Why Occupy Harvard Failed

Occupy Harvard has failed. It achieved some progress in promoting ethical investment, higher wages for Harvard workers, and scaring Goldman Sachs recruiters, but Occupy has utterly failed in a social movement’s most important goal: garnering public support. Far from it, students reacted to Occupy with general annoyance and disdain. Occupy never expanded beyond a small coterie of undergraduates, a larger contingent of graduate students, and some campus workers.

Why? Occupy apologists have sought to explain the movement’s failure by faulting the student body. In Slate, Dylan Matthews argued that Harvard students rejected Occupy because they are part of the 1 percent, saying that students take “great exception to the idea that they might occupy a place of privilege.” Crimson columnist Anita Joseph insisted that it was rather because Harvard students are goody two-shoes who “rarely question authority” and don’t have “rebellion . . . in [their] blood.”

While both explanations have some merit, they fail to account for just how little support Occupy was able to gather. As Matthews has pointed out, the Harvard student body is relatively affluent. Still, there are many students from working- or middle-class backgrounds that Occupy failed to gather under its banner.

Joseph is surely right that, usually, you don’t get to Harvard without playing by the rules. But, as she notes, Harvard is still a very liberal place. A campus poll would undoubtedly find strong support for higher taxes on the wealthy, Dodd-Frank, and health care reform. Harvard students are open to change. They rejected Occupy not because they are closet conservatives, but because the movement incompetently promoted its agenda, much of which liberal students likely support.

The fault for Occupy’s lack of student support lies not with the student body, but with Occupy itself. Occupy suffered from several fatal flaws in its execution that doomed its chances of generating student support.

First, Occupy made a terrible first impression by beginning in chaotic and belligerent fashion. Protesters, several wearing black scarves over their faces, marched through and disrupted Diversitas, a campus celebration of diversity. When security guards, concerned by the large and aggressive crowd—including many who were not Harvard affiliates—closed the Yard gates, Occupy leaders urged protesters to forcibly “take this gate!” and “take the Yard!” Protesters attempted to scale the walls. The Boston Globe reported that “a Harvard official…said a University police officer was ‘roughed up’ at the protest—elbowed and pushed—as protesters pulled at his gun belt and stole his radio.” Occupy apologized for the incidents, but the damage was done.

Incredibly, after the aggressiveness and lack of control of its first night, Occupy declared Harvard’s decision to restrict Yard access to protect the Harvard community a conspiracy to turn students against the movement. Occupy appeared out of touch by failing to recognize that allowing an unlimited number of strangers to encamp in the Yard might pose a health and safety hazard.

The chaos of the first night gave way to the long-term disorganization of Occupy’s agenda. Its Statement of Principles was unsatisfyingly parochial, disconnected from the national Occupy movement. It wasn’t clear how “increasing the diversity” of Harvard’s graduate schools, for instance, was relevant. It was long on self-righteous rhetoric and short on facts and context for its unwieldy hodgepodge of demands. This document made the Occupiers feel good, but it didn’t convince anybody.

Perhaps Occupy’s inability to convert students was due to its own ignorance and consequent lack of credibility. Occupy walked out of an Economics 10 lecture on—wait for it—inequality. Occupy’s open letter to Professor Mankiw blasted him for neglecting John Maynard Keynes. Had they looked at the spring syllabus, they would have discovered that it covers Keynes heavily.

Or maybe Occupiers couldn’t persuade students because they were too sure of themselves to communicate effectively. I asked an Occupy leader to articulate the philosophy behind her belief that it was wrong for a Harvard employee to be making 180 times the salary of another employee. I asked what a better ratio would be and whether different skills merit different compensation at all. In response, she simply expressed her disbelief that I didn’t agree with her.

Maybe Occupy never actually wanted student support. One Occupier referred to “the majority at Harvard” as “the enemy.”

Now, Occupy has devolved into adopting semi-Marxist rhetoric and fringe positions, denouncing “profit motives” and seemingly opposing any and all layoffs, ever. And people are still wondering why students don’t support Occupy?

Occupy likes to imagine that the administration or the student body martyred it. The truth, however, is that Occupy had the chance to spark a rational and important campus discussion of inequality in America, but it shot itself in the foot.

Wyatt N. Troia ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House.

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