Holding Occupy Harvard Accountable

It’s been three weeks since the University began locking down Harvard Yard, and Occupy Harvard has yet to acknowledge any responsibility for this.

Since Nov. 9, members and sympathizers of the movement have bombarded Crimson readers with editorials blasting the administration for its unprecedented shutdown. “We do not share the perception that the Occupy movement constitutes a threat to Harvard,” reads an open letter signed by almost thirty faculty members. “The ongoing ID checks and partial gate closures are as unnecessary as they are inconvenient,” an official Occupy statement asserted earlier this month. Dylan R. Matthews ’12 went so far as to argue that the lockdown makes so little practical sense that it must be the university’s method of “resisting” the Occupiers, “a very savvy means of turning students against protestors.”

These arguments, simply put, are either willfully ignorant or dangerously myopic. The university was, and still is, justified in implementing this security measure. Occupy Harvard is doing a disservice to its cause, the student body, and the larger Cambridge community for failing to realize this.

Occupiers tend to liken their protest to the 2001 Living Wage campaign, in which protestors pitched nearly 90 tents in the Yard over the course of three weeks. The administration didn’t shut down access to the Yard then, Occupy Harvard reasons, so why is it doing so now?

This comparison would make sense if Harvard didn’t have strong reason to conclude that leaving the gates open would encourage “individuals whose intentions were not peaceful” to encamp in the Yard. But Occupy Harvard is a part of the global Occupy movement. And unless it chooses to splinter, this effectively means that if Harvard opened its gates, hundreds of non-Harvard affiliated Occupiers would likely flood in and create a full-blown Occupy encampment on Harvard’s private property.

Occupy sympathizers apparently can’t imagine why the university would have a problem with this. I can venture a guess.

Before Occupy Harvard set up shop, three sexual assaults were reported to the police at Occupy Wall Street. The threat of rape became so palpable there that the protestors established a female-only sleeping tent that needed consistent guarding from an all-female patrol. A dozen assaults were reported two weeks ago at Occupy San Francisco over the course of only 24 hours. Occupy Portland alone has caused an estimated $19,000 worth of property damage, and a man was recently arrested there for throwing a Molotov cocktail.

The list goes on and on. Two protestors were recently arrested for suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon at Occupy Los Angeles. A protestor at Occupy Fort Collins was arrested earlier this month for starting a $10 million arson fire. A reporter asserted in October that “vandalism, assaults, and theft regularly occur” at Occupy Berkeley and incidences of violence average three per night there. This isn’t to even mention Occupy Oakland, whose infamous ills include a fatal shooting, vandalism, arsons, and shattered windows.

Some might argue that Occupy Boston has been largely immune from these dangers, but such an assertion is contrary to the facts. Since October, 21 locations around downtown Boston have been vandalized with Occupy Boston graffiti, two Occupiers have been arrested for selling heroin to an undercover police officer, a female Occupier has physically assaulted three police officers, and a male protestor has been arrested for threatening to murder another man with a knife.

Occupy Harvard, of course, would most likely respond that individual acts shouldn’t define the entire movement, which professes nonviolence. That’s true. But it’s true as well that, unlike 10 years ago, there’s a wealth of evidence to conclude today that allowing hundreds of non-Harvard affiliates to protest in the Yard indefinitely would make it a far more dangerous place. Occupy is completely justified in pitching a public tent city on public property where the University has no responsibility for the welfare of the protestors and the passersby. But Harvard cannot put the safety of its students—for that is what is at stake here—at risk for the sake of free speech.

At the very least, Occupy Harvard could acknowledge this threat and propose a reasonable security alternative. Instead, many Occupiers have unfairly chosen to frame the Yard lockdown as an unprovoked assault on their civil rights. “Speech cannot genuinely be free in a location heavily locked down by security,” three protestors, for example, wrote in the Crimson on Monday. “If Harvard genuinely cared about freedom of speech…it would open its gates.”

This kind of rhetoric aids no one. It does nothing to assuage the legitimate fears of the administration and parents of Harvard freshmen. It does nothing to ensure that Cambridge visitors, who desire nothing more than to see the John Harvard statue, are able to enter the Yard as soon as possible.

In short, the movement must start taking responsibility for the gates’ closure and stop writing off the administration’s security claims as unfounded. Occupy Harvard has spent the last three weeks demanding honesty and accountability from the University. It’s time the University starts demanding it from them.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.

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