Sardines on Washington
DOES homelessness bother you? Does it bother you enough to do something about it? For the fifty-one Harvard students travelling to Washington this Saturday, it does.
Their plan is simple: they'll go to Washington and demonstrate their conviction. They won't be alone, though; a couple hundred thousand people will meet them there. Together, they'll march down the streets of our capital, packed tight as sardines, for the cause of affordable housing.
Pretty idealistic for a bunch of sardines, thinking their presence in Washington will convince anyone worth convincing. There will be so many of them, though: fin to fin as far as the eye can see. It'll be enough to make anyone take notice--maybe even the Big Fish himself.
On Saturday, they'll come as individuals. But for one morning they'll become a Movement, drowning Washington in a common voice.
And then they'll go home.
YOU could call Saturday's demonstrators the class of '89. Their cause is every bit as important as the causes of their predecessors--Dr. King's civil rights marchers in 1964, the demonstrators for Soviet Jewry in 1987, the pro-choice marchers of last spring, and countless others.
By most indications, this demonstration will be just as well-attended as the largest past marches. "It's a huge national event," said Sarah Silbert '92, co-director of Harvard's contingent, "I know Midwest schools that are sending buses."
Yet Silbert is understandably disturbed. "It's really a big deal...but at Harvard it's just not getting off the ground," she said.
Most of the people signed up thus far are freshmen who have had exposure to the housing problem through the Freshman Urban Program. But where are the upperclassmen?
If interest is low, it's certainly not because the issue isn't pervasive. Just now, a familiar figure with a shredded overcoat and shopping cart brimming with empty soda cans has stopped outside my dorm window, inspecting his inventory, maybe worrying about the onset of frigid nights. The march is for him, and for his family, if he has one.
Even my father, a jaded New York City commuter, has become alarmed. "It's getting worse," he confided last month, describing a morose figure collecting popcorn kernels from the filthy Grand Central Station platform. Commuters walked over and around him obliviously. The tracks nearby led straight into the wealthy suburbs of Westchester County. All Harvard students must have similar stories to tell.
Not only is the issue pervasive, it's extraordinarily divisive. Are you a trickledowner or a welfarist ? A conservative or a liberal? Do you favor housing vouchers or public housing ? If you don't know, you're probably not going. But if you identify with any of the latter, and a lot more than 51 Harvard students do, you're a potential sardine.
WITH or without a large Harvard contingent, success should grace Saturday's marchers. The easiest way to measure this success is just to count heads. Organizers expect a million people but probably will not get more than half that. That's okay, though; even a third of a million is comparable to the largest Washington demonstrations.
The second measure of success lies in the marchers' legacy, which will depend entirely on decisions awaiting the Bush Administration. What the demonstrators want is high-priority consideration of the housing issue. What they want are answers. Will Bush and the Congress produce a housing policy to compensate for eight years of abuse and neglect at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)? Will they reinvigorate that atrophied agency, currently limping along on a $7 billion budget, slashed from $32 billion since Reagan took office?
What they don't want is a "concerted national effort" that consists of a week of headlines, presidential press conferences, and then abandonment in favor of the next crisis du jour.
The idea behind the march--and it's an idea that has worked again and again--is that if you can make a strong enough impression, someone's going to notice. Unfortunately, the paltry Harvard contingent probably won't enhance that impression very much.
But every voice counts. One or two sardines may be good food, but gather enough and you have something even the Administration can't swallow.