Down Definitely Not Out
Today’s student activism movement is a far cry from the halcyon days of 1969,but its leaders remain committed to their progressive causes.
The face of Harvard’s student activist movement might just be that of Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07, Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) founder, former Crimson columnist, Kirkland House resident, and general provocateur. Easy to spot, he frequently sports a Che-style cap that seems a deliberate part of his urban-grunge, revolutionary aesthetic.
But Gould-Wartofsky says he is not someone who protests for the sake of protesting. His approach to campus activism is utilitarian, a goal-driven process rather than an activity in itself, he says.
"We always try not to be ‘against things,’" he says while sipping chai, methodically breaking his tea stirrer into smaller and smaller pieces. "We always try to have a vision for what we’re for." Recently, that vision was last fall’s "Justice for Janitors" campaign which successfully fought for higher wages for custodial staff; a dining hall workers support campaign that garnered 1,300 responses this spring; and the recently won fight to get Saintely Paul, a janitor who had been fired after allegedly fainting at work, reinstated.
THE SILENT MAJORITY
Today, Gould-Wartofsky and his coterie are the main voices of Harvard students willing to cause trouble for change—a far cry from Harvard’s history of lots of students standing up for change.
In 1969, campus protest over the presence of Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) on campus came to a head with a forceful student takeover of University Hall. The protesters’ occupation ended only after over 400 policemen charged the building early one morning and forcibly–and at times violently–removed the several hundred students in the building. Between 250 and 300 people were arrested, and nearly 75 students were injured, according to The Crimson’s reporting from that day.
Fast-forward nearly 40 years to this month’s Career Forum, where banks, consulting firms, and even hospitals recruited Harvard students for internships and jobs. Outside of the event, a group of about 30 individuals—many who were not Harvard students but residents of Cambridge or Boston—smeared themselves with fake blood to protest the presence of military recruiters amid the firms and organizations offering jobs at the Forum. Across the street from them, about a dozen counter-protestors from the Harvard Republican Club accused the progressive protestors of "telling lies about the military."
Given all this, it seems that either students like Gould-Wartofsky appear to be the exception to the new norm or that we’re just living in an age of apathy.
APATHETIC OR JUST PATHETIC?
Even the core group of campus activists—those students whose names appear over and over again in Crimson articles, Cambridge Common blog posts, and House list announcements of rallies or protests–are unsure. Some say that Harvard is experiencing a period of disengagement, whereas others point to SLAM, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA), Students Taking on Poverty (STOP) Campaign, Harvard College Democrats, the Harvard Republican Club, and ethnic and cultural groups as examples of the range of activism present on campus.
But despite suspicion that student mobilization is fragmented or disengaged, the campus activists interviewed for this story predict an increase in activism over the next few years.
"Activists are made, not born," says Gould-Wartofsky. "A lot of students haven’t necessarily seen movements before. This stuff was never taught at school….A lot of folks have a hard time understanding why people march in the street or even protest at all." Gould-Wartofsky says he hopes that more people who are taught and exposed to protest movements will mobilize.
Indeed, members of SLAM recognize that they are not necessarily part of the mainstream.
"We do acknowledge and we do think that people regard us as a marginal segment of the population," another member of SLAM, Adaner Usmani ’08, says. But while he thinks that SLAM is not foremost in people’s minds, he believes that many of the positions taken by activist groups on campus—such as opposition to the war in Iraq or worker rights—are issues that Harvard students would likely agree with. "We’re not taking positions that are very radical at all," he says. "Why do only 20 people come to SLAM meetings?"
If activists—like the ones in SLAM—are working on issues the public seems to care about, should the blame be on students for not participating or the activist groups for not including them?
Usmani admits that SLAM is somewhat segregated from the rest of Harvard. "There’s a tendency to kind of demonize the rest of the community," he says, a problem which stems from SLAM’s frustration at what they consider campus-wide lethargy.
Jamila R. Martin ’07, SLAM member and coordinator of the activist center located at 45 Mt. Auburn St., describes SLAM as a welcoming organization. "We are open to all. We don’t insist on any specific doctrine. We strive for consensus in a non-coercive way," she says. Indeed, her perspective seems to support Usmani’s claim that the students should be coming to them, not the other way around.
Usamani theorizes that Harvard students don’t feel the need to question the University, believing that its actions are motivated in good faith. "You trust the system so much that you can’t see the failings."
Martin posits that student isolation from the wider community may be at the heart of the student-activism disconnect.
"They don’t understand themselves as actors on this campus and certainly not as community members," says Martin, whose mother and father are union and community organizers, respectively, in Boston. Harvard drives up property prices, drives down wages, and gets out of paying certain taxes, Martin says. "Harvard is not a progressive institution in its actions."
But its actions don’t seem to worry the majority of its students, who reside in residential systems that include other students and administrators, not dining hall workers, custodians, or security guards.
"We live in here like [at] a hotel," she adds. "You’re not a community member at a hotel."
HELL NO, WE WON’T GO
Lecturer on History and Literature and Quincy House tutor Timothy P. McCarthy ’93 says he knows about all sides of campus activism. As a student at the College at the time when issues of apartheid and divestment energized the campus, McCarthy "cut his teeth" while protesting as an undergraduate.
Fifteen years later, McCarthy has become the co-author of "The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition." He has also co-taught Literature and Arts A-86: "American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac."
McCarthy agrees that there is an element of apathy on Harvard’s campus today. "Political activism always moves in waves and ebbs and flows. It’s really virtually impossible to have any social movement sustain itself forever," he says in reference to what he calls "progressive" activism. McCarthy says that "conservative" activism has actually experienced a resurgence during the Bush administration.
