The New Face of Student Activism

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: For the stereotypical Harvard student, this campus is less a hotbed of political activism

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: For the stereotypical Harvard student, this campus is less a hotbed of political activism than a springboard for comfortable cosmopolitan jobs. Yet throughout Harvard history there have been students who have defied this stereotype, challenging the existing order in striking and dramatic ways. The takeover of Mass. Hall last year by the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) in its campaign for a “living wage” is just the latest chapter in this turbulent history.

But while the PSLM transformed itself from a small group of fringe activists into Time magazine celebrities, there’s more to the story than drum beats and chanting crowds. Getting the Harvard community enthusiastic for and committed to an agenda of reform has proven to be an elusive goal. After all the banners and the songs, where the PSLM stands now remains in doubt.

President Richard M. Nixon once called Harvard the “Kremlin on the Charles.” While he may have had a point in the ’60s and ’70s, this comment seems antiquated in 2001. And so the question arises: What is the face of student protest here now, and how do students see their activist peers on this campus today?

The 1969 takeover of University Hall was crushed by a Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) squad that dragged Students for a Democratic Society protesters (SDS) out of the building against their will. The Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) 21-day takeover of Massachusettts Hall last year was crushed by promises of a Katz report. Administrators and police officers took a hands-off approach to the 2001 protest, confident that rallying cries for a living wage would be silenced by a bureaucratic committee and a stack of paperwork. But more significant than the administration’s changed tactics towards protest, is the evolution of protest culture from the student perspective.

While PSLM protesters claim distance from the tactics of their forebears, theirs is a strange mix of past and present: North Face tents sprouted in the Yard, Crowds chanting in hippie fashion, Unshowered students inside raked up high cell phone bills inside Mass Hall. The 52 members of the PSLM that entered Mass Hall at 1:27 p.m. on April 18th, 2001 had to wage a two-front war —one against Harvard’s economic establishment and another against a student body who was skeptical of their authenticity and intentions. Some students saw PSLM protesters as missionaries of the disadvantaged while others viewed them as headhunters of personal glory.

On-campus protest in the 21st century must overcome a wall of cynicism—a student body who may be socially aware that often has who may given up on protest as an anachronistic way to get things done.

Changing the Strategy

The degree of media coverage surrounding the Mass Hall sit-in gave the impression that Harvard’s wage policies are by far the worst in the business. However, the campaign for a living wage is a carefully coordinated national movement, embracing a diverse coalition of unions, workers, students, religious groups and local politicians. The movement’s nascent steps in raising awareness culminated last spring in dramatic protests across fifty university campuses. Harvard’s PSLM attracted the most national and international press outlets because the Harvard name gave the most sensational lead for any news broadcast.

The PSLM cultivation of a successful media profile can be attributed to their clockwork organization, savvyness, and sheer willpower. “I would call our approach to media relations dogged,” says Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04. “We went in there with the approach that this is big news and we had the courage of our convictions to transform that belief into action. The media was drawn to us because we looked serious, and we were. We were on top of our game.”

Elfenbein’s comments are typical of many PSLM members, for whom the maintenance of good public relations is of paramount importance. In the days before the sit-in, PSLM’s press corp spent over sixteen hours each day phoning media outlets—from regional cable operators to international wire news syndicates. Aaron Bartley claims that the PSLM “created relationships with reporters from all over the country, just like in a political campaign.”

The PSLM also flooded student and faculty inboxes with daily e-mails brimming with propoganda, current activities, and contact information. Professor Brad Epps, faculty liaison for the PSLM, notes that “the students in Mass Hall were constantly connected to the internet, and it was through the internet that they galvanised support from people like the Mayor of Cambridge and various labour leaders…the internet was the context in which the protest occurred.”

For a group that shuns hierarchy and works through consensus, de facto leaders like Ben McKean ’02 spearheaded a rigorous preparatory program. Everything was ready; the week’s worth of food and water, sleeping bags and other supplies were stored in a sympathetic student organization’s basement headquarters. Contrast this to the 1969 mob takeover of University Hall, where students entered the building with few provisions save for bullhorns and moxy.

Beyond meticulous organization, the PSLM was conscious from the outset of the other factors conspiring to raise their media prominence into the stratosphere. Bartley concedes that there “was a definite visual intensity of the image which we didn’t even need to choregraph,” this photogenic nature of the strike stemming in no small part from the mystique of Harvard itself. But, across from the omniscient eye of John Harvard, the students realised that Harvard’s hallowed name was both a boon and a burden for their cause.

Initially, Harvard’s reputation as an academic mecca seemed a perfect opportunity to lure the circling packs of media. The headlines would sell papers. Dan DiMaggio ’03 argues that “here’s this place known for progressive scientific breakthroughs, but ultimately it is supremely immoral in not granting everybody within it an equal voice.”

Julia B. Appel ’04 explains that at the same time as the Living Wage PSLM sit-in was taking place at Harvard, there were heated rallies occuring at Northeastern over the displacement of the university’s African-American center to the edge of campus. She observes that “there was no publicity for this action because the cache of privilege at Harvard gave us an edge.”

