Occupying Harvard Yard

Since the evening of November 9th, when an encampment of thirty some odd colorful tents were set up in front of the John Harvard statue, Harvard Yard has been closed down. Most gates are locked. The few open gates are guarded by security guards and Harvard police 24/7. “How long will you have to stand here everyday?” I asked a woman in a security guard uniform as I pulled out my Harvard ID to show her. She checked my ID and answered, “Today the shift is 12 hours.” “12 hours?” I exclaimed, “Wow that’s long! You should get a chair to sit down.” “No, we aren’t allowed to sit,” one of the other two guards said with a grin. Three guards for each checkpoint, standing for long hours—it has been a large expense for Harvard, and a hard job for the security guards, many of whom are in fact on good terms with Occupy Harvard. Student activists had been fighting for years for better conditions for security guards, and just before Thanksgiving, Harvard Occupiers and members of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) celebrated a rectification of the custodial workers’ new contract with Harvard that promised better benefits and guaranteed benefit parity between contracted and direct employees of the University. It was a victory won after a long time of advocacy, and helped by Occupy Harvard’s presence. Custodial workers, security guards, and labor and student activists celebrated it together at the camp.

I walked into the Yard. Normally at this time of year, tourist groups, people from the neighborhood, and parents with kids would pass through the Yard and admire its glorious autumn colors. But with its gates locked down, the Yard now looks eerily quiet and desolate in the evenings and on weekends. The lock-down of Harvard Yard has been unprecedented. Even during the 1969 Vietnam War protests and the 2001 Living Wage Campaign the Yard had remained open. In its open letters to the community the Harvard administration justifies the lockdown with “safety” and “security” concerns for students living in the Yard, yet many have pointed out that these concerns are unconvincing. If safety were a concern, then Harvard Yard should have been locked and guarded at all times, and not just when the Yard is occupied. If Harvard didn’t deem it necessary to close its gates when an armed robbery happened last year in front of Thayer Hall, a freshman dorm in the Yard, what evidence does it have to deem Occupy Harvard more dangerous? Despite wide-spread criticism of the lockdown’s “massive security presence” and “Homeland Security feel,” multiple open letters from faculty members calling on the university to honor Harvard’s “commitment to open inquiry and inclusiveness,” and a web petition that has gained nine hundred signatures, Harvard has not backed down from its decision to keep the Yard locked.

As a supporter and observer of the Occupy movement, I have been attending teach-ins and discussion sessions at Occupy Boston, a vibrant, well-organized, and warm community encampment in downtown Boston. The contrast between Occupy Boston and Occupy Harvard runs deep. Situated downtown, open and welcoming to all visitors, Occupy Boston has become a long-needed meeting place and site of learning where people of all walks of life can get to know each other. The teach-ins have brought progressive intellectuals from the Greater Boston area, such as Noam Chomsky, Juliet Schor, Noel Ignatiev, and many others. The discussions and debates are not only engaging and critical, but also refreshing, as arguments are voiced in everyday language, substantiated with real-life experiences. I have brought some of my classmates who were not so interested in the Occupy movement to Occupy Boston, and they were won over by what they saw and heard at the site. As graduate students we are training to become future educators. Occupy Boston has shown us the importance of communal learning, of embedding the university in its local environment, and of teaching students to dig where they stand.

Occupy Harvard, on the other hand, has been disadvantaged by the inaccessibility of a locked-down Harvard Yard. If the Yard were not locked, Occupy Harvard could become another vibrant public space welcoming voices otherwise excluded from the high-threshold academic environment. With the Yard locked, however, Occupy Harvard is cut off from a sympathetic larger community. It also has to fight opposition on campus from fellow students. Among the students I come into contact with, those who support Occupy Harvard have been in the minority, and this observation is confirmed by many of my fellow graduate students. In a panel discussion at Dudley House, Harvard’s graduate student center, Everett Mendelsohn, professor of history of science, expressed his bewilderment that students in his freshman seminar had little interest in discussing Occupy Harvard other than expressing annoyance at the inconvenience the occupation had caused in their lives. “Harvard is giving more financial aid than ten years ago, which means that the students nowadays are not richer than those ten years ago,” said Mendelsson. Yet why is it that today’s students generally feel unsympathetic to the Occupy movement, while students in 2001 had widely supported the living wage campaign that resulted in a two-week sit-in and occupation of the President’s office in Massachusetts Hall?

