The 11 students who planned to participate in a new phase of a campaign targeting Harvard’s treatment of its security guards did not neglect to prepare. Drawing upon consultations with University Health Services doctors and fellow student activists from around the nation, the dissenters began a regimen of denial even before their chosen mode of protest—a hunger strike—kicked off.
After nine days of asceticism that saw two participants hospitalized and no movement by the University on the protesters’ main demand—that Harvard get involved in negotiations with the guards’ contractor—the preparation almost seemed worth it. Despite the health problems and the absence of a full victory, the strike became a defining action in a year that Undergraduate Council President Ryan A. Petersen ’08 says was characterized by “a greater air of student activism on campus in general.”
“What we’re seeing here is an upsurge. We’re seeing the beginning of a new era,” says Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07, a founder of the Student Labor Activist Movement (SLAM) and co-founder of Harvard Students for a Democratic Society. “I haven’t seen anything in my four years that was like this year.”
Indeed, after a quiet half-decade, student activism saw an upsurge this spring. Less than a week after they broke their fast, the Stand for Security strikers would be joined on the activist platform by leaders of many campus ethnic groups who came together in a campaign to confront racism at the University.
It became a year of exploration, as the hunger strike and the racism campaign revealed both the potential and the limits of student activism at the University today. Some concessions were won, and many weren’t—and all were accompanied by oft-divisive debate—but one thing was fairly certain: the student activists of 2007 belong to a different tradition than those of protesters past.
NO LONGER ‘SNARLING’
The high-water mark for undergraduate activism is, by most accounts, the University Hall takeover of 1969, in which students—frustrated by the University’s failure to distance itself from the United States military effort in Vietnam—poured into the office space of key FAS administrators.
Hustling their elders out the doors, the students occupied the building for 41 hours before state police summoned by then-president Nathan M. Pusey ’28 arrived en masse to remove them.
Samuel Perkins ’70, who was one of the students confronting troopers outside of the building that morning, recalls the police “stripping us off just like we were layers from an onion” before they moved inside University Hall itself.
Today, by comparison, the timbre of activism seems a bit more hands-off. The protests of this year ran from a “die-in” at a fall career forum and a grievance-airing at a speech by the director of the FBI to the hunger strike and the “I am Harvard” racism campaign. But at no point were administrators and students—or police and students, for that matter—nearly as at odds as they were a few decades ago.
“Compared to the students I faced the first time around—snarling, angry revolutionaries trying to occupy my office and keep me from doing any work—the students have been extremely constructive,” says Interim President Derek C. Bok, whose first term in office began in 1971, when the memory of the University Hall incident was still fresh.
In the run-up to this year’s labor protest, a building takeover seemed out of the question, leaving the undergraduate activists to adopt a less confrontational—but perhaps more dangerous—method of dissent.
“In the past few years something that has changed is that administrations not just on this campus but around the country [are] quicker to arrest students,” says Jamila R. Martin ’07, the former head of SLAM. “The hunger strike for us had a lot to do with the fact that we knew we would be arrested if we did try to take over a building.”
The last time student protesters occupied a building here was in 2001, when activists seeking a higher wage for Harvard’s low-income workers staged a 21-day-long sit-in outside the president’s offices in Mass. Hall. J. Claire Provost ’07, who this year was one of the nine hunger strikers still protesting on the ninth and final day of the effort, traces the difficulty in pursuing similar activist tactics to around that point.
“The Harvard administration has very much taken a hard stance towards activism since ’01-’02,” she says. “And as a result, [this year] we were forced to do something to our own bodies as opposed to Harvard.”
Despite its lack of physical confrontation, the strikers’ nine-day effort was one of the most prodigious protests by Harvard students in decades. According to Crimson archives, the last time undergraduates held a multi-day hunger strike was in 1983, when a handful fasted for a week to call on the University to divest from apartheid South Africa.
