Mainstream or Bust
Divestment Protest Embraces the Establishment
When 5,000 people filled Harvard Yard for last spring's major divestment rally, organizers knew they had pulled off the most meticulously planned event in the history of Harvard student activism. Activists discussed for weeks before the rally how they would coordinate the three-hour demonstration that featured the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
A few of the organizers had been leaders of the Harvard campaign for Mondale and conducted the Yard demonstration as if it were the highlight of a political campaign. They contacted news services and publications weeks in advance, and conducted a press conference the day of the rally. Mimicking Mondale rallies, the organizers offered hundreds of "special" passes which would entitle the lucky holders to "greet" Jackson. They set up "risers" for TV cameras and cordoned off special press areas. Throughout the event the organizers, sometimes screaming through the static, attempted to communicate with highly sophisticated walkietalkies.
The students who occupied a University building three weeks later arrived with a press release and, clad in suits and dresses, looked as if they were off to a management training seminar. They told administrators they had no intention of "disrupting business as usual" and spoke in hushed voices. At the end of the day, several students vacuumed up the crumbs they had left from lunch. Before going into the building, the activists had determined everything form the way the students would dress to the way they would address administrators in the building.
The divestment drive--the preeminent political movement at Harvard for 13 years--showed a new face last year. But the goal of the movement was the same--to get Harvard to divest of the $400 million it has invested in corporations that do business in South Africa. Last spring, for the most part, students tried to paint themselves as a pragmatic group that intends, through a moderate, carefully planned program of teach-ins and demonstrations, to persuade the University to divest. In addition, the group has adopted a campaign approach--complete with computers and press releases--to build up the movement and further its goals.
In keeping with their general moderate approach, activists are largely apologetic about the event that brought them the most criticism from administrators and the most attention both within and outside of the campus. Leaders of the movement say the temporary blockade last spring of a visiting South African diplomat in a Lowell House room was unplanned and the result of an uncontrollable crowd. They point to the rally and sit-in--both peaceful events--as the successes of the year.
Activists say that now, more than ever, they want to win the respect of students and University officials so their arguments for divestment will be taken more seriously.
"We wanted to make the University realize that while we can protest loudly and visibly we are also willing to do it rationally and responsibly," says Evan O. Grossman '87, one of the leading activists.
"Long hair and flowered shirts are definitely out," adds Grossman, who, neatly shorn and clad in a pinstripe suit, directed events from a desk in the plush lobby of the headquarters of Harvard's Governing Boards during the day-long sit-in.
While administrators had praise for the organization of the April rally and remarked on the order of the sit-in, they did not respond favorably to the Lowell House incident.
"The movement maintained its moral character up to and including the sit-in, with the exception of the use of force on the guard at the entrance at that incident. The group departed from its successful strategy at Lowell House," says Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III.
Some activist leaders maintain that the incident was largely unplanned and a mistake, and are concerned that it turned students off to the divestment movement, though others have cheered the radicalization of the movement.
"It's unfortunate when people start judging the movement on its actions rather than its goals," says Damon A. Silvers '86.
But Anthony A. Ball '86 says the event was successful if it encouraged people who thought the movement was too moderate to join. "It was important for people who thought the movement was too Yuppie to be able to express themselves," he says.
Essential to their goal, activists say, is broadening the base of student support for divestment. Last year's group has upgraded their act with high tech equipment. The group has the names and phone numbers of hundreds of undergraduate supporters stored in the memories of Macintosh computers. Press releases were prepared for almost every event, and leaflets and pamphlets were regularly produced by the thousands.
The Endowment for Divestiture, perhaps better than any other wing of the divestment movement, has captured the new, more moderate tone of campus activism and new goal of broadening the political scope of the movement. Since its founding three years ago, the Endowment, a fund that will not be given over to the University until it divests, has gained hundreds of active supporters. The Endowment is designed as an alternative to the traditional Class Gift campaign, where graduating seniors are asked to donate money to the University.
"We wanted to appeal to a wide range of people, and show them that there are other ways to push for divestment than protest marches and takeovers," says Tina Smith '83, a GSAS student who was one of the founding members of the Endowment.
Members of the Endowment say the movement is not an explicitly anti-Harvard gesture. Unlike sixties activists, they say, they don't want to deny their affiliation with Harvard, nor do they want to reject it. Instead, they want to make Harvard a place they can respect.
"We started in '83 as a group of people who wanted to thank Harvard but to show that we didn't approve of its investment policies," says Toni M. McLaurin '85, who was the Endowment's treasurer last year.
The Endowment expanded its operation considerably last year. The group had two senior "agents" working in each of the Houses, and, for the first time, had a junior training in each House to take over this year's operations. "We're trying to get to the point where we're as organized as the class gift," McLaurin says.
The student activists who set Harvard afire in the late sixties had very different attitudes about money and Harvard and protest tactics in general. The students who occupied University Hall on April 9, 1969 arrived with chains and padlocks and placards reading, "Fight Capitalists--Running Dogs." Inside, the students voted not to do any willful damage to the building and to refrain from smoking marijuana while inside. As many as 400 students filled University Hall from the morning until 5 a.m. the next day, when police broke in.
One hundred and eighty six students were taken to jail for participating in the 1969 take-over. One of their slogans: "Only militant action can be effective in fighting the violence and exploitation perpetrated by the Harvard Corporation on working people in Cambridge and working people throughout the rest of the world."
The major demand of the '69 sit-in was that Harvard abolish ROTC, but it was anti-University sentiment and ideological fervor that characterized the anti-war and other student movements at Harvard and other schools at that time.
"The students today are much more moderate, much more concerned with decorum and propriety. In the '60s, students really felt they were starting a revolution," says Assistant Professor of History Allen Steinberg, who was active in the antiwar movement at Northwestern.
Today's group says the divestment issue does not elicit the same kind of response from students, who tend to see South Africa as an aberrant case rather than the symptom of a larger societal problem.
"South Africa is already such a pariah. Few identify it with structural problems of the system. Vietnam was different. You had bad guys all over the place," says activist Ball.
Ball says he hopes to see students start to take a closer look at racism close to home as they continue to examine the white minority South Africa regime.
"People have to be concerned about racism in North Cambridge as well as in Johannesburg," he adds.
Though the movement has yet to score any concrete victories, last spring saw at least an increase in interest among students, as organizers were able to maintain their momentum throughout the spring.
"When we had meetings in the fall, a well advertised one would draw 30 people. I could call one tonight and get 100 easily. We hope to keep that number growing," Silvers said last spring.