Many factors might have caused this shift in general attitude. Some students simply hold conservative viewpoints that valorize the status quo. Others misunderstand Occupy Harvard as a protest against Harvard, instead of as part of a much wider movement. As the Harvard environment has been nurturing to its students, many feel complacent in their privileged position. Those who receive financial aid from Harvard also feel gratitude toward the university, and do not want to “bite the hand that feeds” them, as one panelist at the Dudley House discussion observed.  Meanwhile, complaints that the Occupy movement has no concrete aims are often heard on campus. I’ve heard from students that the Occupiers are “just bodies on the square,” and “angry street-people sticking out their middle finger to the world.” They are either not working hard enough to formulate their aims, or not smart enough to know what they want. Most of the students that I come into contact with have not been to Occupy Boston, even though the site is just six subway stops away. Undergraduates are kept busy by their classes and homework, and graduate students by their teaching and research obligations. In an elite educational institution where everyone is committed to learning, learning has paradoxically become a pre-determined, heavily programmed, and often instrumental activity.

Isolated spatially from potential supporters, Occupy Harvard has in the past month tried its best to cultivate support. The info tent is always staffed with student protestors who patiently answer any questions visitors have. Two issues of Occupy Harvard Crimson have been published and circulated, clarifying Occupy Harvard’s demands and positions. Speakers have been brought in, including Ahmed Maher, one of the organizers of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, the economist Richard Wolff, and journalist Chris Hedges. On December 9th, an impressive teach-in took place, featuring lectures by Harvard, New York University, and Boston College professors to discuss the Occupy movement as well as the social problems plaguing the United States today. The lecture hall was packed, with 250 students in attendance. Considering this event happened during the stressful reading period, when papers are due and exams are approaching, the turnout was excellent.

The Yard already becomes quite dark in the early evening. The days are getting shorter, and the weather is getting chillier. A few students are stationed at the info desk, but the encampment is otherwise empty. Occupiers are in libraries studying for their exams and writing papers. They will not be back until around 11pm or so, when they will get tent assignments for the day and go to bed. There is still occasional verbal abuse from students who oppose the movement at the encampment; they come and chant, “We are the 1%,” shout at protestors, urinate on the tents, and accuse the campers of hypocrisy. On the Crimson website, a student questioned the Harvard Occupiers: “Then why are you at Harvard, continuously benefiting from and contributing to its institutional privileges, instead of working with farm workers and disabled people? Because you wanted that Harvard brand, right? Oh the smell of hypocrisy.” For me, Occupy Harvard asks exactly this question. Why are we at Harvard? How do we commit to social equality while attending a private, elite educational institution? How do we learn beyond our institutional and disciplinary confines? How do we envision a better society with others, horizontally?

On December 6th, Occupy Boston lost its court battle: the Suffolk Superior Court Judge Frances McIntyre ruled against a motion the protesters had filed to permanently protect them from eviction from their encampment in Dewey Square. Meanwhile, McIntyre also lifted a temporary restraining order that she herself had issued on November 16, the day after New York City had evicted Occupiers from Zuccoti Park, barring the city of Boston from evicting protesters unless there was a fire, medical emergency, or “outbreak of violence.” The lifting of the restraining order cleared way for eviction. Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston informed the occupiers that if they did not leave Dewey Square voluntarily by midnight on December 8th, “further actions” would be taken. As I am writing, the deadline has passed, and there has been no eviction. Yet no one knows for how long Occupy Boston will continue. For Occupy Harvard, talk of an end-game had already begun before Thanksgiving, following the custodial workers victory.  Yet Occupiers voted to stay. Harvard has not responded to the Occupiers’ demands to bar reinvestment in HEI Hotels and Resorts, a hotel management company with a history of unethical labor practices. It has not opened the gates. The occupiers are ambitious; they want to win more victories.

Philippe Lejeune, a French artist living in Boston, told me at Occupy Boston, “Maybe I am old, but what I care about is memory. What kind of memory will Occupy leave us? In 1968, I was eighteen and living in Paris. The memory of 1968 has changed my life. How will the memory of Occupy change the young people today?” I believe Occupy will leave a lot more than memories: it will continue as a long-term movement, persisting in the present rather than slipping into the past. These tents by the John Harvard statue, in the strange quietness of a locked-down yard, have forever changed me as a person and future educator.

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