Reflections on Occupy Harvard

By my second month living in Boston, I had already produced a standard response to my friends’ questions about how I was finding the city and my new employer, Harvard U. It was too complex, I would complain; you don’t know who the enemy is and where the comrades are. In New Haven, where I had spent the previous six years as a graduate student and an organizer with the Yale graduate student union, things were much simpler.

Occupy Harvard thoroughly changed that. Now every time I walk down Massachusetts Avenue, I am bound to see a face I remember from a General Assembly meeting or the tent city’s information table. We give each other a significant nod, recognizing the co-conspirator and the links that bind us in the common struggle. Sometimes we exchange a few words. The campus itself is no longer a mystical territory on which I, a new lecturer, tread cautiously and insecurely, but feels instead like contested ground that I understand and for which I take my own portion of responsibility.

As you might discover from reading The Harvard Crimson, Occupy Harvard is no uncontroversial affair. (What meaningful social movement is?) In the eyes of many undergraduates and much of the media, the administration’s decision to close the gates of the Yard to those without a Harvard ID successfully pinned the blame for the inconvenience on the Occupiers. Thus, much of the Occupy outreach effort has gone toward explaining to frustrated students that no, it was not the movement that closed the University gates, and, metaphorically speaking, that we have pitched our tents precisely to make a case for a more open university, devoted not to its own profit and the reproduction of a social and technocratic elite, but to the benefit of the now-famous 99 percent.

While there are certainly people who challenge Occupy Harvard’s very presence, the vast majority of those who drop by the information desk do so because they are genuinely curious to learn what the movement stands for or to express their solidarity. Not since the 2005 strike of Yale graduate students have I been the target of such an outpouring of good will as I am when manning the info desk. Every day Harvard workers come by to say a few encouraging words, bring some food, or leave a few dollars in our jar. Famous professors share their knowledge and symbolic capital in support of the movement. Talks by Richard Wolff, Chris Hedges, Andrew Ross, Michael Denning, and the Yale Working Group on Globalization and Culture, as well as the recent teach-in on social justice by supportive Harvard professors, have given substance to Occupy Harvard’s claim of serving as a site of a critical education.

As we celebrate Occupy Harvard’s accomplishments, however, we must also produce an analysis of fault-lines. Perhaps the major one, which almost threatened to split the movement, was the question of alignment with other social movements, and especially labor. What had placed that question at the forefront of our discussion was a statement of principles of Occupy Harvard, at the bottom of which stood two demands, qualified as initial and non-exhaustive, and certainly not as a condition for our presence, but demands nevertheless.

The first and perhaps most urgent of these concerned the struggle of the Harvard custodial workers for a fair and just contract. Harvard custodians had voted to authorize a strike if the university administration did not address their demands for greater job security, pay, and parity between directly employed and subcontracted workers, and retract its own proposal to increase workers’ contribution to their healthcare. The second demand concerned Harvard’s endowment and the degree of its transparency. It was focused on a divestment campaign from HEI Hotels, a company that makes its money from buying up hotels and reducing their labor costs, that is, lowering wages, increasing workloads, and breaking up unionizing campaigns going on in the hotels it manages. For the largely undergraduate Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), which had helped start Occupy Harvard, intervening into such actually existing labor struggles was a big part of the reason we pitched our tents.

The text of the statement of principles made its way through the General Assembly frustratingly slowly. The first time it was proposed, it never reached the stage of discussion. When it was brought up at the following General Assembly, it got bogged down in group-editing. The third time it almost passed, and people seemed to like it. The few proposed changes stirred no controversy, but then a quorum check was called, and it was discovered that we no longer had a quorum to vote on it. The proposal died a spectacular death at its fourth General Assembly, which comprised a very different group of people who had not participated in previous discussions of the proposal. A minority of participants, largely from among the graduate students, ended up blocking it on a number of grounds, but mostly because they opposed having demands at all. With hindsight, I came to understand, if not quite agree with, their insistence. Speaking the language of demands and thus engaging the university administration does mean participation in a process other than the sheer biopolitics of Occupy. That no demands could pass through the General Assembly and that the Occupy movement refuses to join other movements on terms other than its own renders it completely unco-optable.

Many of us from SLAM were nevertheless disheartened by this failure to overcome the traditional division between student social movements and working-class causes and to witness some residual New Leftist suspicion of labor on the part of some of the Occupiers. We were also frustrated by the very nature of the consensus process. After three and a half hours of arguing about the block, cold and tired, the General Assembly voted on a compromise resolution that expressed solidarity with the custodians’ struggle, without fully claiming it as our own. Having put in many hours organizing for Occupy and spent quite a few nights in the tents, we left that meeting with a bitter taste in our mouths and a reduced sense of commitment to the movement. As the next General Assembly showed, many of us had chosen to vote with our feet. In hindsight, we may have walked out of the conversation a little too early. I know now that I did.

That the Harvard custodians settled their contract successfully rendered the whole episode a bit of a moot point. Nevertheless, there remains plenty to learn from it, especially as it illustrates the sometimes uneasy relationship between Occupy and labor. I cannot help feeling that the misunderstanding that took place within Occupy Harvard was unnecessary and avoidable, just as that between West-Coast Occupiers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). “Solidarity is always inconvenient,” as the farmworker-organizer Baldemar Velazquez, who dropped by Occupy Harvard one day, told us. “If it doesn’t inconvenience you, it’s not solidarity.” I cannot help feeling that, if they are to succeed, both sides of that fault-line should get used to the inconvenience of working together better than we at Occupy Harvard did.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment