The Dilemma of the Radical

On-Campus Activism in the Age of Occupy

Sascha Bercovitch

11:35 a.m. Mihir J. Chaudhary ’12 arrives at the Harvard Square T stop en route to a protest rally in Boston. Chaudhary is a member of the Environmental Action Committee (EAC), a sub-organization of the Phillips Brooks House Association that does exactly what the name suggests: student campaigns for environmental awareness and protection.

Once on the train, he mentions that he’s from a small suburban town that lacked outlets for substantial social activism. Instead, he was involved primarily with direct service—tutoring and mentoring middle school students—rather than protest. As it turns out, he will be the only Harvard student attending this rally, which is organized by 350.org and Occupy Boston to protest Senator Scott Brown’s support for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Chaudhary has come straight from class to attend this rally, and feels that students at Harvard don’t necessarily find time in their lives for activism.

“Harvard is very self-selecting; students aren’t so passionate about activism because they’re given a formula for success in high school that doesn’t necessarily include activism,” he says.

Even within activist organizations like the EAC, convincing students to get out and protest isn’t easy. “A lot of people show up to meetings and not to events. Others go to one or two rallies but don’t sustainably involve themselves,” he explains.

12:03 p.m. Stepping out of the Park Street station, Chaudhary joins about 25 people who are gathered for the rally. Most are well out of college, but there are a few other students from Brandeis and Tufts as well.

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Activism at Harvard

Activism at Harvard

12:25 p.m. The crowd has swollen to about 50 to 60 people practicing protest chants before a scattered audience of onlookers. There are more graying heads than expected. The sky is an electric shade of blue, and a police officer stands at a distance. He looks vaguely amused. During a lull in the pre-rally rehearsal, a man swaggering by in a sweatshirt and baggy pants scolds a suited passerby: “You are an arch-criminal, sir, with your briefcase and tie.” The alleged arch-criminal isn’t fazed, and scurries into the T Station without looking back.

THE YOUNG RADICALS

The weekly Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) meeting takes place in the parlor room of the PBHA house. A massive dark fireplace dominates one of the room’s wainscotted walls. Three crystal chandeliers hang down from the 20-foot ceiling. Red leather couches and armchairs are scattered around the edges of a maroon oriental rug.

Tonight, SLAM members discuss the upcoming protest against potential layoffs within Harvard University Library. They’re worried about numbers. “Let’s go with the five friends rule, okay everyone?” one student says.

It feels like any other undergraduate organization’s meeting. A freshman is asked to record minutes. Members toss out ideas and solutions. The contrarian in the group picks a proposal apart until the person who suggested it regrets having spoken in the first place.

These student activists are not wearing billowy blouses or military-issue jackets. They are wearing sweatshirts and North Face fleeces, jeans and khakis. The Harvard activist, it seems, resists easy categorization.

For Jonas Q. Wang ’12, former Queer Students and Allies co-chair and co-founder of Harvard Students for Queer Liberation, activism is more a mindset than an aesthetic. “It’s demoralizing to see students on their way—tourists, too—like nothing is wrong. The activist attitude is: There is something wrong,” Wang sighs.

The difference between an activist and a radical is not necessarily clear, but there is a sense that the term “radical” carries some unwanted baggage, which might have an effect on whether students feel compelled or disinclined to self-identify with the term.

“Radical? That’s not me,” Wang says. “I’m fine with the label being attached to me, but it’s not my identity.” Still, Wang does not mind the term’s associations. “Just because a term has been repeatedly smeared by the other side so as to gain negative connotations is not a good enough reason to reject it.”

Although radicalism is generally associated with more extreme modes of protest, some would argue that there is a technical distinction to be made. Todd A. Gitlin ’63, who was president of the Students for a Democratic Society in ’63-4, is careful to note the original meaning of the term “radical.”

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