Mainstream or Bust

Divestment Protest Embraces the Establishment

When 5,000 people filled Harvard Yard for last spring's major divestment rally, organizers knew they had pulled off the most meticulously planned event in the history of Harvard student activism. Activists discussed for weeks before the rally how they would coordinate the three-hour demonstration that featured the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

A few of the organizers had been leaders of the Harvard campaign for Mondale and conducted the Yard demonstration as if it were the highlight of a political campaign. They contacted news services and publications weeks in advance, and conducted a press conference the day of the rally. Mimicking Mondale rallies, the organizers offered hundreds of "special" passes which would entitle the lucky holders to "greet" Jackson. They set up "risers" for TV cameras and cordoned off special press areas. Throughout the event the organizers, sometimes screaming through the static, attempted to communicate with highly sophisticated walkietalkies.

The students who occupied a University building three weeks later arrived with a press release and, clad in suits and dresses, looked as if they were off to a management training seminar. They told administrators they had no intention of "disrupting business as usual" and spoke in hushed voices. At the end of the day, several students vacuumed up the crumbs they had left from lunch. Before going into the building, the activists had determined everything form the way the students would dress to the way they would address administrators in the building.

The divestment drive--the preeminent political movement at Harvard for 13 years--showed a new face last year. But the goal of the movement was the same--to get Harvard to divest of the $400 million it has invested in corporations that do business in South Africa. Last spring, for the most part, students tried to paint themselves as a pragmatic group that intends, through a moderate, carefully planned program of teach-ins and demonstrations, to persuade the University to divest. In addition, the group has adopted a campaign approach--complete with computers and press releases--to build up the movement and further its goals.

In keeping with their general moderate approach, activists are largely apologetic about the event that brought them the most criticism from administrators and the most attention both within and outside of the campus. Leaders of the movement say the temporary blockade last spring of a visiting South African diplomat in a Lowell House room was unplanned and the result of an uncontrollable crowd. They point to the rally and sit-in--both peaceful events--as the successes of the year.

Activists say that now, more than ever, they want to win the respect of students and University officials so their arguments for divestment will be taken more seriously.

"We wanted to make the University realize that while we can protest loudly and visibly we are also willing to do it rationally and responsibly," says Evan O. Grossman '87, one of the leading activists.

"Long hair and flowered shirts are definitely out," adds Grossman, who, neatly shorn and clad in a pinstripe suit, directed events from a desk in the plush lobby of the headquarters of Harvard's Governing Boards during the day-long sit-in.

While administrators had praise for the organization of the April rally and remarked on the order of the sit-in, they did not respond favorably to the Lowell House incident.

"The movement maintained its moral character up to and including the sit-in, with the exception of the use of force on the guard at the entrance at that incident. The group departed from its successful strategy at Lowell House," says Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III.

Some activist leaders maintain that the incident was largely unplanned and a mistake, and are concerned that it turned students off to the divestment movement, though others have cheered the radicalization of the movement.

"It's unfortunate when people start judging the movement on its actions rather than its goals," says Damon A. Silvers '86.

But Anthony A. Ball '86 says the event was successful if it encouraged people who thought the movement was too moderate to join. "It was important for people who thought the movement was too Yuppie to be able to express themselves," he says.

Essential to their goal, activists say, is broadening the base of student support for divestment. Last year's group has upgraded their act with high tech equipment. The group has the names and phone numbers of hundreds of undergraduate supporters stored in the memories of Macintosh computers. Press releases were prepared for almost every event, and leaflets and pamphlets were regularly produced by the thousands.

The Endowment for Divestiture, perhaps better than any other wing of the divestment movement, has captured the new, more moderate tone of campus activism and new goal of broadening the political scope of the movement. Since its founding three years ago, the Endowment, a fund that will not be given over to the University until it divests, has gained hundreds of active supporters. The Endowment is designed as an alternative to the traditional Class Gift campaign, where graduating seniors are asked to donate money to the University.

Recommended Articles