However, McCarthy believes that the ongoing war in Iraq will move students to action. Even though the majority of people now oppose the war, "I don’t think people know what to do with the war," he says. "I think the quickest thing that will energize your generation is if they bring back the draft."
It was anxiety over being drafted that mobilized many students in 1969, according to New York Times columnist Frank Rich ’71.
"One of my most vivid memories of being a Harvard undergraduate was watching TV with friends when the Nixon administration introduced the draft ‘lottery’ and they drew the numbers (by birth date) of whom would be called up first, as if it were a game show," Rich writes in an e-mail to The Crimson.
"It was harrowing. If you think you might be called up and killed in a pointless war, you’re much more likely to protest loudly than if you are under no risk of such a fate," Rich writes.
Evan W. Thomas ’73, Murrow visiting professor of the practice of press and public policy and Newsweek’s assistant managing editor, arrived on campus the fall following the April takeover of University Hall. While the College shut down briefly after the Kent State shooting, Thomas says that not everyone took to protesting the politics of the time.
"An awful lot of kids just packed their bags and went to the beach," Thomas says. The protests that did happen during that period were "certainly related to the war…but a lot of it was people making a commotion for the sake of making a commotion."
One of Thomas’s daughter was a freshman in June 2001 when Massachusetts Hall was taken over by the Progressive Student Labor Movement—better known as PSLM. "It seemed like the old days for a moment," Thomas says, "but it quickly became clear that the students who took over weren’t that angry." He was amazed to discover that some student activists would call their parents—many of whom were once college activists themselves—for advice. Rather than rebel against their parents, as students did in the 1960s and 1970s, they were interested in pleasing them.
"It was the exact opposite of the energy that animated the sixties," Thomas says.
Still, campus activists point out that all student movements have to start somewhere. Gould-Wartofsky says he has spoken to a number of members from the movement that led the 1969 protest, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and he has discovered that "we have a lot of the same experiences. SDS started out as just a handful of people, too."
Chimaobi O. Amutah ’07 came to Harvard to get rich. His plan was to go to law school and live it up as an entertainment lawyer. Three years later, Amutah laughs when thinks of his past plans. Today, his life goal is "to raise consciousness that inspires positive action to end systems of oppression."
Though he does not consider himself to be an activist in the strictest sense of the word, Amutah is a part of the small group of progressives who work to keep an open dialogue on life at Harvard. He is one of the main writers for the liberal campus blog Cambridge Common, and he contributed to the controversial online Disorientation Guide to Harvard that launched earlier this month.
Amutah says he is ambivalent towards his status as a Harvard student. "I think that I’m very appreciative of what the experience has been," he says, "but I can’t say that I’m happy with the University." Amutah says he is not even sure if he would choose to go to Harvard if he could make the decision again as a high school senior from inner-city Trenton, New Jersey. "Being here seems like so many contradictions," he says "it takes a toll."
"Harvard creates privilege, and I want to destroy privilege," Amutah says.
It is not uncommon for students involved with activism to find that their involvement leads them to reexamine their own life experience and understanding of Harvard. Usmani has friends who "have had identity crises at Harvard."
Gould-Wartofsky stresses the personal benefits of taking a critical look at Harvard and an individual student’s role within it. "How can you go four years without seriously questioning the place where you are? Or what you’re doing with your life?" he asks.
"I think Harvard is a really hard place for someone to be who doesn’t want to work for ‘the man,’" Gould-Wartofsky says. "If you’re trying to work for the system, you have your whole life laid out, whereas if you’re trying to change it, you have to figure that out for yourself."
SLAM, he says, tries "to provide people with a community of people who care and who want to figure it out with you."
Being a campus activist also carries a unique set of responsibilities. "The thing about activism is that it’s not like any other extracurricular that you’ve ever done...This is a job," Martin says. That, in particular, is why it is especially important to SLAM that all workers have a union they can belong to, she says, so no 20-year-old SLAM member will ever have to make a decision that could affect an adult with a family. Universities "are just really unregulated spaces," Martin says. "It really falls to students to challenge what’s going on here."
Though the U.S. is in the midst of a war that, like Vietnam, seems to have no end in sight, few Harvard students fear being drafted, a reality that motivated the actions of the undergraduates of the Vietnam-era takeover. Outside of the gay rights movement, our generation also lacks the numerous social movements, like the Civil Rights and Feminist movements that buoyed and energized activists of the 1960s and 1970s. Changes in the economy over the past 40 years have enabled young Harvard alums to make substantial amounts of money in investment banking or consulting right out of college, discouraging radical action or protest during their time as undergraduates could.
Whether undergraduates will challenge the regulation of Harvard’s space is a question every generation asks, and some attempt to answer. But while the excitement of previous generations of activists motivate and validate SLAM, they may be looking toward a hackneyed model from an outdated time.
"Culture has changed so much that to compare political dissent then and now is sort of like comparing apples and oranges," Frank Rich writes in an e-mail.
But SLAM retains and cherishes the example of April 1969 and June 2001.
"Just because you don’t see students take over University Hall or Mass. Hall, it doesn’t mean that we’re not ready to," Gould-Wartofsky says.
If that time ever came, SLAM would need more than 20 students to do so. But Gould-Wartofsky—who claims that his ultimate goal is a future when protesting is no longer necessary—isn’t worried.
"This movement can only grow. It’s seen its low points, and it’s going up from here."