The New Face of Student Activism

The Living Wage and the Evolution of Protest at Harvard

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: For the stereotypical Harvard student, this campus is less a hotbed of political activism than a springboard for comfortable cosmopolitan jobs. Yet throughout Harvard history there have been students who have defied this stereotype, challenging the existing order in striking and dramatic ways. The takeover of Mass. Hall last year by the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) in its campaign for a “living wage” is just the latest chapter in this turbulent history.

But while the PSLM transformed itself from a small group of fringe activists into Time magazine celebrities, there’s more to the story than drum beats and chanting crowds. Getting the Harvard community enthusiastic for and committed to an agenda of reform has proven to be an elusive goal. After all the banners and the songs, where the PSLM stands now remains in doubt.

President Richard M. Nixon once called Harvard the “Kremlin on the Charles.” While he may have had a point in the ’60s and ’70s, this comment seems antiquated in 2001. And so the question arises: What is the face of student protest here now, and how do students see their activist peers on this campus today?

The 1969 takeover of University Hall was crushed by a Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) squad that dragged Students for a Democratic Society protesters (SDS) out of the building against their will. The Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) 21-day takeover of Massachusettts Hall last year was crushed by promises of a Katz report. Administrators and police officers took a hands-off approach to the 2001 protest, confident that rallying cries for a living wage would be silenced by a bureaucratic committee and a stack of paperwork. But more significant than the administration’s changed tactics towards protest, is the evolution of protest culture from the student perspective.

While PSLM protesters claim distance from the tactics of their forebears, theirs is a strange mix of past and present: North Face tents sprouted in the Yard, Crowds chanting in hippie fashion, Unshowered students inside raked up high cell phone bills inside Mass Hall. The 52 members of the PSLM that entered Mass Hall at 1:27 p.m. on April 18th, 2001 had to wage a two-front war —one against Harvard’s economic establishment and another against a student body who was skeptical of their authenticity and intentions. Some students saw PSLM protesters as missionaries of the disadvantaged while others viewed them as headhunters of personal glory.

On-campus protest in the 21st century must overcome a wall of cynicism—a student body who may be socially aware that often has who may given up on protest as an anachronistic way to get things done.

Changing the Strategy

The degree of media coverage surrounding the Mass Hall sit-in gave the impression that Harvard’s wage policies are by far the worst in the business. However, the campaign for a living wage is a carefully coordinated national movement, embracing a diverse coalition of unions, workers, students, religious groups and local politicians. The movement’s nascent steps in raising awareness culminated last spring in dramatic protests across fifty university campuses. Harvard’s PSLM attracted the most national and international press outlets because the Harvard name gave the most sensational lead for any news broadcast.

The PSLM cultivation of a successful media profile can be attributed to their clockwork organization, savvyness, and sheer willpower. “I would call our approach to media relations dogged,” says Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04. “We went in there with the approach that this is big news and we had the courage of our convictions to transform that belief into action. The media was drawn to us because we looked serious, and we were. We were on top of our game.”

Elfenbein’s comments are typical of many PSLM members, for whom the maintenance of good public relations is of paramount importance. In the days before the sit-in, PSLM’s press corp spent over sixteen hours each day phoning media outlets—from regional cable operators to international wire news syndicates. Aaron Bartley claims that the PSLM “created relationships with reporters from all over the country, just like in a political campaign.”

The PSLM also flooded student and faculty inboxes with daily e-mails brimming with propoganda, current activities, and contact information. Professor Brad Epps, faculty liaison for the PSLM, notes that “the students in Mass Hall were constantly connected to the internet, and it was through the internet that they galvanised support from people like the Mayor of Cambridge and various labour leaders…the internet was the context in which the protest occurred.”

For a group that shuns hierarchy and works through consensus, de facto leaders like Ben McKean ’02 spearheaded a rigorous preparatory program. Everything was ready; the week’s worth of food and water, sleeping bags and other supplies were stored in a sympathetic student organization’s basement headquarters. Contrast this to the 1969 mob takeover of University Hall, where students entered the building with few provisions save for bullhorns and moxy.

Beyond meticulous organization, the PSLM was conscious from the outset of the other factors conspiring to raise their media prominence into the stratosphere. Bartley concedes that there “was a definite visual intensity of the image which we didn’t even need to choregraph,” this photogenic nature of the strike stemming in no small part from the mystique of Harvard itself. But, across from the omniscient eye of John Harvard, the students realised that Harvard’s hallowed name was both a boon and a burden for their cause.

Initially, Harvard’s reputation as an academic mecca seemed a perfect opportunity to lure the circling packs of media. The headlines would sell papers. Dan DiMaggio ’03 argues that “here’s this place known for progressive scientific breakthroughs, but ultimately it is supremely immoral in not granting everybody within it an equal voice.”

Julia B. Appel ’04 explains that at the same time as the Living Wage PSLM sit-in was taking place at Harvard, there were heated rallies occuring at Northeastern over the displacement of the university’s African-American center to the edge of campus. She observes that “there was no publicity for this action because the cache of privilege at Harvard gave us an edge.”