Pitching Tents, Pitching In

It’s a quiet night in “tent city.”

Shortly after one o’clock in the morning, few people are stirring in the shelters that have turned the Yard into a camping ground. The doctor has retired for the night, although the mayor is still holding court. Most of the night’s campers either have gone to sleep or will not be coming until later in the night, after they’ve finished studying.

Pitched under signs reading “Welcome to Hypocrisy University” and “God Supports a Living Wage,” there are around 80 tents now, from simple ones-tarps draped over clothesline hung between trees-to large, fancy pavilions with awnings. Most of the tents were put up over a week ago in support of the Progressive Students Labor Movement (PSLM) sit-in for a “living wage.”

At its peak two weekends ago, the tent city housed 110 people, according to its organizers. But now, they say, only about 60 people come each night, so many of the tents stand empty night after night.

Some are just for show, symbolic gestures of support for the protesters who have been sitting in Massachusetts Hall demanding a wage of $10.25 an hour for Harvard workers. One woman rounded up six tents and pitched them all in the Yard, though she only sleeps in one. Another man rented tents from a local outdoors outfitter and dropped them off for other protesters to use.

A few of the protesters have brought spouses and families and the atmosphere in the Yard has been not unlike a family picnic, complete with food brought by sympathetic restaurant workers from the area.

To most of its residents, the camp-out in the Yard has become a city under cover.

The tents are numbered and assigned plots around the area in front of Massachusetts Hall, which has become known by the protesters as “Justice Avenue,” “Unity Boulevard” and “1025 Mass. Ave.” It has town meetings and its own self-styled mayor, Rhys Burmann.

Burmann, who leads tent city’s town meetings, has no official connection to the University, but he has a good friend who sat inside Mass Hall and he said he has a strong belief in the protester’s cause.

By and large, Burmann says the system he implemented—including nightly check-ins and check-outs and security patrols-has been successful.

Aside from a brief episode of drunken rowdiness last weekend, the camp has been peaceful. And with trashcans lining the Yard’s pathways, the area has remained comparatively clean.

“One thing I’m proud of...is the place has been impeccably clean and impeccably organized for this many people in one place,” he says.

About half of the tents are occupied by their owners, Burmann estimates. The rest are donated and occupied by other protesters who, in return for living in the tent city, help the living wage campaign occasionally by drawing posters or running errands.

The residents of the tent city have developed their own security procedures. After one tent was stolen last weekend, some of the occupants fixed their canopies to the ground with special corkscrew stakes. They have fire-extinguishing equipment and maintain regular security shifts that patrol the area with flashlights.

The residents have also drawn up a list of “tent city rules,” prohibiting alcohol and weapons and warning occupants not to light candles in their tents.

Most of the residents have little direct connection with the living wage issue at Harvard. Some of them come from surrounding communities and are active on other issues, such as public education and world trade, but not living wage issues-until now.

“It’s a community effort,” Burmann says. “It’s not just Harvard. It’s not just PSLM.”

Michael Greger, a general practitioner in Jamaica Plain, calls himself the tent city doctor. He spends his nights in tent number 73, where he has posted a sign with a red cross outside reading “the doctor is in.”

After the violent protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last winter, a network of activist physicians sprang up across the country. Greger is a member of one of these groups, the Northeast Action Medics Association, which has sent doctors to Philadelphia and Quebec for protests in those cities this year.

Greger says he supports the living wage cause and was especially attracted to the excitement of being a medic at a local protest.

“It’s great to have the living wage right in my backyard,” he says. “I couldn’t help but come out.”

Most of his time has been fairly routine so far-”usually it’s tampons, band-aids, Tylenol work,” he says-and he has also tended to some locals who came to him for medical attention, including a case of bruised ribs from someone who fell off a bike.

Monday night brought the first urgent protest-related medical situation: one of the protestors sitting in Mass Hall had an asthma attack and needed an inhaler. Gerger fished one out of his supplies and a police officer took it to the protester.

“I was so excited I brought my supplies,” he says. “I feel great to show that extra solidarity.”

This solidarity is shared by the entire city.

After a day of protesting, Ken Tivey, another Yard resident, sets up his tent. Tivey works in the Economics Department and is a member of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. He says he takes lunch breaks from Littauer to come to the noon rallies in front of Mass. Hall.

The night before, he says he sat next to a law school professor who had come with his wife and three young children-the family had a “great time,” he says.

“Maybe we could market it in some way: people come from around the world to sleep in Harvard Yard,” he quips.

—Staff Writer Andrew S. Holbrook can be reached at holbr@fas.harvard.edu.