What’s That Noise?

In the wake of the recent fracas between immigrant rights protesters and border control vigilantes at Columbia, students and pundits alike have been pontificating about what student activists should or shouldn’t say and do. Yet much of the debate, from the O’Reilly Factor to the “Kremlin on the Charles,” has remained out of touch with the realities of campus activism. In fact, we are not rabblerousers with pipedream goals who like to make a scene. We are dissidents with purpose who want to remake our community, and in the process, stand in solidarity with communities around the world.

Activists know that universities, at their best, can be laboratories for democracy, communities committed to asking questions, challenging the established order, and advancing justice, freedom, and, one hopes, education for all. We also know that universities, at their worst, can be institutions of exclusion and oppression, hoarding power, privilege, and wealth for the few.

Either way, what goes on within universities’ walls has tremendous influence on what transpires without. Nowhere is this truer than at Harvard. Student protests here, from the Living Wage Campaign to divestment campaigns, are unlike many other protests in this age of unresponsive government and unaccountable corporations. Our campaigns are rarely ignored, and they shine light on issues that otherwise would go unnoticed.

Our resistance is fertile, not futile. The whole world is watching Harvard, and when student activists win here, there can be ripples around the world. The anti-apartheid movement at Harvard in the 1980s was a galvanizing force for the international boycott movement. The Living Wage Campaign’s 2001 sit-in was followed by a wave of campus sit-ins and workers’ rights victories nationwide on a scale not seen in 30 years.

Campus activism also can mean concrete transformations in the lives of people close to home. That is one of the underlying motives behind Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), the heir to the Living Wage Campaign, of which I am a member. Campus workers can be disempowered and intimidated, and have a hard time winning their demands alone. But when students support them, they can win. Such is the power of student-labor solidarity.

At its heart, Harvard is a community, not another multibillion-dollar corporation. Real communities have values, ideals, standards. These days, it is student activism that holds Harvard accountable to those ideals that are too easily forgotten.

Critics have painted groups like SLAM as small bands of wild-eyed idealists getting together in rooms to dream up their next cause or campaign. Yet activists do not wake up one morning and decide that workers need a raise or a union, or that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are evil. Nor do we demonstrate, march, take over stages, go on hunger strikes, or occupy university buildings because we feel like it.

We take our direction and our inspiration from those who are most affected by the policy at issue, who have come to us to ask for our support. For instance, SLAM’s 2005 “Justice for Janitors” campaign and its ongoing campaign to win security guards the right to organize were both initiated by the workers themselves. The Coke boycott was called by workers and poor communities with their lives on the line in Colombia and India. Our walkout for immigrant rights last May was just one small piece of the national immigrants’ rights movement.

Groups like SLAM have also been accused of using overly feisty, noisy, and confrontational tactics. Yet, not only do such criticisms ignore the vital role played by loud and vigorous dissent in any democracy worthy of the name, but they also fail to note the full scope of what student activists do.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, most student activists are realists. We would prefer if we didn’t have to fight it out and devote countless hours each week to organizing, educating, and agitating. But we realize that when the poor, the powerless, and their supporters are pitted against a $29.2 billion corporation, they won’t win by getting down on their hands and knees and begging. It takes a whole lot more.

When activists begin a campaign, we first appeal to the conscience of the University. We meet with administrators, call on our fellow students, faculty, and alumni, table in dining halls, and raise awareness with every means at our disposal. While we often have to grab public attention in order to break through the Harvard bubble, we take every possible step to resolve the matter through community education, public dialogue, and negotiation first.

It is only when activists’ appeals fall on deaf ears that we take our campaign into the streets or Mass. Hall. Direct action and civil disobedience are tactics with long and storied histories in this University, dating back to Henry David Thoreau, Class of 1837, and W.E.B. Dubois, Class of 1890, but they are always tactics of last resort.

Maybe one day, when the University’s connections to poverty, war, authoritarianism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other unpleasant things are truly remnants, student activists will be able to put down their signs and petitions and call it a day.

Until then, don’t expect us to be quiet. We know that silence is betrayal. We know that not only is it our right to dissent, it’s also our responsibility. And we know that when we speak out, what we say and do can reverberate far beyond the echo chamber of the ivory tower.

Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.