one had their eye on it.
It is, to use a word popular in Dewey Square, “bougy” (fancy, bourgeois). Many holders of Harvard IDs have a decent shot of joining the 1% if they weren’t already born into it. The occupiers in the Yard say this privilege – earned through hard work in many cases, inherited in others – gives them more obligation to try to fix the system rather than less. Despite the difference in character between the two occupations, bad feelings towards Occupy Harvard seem absent at Occupy Boston; full-time inhabitants there tend to shrug and say “if they’re with us, great.” There’s also some overlap between the two groups, as well as a thread of associations starting with Harvard Divinity School students who went to Occupy Walls Street when it was new, formed the Protest Chaplins upon their return to Massachusetts, became involved with Occupy Boston, and now frequent the very civilized GA’s (General Assemblies) behind Harvard’s guarded gates.
Since no one can enter the Yard without ID, everyone who wanders by the Info Tent is a Harvard affiliate. Faculty and students stop by in about equal proportion; Harvard employees seem less apt to approach the desk. The vast majority of these are sympathetic to the demonstrators, although many have specific reservations or questions about the movement’s methods and goals. Those opening their mouths in opposition to Occupy Harvard invariably complain about having to show ID at the gate (although investigation revealed less than a minute wait during the busiest time of day).
An Abercrombie-ish jock came by one afternoon, waving a petition for stop the University to crush the protest and open the gates. And there’s a Hugh Grant-esque grad student and self-identified member of the 1% who has come by several times on his bicycle to troll the undergrads. When told stopping a war with a million casualties was more important than not inconveniencing people at the gates he sniped “that’s your opinion.” Another time, he advised a Haitian freshman his people should be better cab drivers. This comment from “Go home” left at OccupyHarvard.net is a good example of criticisms made against Occupy Harvard. Minus the f word, it’s similar to gripes heard in the Yard itself:
Seriously just get the fuck out of Harvard Yard. The only thing you’ve done is taken a space that used to belong to ALL Harvard students and made it the property of the 1 percent of them that are dumb enough to think that this is actually making a difference…Stop pretending like you’re not eating in the dining halls, sneaking back to your dorms for hot showers and sleep, and attending classes. If you don’t like this place, leave. There are plenty of other students who would be happy to be here without disrupting everyone else. Stop ruining the rest of the ‘1 percent’s semester, go home.
Occupy Harvard members say publicly and privately that the closing of the gates seems like a university ploy to turn opinion against the occupiers. “What Are They Afraid Of?” they ask on the website, “Occupy Harvard has repeatedly reached out to the administration to end its absurd lock down of the Yard, but has been continually rebuffed. We want the lockdown ended.” But there are dozens of homeless people in and around Harvard Square. Homeless people – or “houseless people” in the lingo of some who call Dewey Square “home” – are a big part of many occupations in the United States. The Harvard occupiers and their supporters can’t deny that opening the gates would, at least, change the character of Occupy Harvard overnight.
Befitting a place of letters, much of the most important dialogue surrounding Occupy Harvard is done in writing. Approaching the Info Tent, one might be offered a slip of paper that says:
We are here in solidarity with the Occupy Movement to protest the corporatization of higher education, epitomized by Harvard University. We see injustice in the 180:1 ratio between the compensation of Harvard’s highest paid employee—the head of internal investments at Harvard management Company—and the lowest paid employee, an entry-level custodial worker. We see injustice in Harvard adoption of corporate efficiency measures such as job outsourcing. We see injustice in African land grabs that displace local farmers and devastate the environment. We see injustice in Harvard’s investment in private equity firms such as HEI Hotels and Resorts, which profits off the backbreaking labor of a non-union immigrant workforce. We see injustice in Harvard’s lack of financial transparency and its prevention of student and community voice in these investments
The letter goes on to suggest that “a university for the 99 percent would offer academic opportunities to assess responses to socioeconomic inequality outside the scope of mainstream economics.” While visitors from Occupy Wall Street sometimes note Occupy Boston has a academic, “college-town” flavor to it, precise and relatively complex language like this characterizes Occupy Harvard to an even greater degree.