Looking back, however, many PSLM members express disappointment at the way in which their status as Harvard students was hijacked by the media as the focus of their reporting. The role of the media is one of the prime distinguishing factors between the 1969 takeover and today’s protest. The Students for a Democratic Society didn’t come close to cultivating and nurturing a relationship with the media the way PSLM did.

The Tie That Binds?

The spectre of Harvard past haunts today’s protesters. PSLM activists are intent on distinguishing themselves from their parents’ generation. Appel characterises the nature of the 1960s action as “spontaneous, rather emotional and very chaotic. They didn’t seem to be able to reflect on their organization at all and the constant infighting meant the protesters couldn’t form clearly defined goals for their action.” In contrast, Elfenbein summarizes the core premise of the PSLM’s campaign as “focus on the issues. We didn’t talk about ourselves as sacrificing anything, nor did we talk about the need for social revolution. We wanted to communicate that the sole reason we were there was because of workers’ rights.”

Bartley concurs. He attacks Harvard’s “culture of acceptance. When you have I-banks and Goldman Sachs knocking on your door, it’s hard to believe there’s anything else out there when all you see is plenty.” He speculates that widespread resistance to the sit-in tactic, as demonstrated by a Crimson poll which found that only one-third of students agreed with this strategy, is due partly to “an unfamiliarity with how direct social action can change society.”

Bartley believes that some elements of the comparison between ’60s demonstrations and those of the PSLM are valid. “There is a direct link in methodology—we’re both part of a social movement which has used sit-ins. We needed to get across to students more that the sit-in was merely the next logical step in a lengthy trajectory of attempts to speak to the university administration.”

Harvard’s past may have helped PSLM as well. Bartley points to the pressure of alumni as something that forced the University administration to finally cave in to their demands: “If the New York Times calls Harvard greedy—which they did—it has a tremendous ripple effect on alumni. I would like to think that we changed the corporation’s mind on the issue, but more importantly, perhaps, we changed their calculations on how the institution would be affected by this action.”

The decision to move forward with a sit-in threatened to tear the PSLM apart internally. DiMaggio and Elfenbein both confess that there was soul-searching within the group from the first time the tactic was suggested in January of 2001. “We were asking, ‘will it end our campaign forever?’” Elfenbein says. While the sit-in undoubtedly raised the profile of the living wage issue on campus—Epps admits that he had “barely heard” of the struggle prior to the takeover—the PSLM risked alienation from their peers at Harvard. “Sometimes it’s tempting to just relax, work hard at school and have a comfortable lifestyle,” Elfenbein admits, “and because we choose not to make that decision, we definitley feel out of sync with a lot of other Harvard students.”

Remolding the Protestor Image

The PSLM also had to confront the question of whether students can ever protest on behalf of workers.

Professor David Hall, who teaches a class at the Divinity School in Radical Social History, points out that this has become a contentious issue for student activists in part because the prosperity of the 1990s has been unequally distributed. “What makes the Living Wage campaign interesting is that whereas in the 1960s there was very little major union activity in relation to civil rights and the Vietnam War, the issues concerning the student activist today revolve around class and thus implicitly involve labor power plays,” he said.

Professor Epps was pleased with the way the PSLM handled labor issues. “What impressed me”, he says, “is that they maintained consultation with workers throughout and possessed a deep knowledge of labor force structures and union practices. It became a pooling of intellectual and political resources from a variety of positions.”

Professor Epps’ positive assesment belies the more ambigious attitudes that PSLM members themselves feel toward the multitude of class issues which complicate their actions. PSLM members continually speak of the importance of inclusiveness in their campaign, both of the workers they protest on behalf of, and the majority of students at Harvard who are not part of the activist movement. Bartley admits that while most students were familiar with direct action strategies through the anti-globalization protests, “this direct action movement has not been ingrained in workers today because of a more passive brand of business unionism. It was difficult to convince workers that direct action was worth it, because they are not used to talking about protest in that way.”

Elfenbein says she does not come from a particularly privileged background. “My dad is an active member of a union and I have been aware from a very young age that my family owes its prosperity to the power of unions,” she says. Indeed, all PSLM members strain to stress the diversity of backgrounds from which they come. But the fact that they will all graduate with Harvard degrees places them firmly within the ranks of the elite.

DiMaggio admits that this troubles him. “It is an uncomfortable place for me to be in,” he admits. He confesses that he has asked himself “Where do your allegiances lie? What is the ethical obligation when your parents are working class, you want to show solidarity with the working class, and yet you’re going to be an elite?”

Some supporters, such as Appel, do not regard this as an issue at all. “I believe that everyone can contribute something to a cause they believe in, regardless of background,” she says. The majority of members feel the best way to deal with the issue is to constantly strive to integrate workers into their organization and involve them directly in protest. Bartley asserts that “during the sit-in, we worried about these issues least. It took time, but now they are integrated into the structure. Thousands came out to protest as a central part of the campaign.”

