F(ocus) Your Activism

Some forms of activism just aren’t good for the student body

After some impossibly frigid and rainy April days, Massachusetts weather finally decided to give us a break. The sun has been shining and suddenly students can bare some leg without freezing to death. To honor the triumphant emergence of spring, a group of friends and I headed out to the Quad for some sunning action yesterday. At last, a chance for my naturally olive-toned skin to become even more olive-y. This tanning endeavor was however cut short by a most unwelcome intruder.

Occupying the most tan-friendly corner of the Cabot Quad were a slew of red flags strung together to trees. What did it even mean? Lots of red flags strung together remind me of the blowout car sales at Troy Aikman Ford in Dallas. Perhaps he was relocating the dealership to Cambridge?

Actually, the red flags are “bandanas” and they are a part of a traveling display put on by the Harvard College Democrats to remember the troops lost in Iraq (it’s for the larger Iraq Awareness Project). There are over 3,200 red bandanas—each cut by a member of the Dems—to visually illustrate the sheer magnitude of what Iraq has become. This display was originally outside of the Science Center but was relocated because of nasty permit regulations.

Unfortunately for the Dems, their Iraq display in the Quad looks nothing like a memorial for the lost soldiers and civilians in Iraq. Personally, I find it masturbatory that a campus political group would want to waste the time and energy on a display most students won’t even notice. And it’s all the more masturbatory since the display is actually a betrayal of what their Iraq Awareness Project accomplished.

Prior to their installation of the Iraq Awareness Display, the Dems held a Candlelight Vigil at Tercentenary Theater. There were also a number of projects undertaken to physically support the troops (a phrase we invoke, but often don’t act upon), including a donation drive they co-sponsored with the Harvard Republican Club and ROTC. In other words, the Iraq Awareness Project was a series of solidly forward-thinking events. But the display–well that’s a prime example of how progressives lose focus at Harvard.

And the latest manifestation of campus activism gone awry really needs no introduction.

Stand for Security started out with a group of dedicated activists who wanted to educate the campus about the unfair wages of our Harvard Security guards. While I personally have always been skeptical of SLAM-esque campaigns undertaken by students, I genuinely thought this was an innovative display of progressivism on campus. When the hunger strike commenced I wasn’t initially perturbed like many students on campus who reacted as if they were the ones being forced into an indefinite fast.

However, amidst the explosion that occurred over e-mail lists pertaining to the efficacy of the hunger strike, I realized just how polarizing the entire endeavor has become. And that’s a shame, because it didn’t have to go this way.

If you visit the Stand for Security Web site you’ll discover a number of great tools to get yourself educated about AlliedBarton, learn how much these guards actually need to raise a family in Boston, and even find Derek’s Bok’s phone number, complete with a script so you can leave our beloved University President a nice voice-mail.

The Comprehensive Information Packet shows that these activists are no dummies—they’ve done their homework. You can see that a security guard at Harvard makes $12.68 an hour, whereas at Stanford their wage is $20.39 and at neighboring MIT it’s $18.64 an hour. On their website you can also see worker testimonials. From Najeeb Hussain you will learn that “Because AlliedBarton and Harvard University are standing in the way of me and my fellow officers’ efforts to improve our jobs with the Service Employees International Union, I am now preparing to tell my eldest daughter that she cannot return to Rutgers University after her freshman year.”

As of today the hunger strike has gone on for nine days. In that span of time three hunger strikers were hospitalized, and one of those strikers had to call off his fast because of dire medical orders from UHS. And while University Hall has ceded to meeting with representatives from SLAM, they maintain that they will not intervene in the wage dispute with AlliedBarton, who did extend an offer of a wage increase yesterday. Should Harvard recant its current position and actually act on behalf of the security guards, the strike would technically result in success.

But would it have been worth it? More importantly, how are students going to look at security guards now—you remember those guys, the ones we’re supposed to be talking about.

While supporters of the strike allege that it’s only in extreme actions in which change can be affected, I’ve got to disagree. Even if the hunger strike does “work,” other activist venues could have been utilized that would have brought in wider student support and not endangered the lives of eleven students.

Like those red bandanas hand cut by the Dems, this hunger strike is just another form of earnest, but ultimately unwise, activism at Harvard.



Jessica C. Coggins ’08 is a women, gender, and sexuality studies concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears regularly.