Hundreds of protesters gathered on the evening of Nov. 9, 2011. They made their way through Harvard Yard, to the Law School, and later down to Mass. Ave. to convey disapproval of expanding income inequality in the United States. Confusion ensued as security guards closed gates to prevent non-Harvard affiliates from entering the Yard.
Facing resistance, demonstrators at Harvard pushed their way through the gates in small numbers. Later that night, about 120 protesters convened and began constructing a tent city in front of University Hall.
Harvard Yard was occupied.
Over a year later, members of Occupy Harvard continue to engage in activism inspired by the movement, and reflect on its legacy on campus.
“For me it’s not ended in any way,” says Umang Kumar, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School last year. He continues, “The group has dispersed, so I think we are still learning things, we are still coming to grips with what this movement is and how it has functioned and what it can be.”
For many members, Occupy Harvard was a way of drawing the student body’s attention to the growing inequality in the United States. They believed that Harvard could help reshape the economic structures and therefore diminished the gap between increasingly stratified classes.
Gabriel H. Bayard ’15 helped organize the event and lived in the tents for 13 days. He says camping was a powerful way to show solidarity with Harvard’s custodial workers, many of whom, he says, were not receiving fair payment.
Administrators and Occupy Harvard protesters negotiated a new contract in November of last year, giving Harvard employees who were hired indirectly the same access to benefits as directly hired employees. The contract also gave janitors more full-time work and eliminated split shifts, and gave them a wage raise of up to three percent a year, according to a press release by the Service Employees International Union Local 615.
With the contracts renegotiated and Thanksgiving around the corner, Bayard said he was ready to sleep on a bed. In December, impending cold winter nights led occupiers to take down their tents, dismantle their tarp-covered dome (which housed a library and provided shelter for occupiers), and go home for the holidays.
Even though Occupy Harvard no longer has a physical space in the Yard, Bayard and other activists continue to be involved in the movement.
Umang still goes to biweekly general assembly meetings to discuss various issues important to attendees, including what incarnation is most suitable for Occupy today.
“There’s a heartbeat that’s going on,” Umang says, describing the movement. “Maybe it doesn’t have definite shape but it can come back.”
Aside from their lingering ties to Occupy, many of the original protesters are involved in other movements on campus that are addressing similar issues in different ways.
“Keeping the name ‘Occupy’ wasn’t necessary for a lot of the groups involved after the physical occupation ended,” says S. Krishna Dasaratha ’13, who was also involved in the movement. “A lot of the concerns that are brought up are still being addressed,” he says.
Justin A. Jungé ’03, a post-doctoral student who has been working in the psychology lab in William James Hall for the past four years, originally joined the Occupy movement because he, too, felt something had to be done about the country’s growing inequality. He says his colleagues were supportive of his involvement in the movement.
Jungé, along with Bayard and Dasaratha, is part of a group on campus called the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition, which advocates for, among other things, a more transparent money management policy and a social choice fund. They met protesting in Occupy Harvard, and all three said that the group was a product of the movement. According to them, Responsible Investment at Harvard is a more effective way of reaching out to the student body because it conveys a clear message, something Jungé says Occupy did not do very well.
The protesters said that even though they received backlash from the undergraduate community, Occupy helped inspire a conversation on campus that has had a lasting impact. All activists pointed to the passing of three Undergraduate Council referenda proposals on Nov. 17 as evidence of the campus’s changed spirit, one that is more open to social justice. The referenda—which supported divestment of University funds from the fossil fuel industry, the creation of a social choice endowment fund, and a reconsideration of the College’s sexual assault policies—received overwhelming support from the student body, winning 72 percent, 80.5 percent, and 85 percent of the vote, respectively.
The activists say the support for the referenda gave them hope.
“Every time I have a conversation with someone and they respond positively to a social justice issue it feels good,” Bayard says. “You think to yourself, that person can be running some big corporation tomorrow.”
Dasaratha agrees. “I think Harvard students, after they graduate, assume some of the most influential positions in our society,” Dasaratha says. “If they are committed to social change, change will happen.”