Yet even some of this year’s strikers, who faced vehement criticism from some fellow students while the fast was going on, were not initially sure whether their efforts had been very effective. While the University eventually met two of the strikers’ demands—holding a meeting with the protesters and releasing a statement reaffirming Harvard’s commitment to treating its workers fairly—they did not agree to negotiate with the security guards’ contractor, AlliedBarton.
“We did get some concessions from the University, but it’s not clear how useful those will be,” Martin said shortly after the hunger strike ended. “A lot of what still needs to be done hasn’t been done yet.”
‘AN ENVIRONMENT OF ACTION’
As prominent as the hunger strike effort was, it wasn’t always necessary to fast to get things done.
After members of the Black Men’s Forum (BMF) and the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW) were approached and questioned by police last month during a day of recreation on the Quad grass, BMF President Bryan C. Barnhill Jr. ’08 decided to organize a solidarity display to confront the incident’s racial implications.
For Barnhill, the “I Am Harvard” campaign represented a crucial turn toward substantive activism, with groups ranging from the Progressive Jewish Alliance to the Asian American Students Association standing on the University Hall steps in the rain as hundreds of undergraduates gathered for the pre-exam streaking ritual of Primal Scream. The student activists spoke of their encounters with racism at Harvard.
“Demonstrations—they’re very symbolic, they rarely accomplish anything towards your goal,” Barnhill says, looking back on that evening. “But it gets people on board and it establishes an environment of action, and I think that was important because so often we settle things with discussion.”
For the black student groups involved in the Quad incident, the momentum created by “I am Harvard” led to meetings with Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 and Harvard Chief of Police Francis D. “Bud” Riley.
Pledges followed promising, among other things, the addition of a diversity component to freshman orientation programs and to hold a football game that will include members of BMF, ABHW, and HUPD.
The game, Barnhill says, is tentatively planned to take place on May 12—the same day as the now-infamous Quad incident—to help “change the memory of that date.”
The BMF president sees activism—and not simply discussion—as a valuable aspect of student life.
“In classes and lectures and the books that we read, we’re faced with these great dilemmas that have been tackled for centuries,” he says. “And the only thing we do to confront them is to talk about them in section.”
The academic assets of activism to which Barnhill alludes seem to play into Bok’s current charitable attitude towards dissent.
“We shouldn’t assume that all student activism is bad,” Bok says. “I think it’s a healthy interest in important issues, and if students didn’t pay attention to these issues, you’d have another kind of problem that’s potentially more serious.”
Ironically, Bok’s attitude of receptivity in the face of student discontent may be indicative of an experienced administrator helping to ally the possibility of truly belligerent protest,
“The people running these institutions are people who either went through or know about what happened in the sixties,” says G. Garrett Epps ’72, now a University of Oregon law professor who in 1969 was a freshman helping to relay camera film from University Hall to reporters at The Crimson.
“In the sixties, the response of the institution was so confrontational that it just boosted the temperature,” says Epps.
Given the explosive behavior aroused by the administrative rigidity of the past, Epps says, administrators have learned to be more flexible and understanding.
“People learned and god knows Bok’s learned—he’s a great example,” he says. “He learned how to defuse confrontation and at the same time people began...to listen to what students have to say.”
One reason why students today have been inclined to adopt less violent measures—and why Bok can afford to sit and listen to them—may be that they find the opportunity cost of belligerent activism higher than what their counterparts faced in years past.
“The greater competitiveness of the economy discourages people from taking risks with their careers by protesting,” the University of Chicago law professor Richard Posner suggested on his blog recently. “Someone who gets the reputation in college of being a violent protester, or is suspended or simply gets very low grades because of the distraction of engaging in protest activities, will see his opportunities for a good job diminish.” (Contacted for comment, Posner declined to speculate how his observation might apply to Harvard specifically.)
Regardless of the state of the current economy, however, Perkins is not inclined to think that dissent would remain so settled if the stakes were raised for American civilians in the United States’ present war with Iraq.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” Perkins says, “that there would be violent, destructive, riot-level protests at Harvard if there were a draft where kids were going to be heading to Iraq.”
—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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