Last Wednesday night, Occupy Harvard Yard—a local extension of the Occupy movement—set up camp in Harvard Yard, occupying the campus quite literally. Harvard and Cambridge police responded in kind. Around midnight on Wednesday, the entire Yard was closed off to any entrants, leaving a group of protesters circled outside the Widener Library entrance, sandwiched between a locked gate and a horde of police and onlookers. Since then, students and a handful of non-Harvard affiliates who did manage to get in have camped out in the Yard, enduring cold nights and the ire of many on campus. Meanwhile, the Yard remains closed to anyone without Harvard identification, so long as there remains the threat of larger or more unstable protest. Occupy Harvard participants declare that they will not move until the University begins to meet their goals, including that the Yard be reopened to the general public as soon as the sit-in ends.
In a bitterly ironic twist on the protesters' slogan of “taking back Harvard for the 99 percent,” their actions have truly closed off Harvard’s campus to all but a select few. Over the weekend especially, the Yard felt eerily quiet and lacking in the conviviality that typifies public enjoyment of the University’s campus. Harvard’s response to Occupy has emphasized that Harvard Yard is not a public space; non-affiliates are welcome only on account of Harvard’s own goodwill. Unlike in Dewey Square, where protesters have clamored for the right to stay in a Boston park, there is no public right of access to a university campus. When administrators considered the prospect of a demonstration engulfing Harvard Yard at nighttime and a large group of total strangers moving in for the foreseeable future, they rightly responded by doing everything possible to stop this from happening.
To be clear, Occupy Harvard has not demonstrated any sign of violence, and, in this respect, it resembles much of Occupy Boston. But this is not true of Occupy protests in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world. While many, many Occupiers are law-abiding students, many are also anarchists. Many protesters could be anything. Ninety-nine percent of them might never consider committing a crime, but it only takes one to start causing serious problems. At other protests, police have done concerted work to keep protests away from potential targets or sensitive points. It is not hard to imagine how the symbolism of Harvard University, so cynically evoked in Occupy’s own message against the institution, might provoke physical violence against its buildings or people. Harvard Yard is also a dormitory for over 2,000 freshmen: Harvard does have a duty to ensure their safety, and consider all potential liabilities when faced with this kind of threat.
The Yard’s closing underlines this situation’s reality; in practice, Occupy Harvard has so far hurt everyone and done much to turn potential supporters away from the movement and its stated goals. It has isolated the community of Cambridge and its flood of daily tourists from Harvard’s campus and thus produced exactly the division between town and gown that it purports to want to fight.
While Occupy’s slogans are designed to appeal to a wide cross-section of the population, this particular brand of the movement is far too polarizing and totalizing. Regardless of the optics of their propaganda, it is not fair to label Harvard as an institution in the clenches of the one percent. Given its vast financial aid program—which ranks as among the most generous in the country—it is incorrect to say that Harvard reserves its spots for the children of the nation’s highest earners. In this case especially, a distinct attraction to take part in Occupy Harvard must exist exclusively for young people who do in fact belong to one percent families. The perception that Harvard fills its dorms only with rich kids, or at least the solidly middle-class, is an easier mistake to make when one originates from this very group.
Beyond the rhetoric of “taking back Harvard for the 99 percent,” Occupy does bring substantive demands to the table, something we have in the past faulted the wider Occupy movement for lacking. In order for the tent city to move elsewhere, Occupy Harvard has demanded redress of a few basic grievances, including Harvard Management Company's de-investment from HEI Hotels and Resorts and Emergent Asset Management, as well as the reopening of the Yard from the present closure for which they themselves are responsible. Other goals include improvements in labor rights at Harvard, and outside of their immediate “tent city demands,” a reworking of some aspects of undergraduate education.
However, by bringing rhetoric that is resonant with wider complaints about the excesses of capitalism and inequality in America to specific and very different issues like the quality of teaching at Harvard, Occupy Harvard blends together a pungent mixture of local and universal aims that do not complement each other well. Indeed, the attempt to integrate a student protests with a nationwide phenomenon of demonstration and collective anger seems mistaken. A protest against labor rights or class quality should either be a Harvard-centric effort, or instead Occupy should take place off-campus. Since Occupy is now installed in the Yard, we hope the tents and their occupiers move to a public space, both for the good of our community and the future of Occupy Harvard itself.