Drew Faust , President of Harvard, released an open letter on Monday to “to share more fully some of the principles and realities that have informed our decisions and actions.” She wrote, “As President, I am deeply committed to freedom of expression: it is a fundamental university value, defining our most essential purposes.” But Faust also justified the lockdown saying:
Our concern about the safety of our students has been greatly influenced by our observations of the behavior of outsiders who participated in the demonstrations on Wednesday, November 9, as well as by web postings from individuals outside Harvard urging confrontation and disruption on our campus. Several hundred people converged on the Harvard campus that night. The conduct of many of them was deeply troubling. Some attempted to enter the Yard by force, assaulted at least one Harvard police officer, grabbing his gun belt and stealing his radio. The crowd included individuals who, according to external law enforcement agencies, have engaged in violent behavior elsewhere with the explicit goal of causing disruption and with little connection to any particular cause. Incidents of violence–including shootings and sexual assaults–have occurred at other Occupy sites…Sustaining both freedom and security always requires difficult and nuanced judgments, both in a university and in the wider world.
The next day, in an “Open Letter to Drew Faust from Harvard Faculty,” faculty from several departments (Romance Languages and Literatures, Comparative Literature, Linguistics) and the Committee on Degrees in the study of Women, Gender and Sexuality expressed their opposition to the decision to lock the gates of Harvard Yard. The academics politely explained to Faust:
We sympathize with your difficult position, but all of us agree that locking the gates is contrary to the principle of open inquiry for which the university stands. Historically, Harvard has never locked its gates (at least, not in recent memory), and we believe that security issues can be addressed differently. We do not share the perception that the Occupy movement constitutes a threat to Harvard. To the contrary, we are in sympathy with protests against increasing inequality in the United States and believe that Harvard should welcome discussions of the issue.
Wednesday brought another open letter to Faust, this one from Francis X. Clooney, a Jesuit priest at Harvard Divinity School who is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology and Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. In it, Clooney writes, “Dear Drew…I’ve had occasion a number of times in the past few days to walk through the Yard, most recently tonight at 7pm, and observe our students and colleagues in their ‘occupy’ activity – which I might think is better called a Vigil of concern and for justice. Just a few comments.” He continues to refer to the occupation as a “Vigil” throughout the letter and said:
I realize that one of your responsibilities is to maintain order and security at the university, and care for the well-being particularly of those who reside in the Yard. Some security is therefore necessary, and I appreciate your care for this matter, as the Vigil proceeds. But even to me as a member of the Harvard community, who knows much of what is happening, the security seems unduly strict, disproportionate, unnecessary. Indeed, it would not be appropriate to allow everyone and anyone to camp out in the Yard, but nevertheless it is also for the well-being of the university to make clear, as I stated above, that those keeping Vigil are dear and welcome members of the community, some of our best, and not a security challenge. Monitor the site yes, but soon enough, please re-open the gates.
Clooney’s suggestion, that the gates be open but “it would not be appropriate to allow everyone and anyone to camp out in the Yard” might be a unique one. He doesn’t indicate any details of this idea, such as who would be allowed to occupy a tent in Harvard Yard and who would only be allowed to visit.
The greater good
Occupy Harvard members tend to be especially concerned with two specific things. The first is a desire for a better relationship between Harvard and its workers. The second is a call for Harvard’s $32 billion endowment to be managed with more transparency and social responsibility. In the first area, this well-focused protest already claims one victory – the previously mentioned janitors’ contract. If Occupy Harvard influences how the endowment is handled, they could credibly claim victory and voluntarily decamp with their heads held high.
But labor and the endowment aren’t the only issues. Occupiers everywhere have a tendency to want to change the world, and 375-year old Harvard is a world unto itself. Camille, the post-doc and occupier mentioned above, wants to “make the Harvard Corporation a more ethical and socially responsible institution…an even better teaching institution that is committed to the greater good.” She says the “goal is to reaffirm Harvard as a marketplace of ideas where all viewpoints are discussed and analyzed without regard to the amount of money supporting the different ideas.” Camille explains that occupiers “are cognizant of the role that ideas at Harvard had on the economic collapse” and remain committed to the idea that Harvard “can and should generate solutions that promote social justice and equality for all.”
“We stand in support of the global Occupy movement,” she adds, but doesn’t speculate if Harvard Yard will remain occupied as long as the movement itself. “After Thanksgiving, the future of the camp is in discussion so we have nothing to say yet about what will happen after next week.”