DiMaggio points out that during the sit-in, dining hall workers, janitors and security guards took part in a protest inside the Holyoke Center, personally organized marches and spoke at PSLM rallies. It seems that the PSLM now views its relationship with these sometimes uneasy bedfellows as, in Bartley’s words, “less patronizing, and more of a partnership.”

Students Speak Out about the PSLM

Professor Epps claims that “the PSLM was very successful in raising awareness,” but “they could never eradicate apathy from the campus.” How successful in fact was PSLM, and where do they stand today with students?

Students are the best judges of their own opinions, and six months after tired and grungy protesters emerged from Mass Hall, their views are divided as ever. About half of the 25 students contacted in an informal survey believe the sit-in was justifed; another half disagree or don’t know. This shows little change from a poll taken in The Crimson just days after the PSLM occupied the administrative building—when a full half of the student body did not feel the PSLM’s actions were justified, a third believed they were and the rest were not sure.

Students do agree that the sit-in them more aware of the living wage issue. That the PSLM brought the plight of the modern industrial worker to the forefront of debate must be considered some kind of success. Caroline E. Adler ’04 encapsulates the general feeling of most students when she remarks that the sit-in “got me thinking—I didn’t realize there was such a problem and realized there needs to be a solution.”

And to some degree, this has helped PSLM’s image. During the sit-in, feelings that the occupiers were working off a high of “sticking it to the man” and rumors of booty calls had some students wondering if it wasn’t just a big slumber party with Rudenstine as the unwilling host. But today, a majority of students describe PSLM students as “passionate” and “committed.” Sandhya Ramadas ’04 said that she sees the PSLM as “committed seriously to bringing a living wage” and as “social justice advocates.” For Sandhya, it was the sit-in that “got me to think about it,” and it “made PSLM more visible—you see them as people who will do what it takes for their cause.”

And while the PSLM hasn’t convinced everybody, only a few see them as patronizing rich kids. Instead, students attached labels of “grungy” and “kinda hippy dippy” to the PSLM protestors. Dede A. M. Addy ’03 described them as “granola” after saying that she knew several and that they “tend to be very liberal, community-active.”

Other students would disagree with even Dede’s poke at the PSLM. Some, in fact, see them as quite pluralist. For Michael J. Palmer ’03 “it’s actually a pretty diverse group of people.” Patrick J. Aber ’02 responded that “I don’t think you can really characterize them one way or another...there are really lots of different people involved in it.” James Peacock ’02 concurred: “I think they’re just pretty normal people” continuing “I don’t see them as extremists. they are people who have an agenda and a goal and I respect them for that.”

Moreover, nearly all of the students agreed that the PSLM could “understand and appreciate the issues that Harvard workers face.” Rennie M. Taylor ’04 thought “they do their research and know the people who do work at Harvard.” Sean Cloonan, who didn’t think the takeover was justified, said “they can appreciate it, but I don’t think it is necessarily their place to protest on their behalf.”

Still, there were a few who saw the PSLM as both unjustified and unhelpful in bringing light to the issue. James R. Salzmann ’02 says that he feels “more negative to the PSLM” after the sit-in and that the group “should have continued to speak with the administration instead of breaking the law.” Another student was more caustic, commenting that while the PSLM may “have their hearts in the right place,” it’s “easy for upper-class white-collar students to say they know what’s best for blue-collar workers.” Furthermore, the “campaign was patronizing.”

And perhaps most importantly, the sit-in didn’t convince a majority of students. For most, it “clarified” or “solidified” ideas they already had by bringing the issue out into the open. And here may be one of PSLM’s main failures. While they reached the heights of publicity, grabbed the support of top political figures like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Massachusetts senators Kerry and Kennedy, and secured an alliance with unions, student opinion is still divided. Only one student FM spoke to said she was swayed in favor of a living wage by the sit-in.The PSLM has definitely raised awareness about the living wage, but its success at raising support remains in doubt.

Retracing their Steps

PSLM members may recognize this themselves. In hindsight, many are quick to point out things they would have done differently to change their image and appeal more to their peers.

Elfenbein finds it disappointing that “often the only edge to the story that journalists could see was the opportunity for sticking it to Harvard.” All PSLM members interviewed for this story complained that often the focus of media coverage was not the plight of campus workers, but instead the thought of Harvard students skipping classes and generally defying the Ivy Leaguer stereotype. Elfenbein ruefully accounts her experiences with one journalist, who exclaimed “Wow! It must really smell in there!” as being representative of a typically superficial attitude lacking in substansive analysis of the issues at stake.

DiMaggio was particuarly conscious that the students were being presented as “a model of altruistic sentiment,” which complicated the notion of solidarity by placing the students above the workers as their “saviors,” a role which the PSLM actively decries. Moreover, he explains that a common media angle would be to use the PSLM actions as a nostalgic trigger for the journalist to wax lyrical on “the good old days of protest”: the baby boomer sixties. “They would say, ‘isn’t this great, we have such a great future ahead of us if these students are the leaders of the future’ while we would be trying to just get things done and draw attention to the problems of poverty on campus.”

Bartley meanwhile concedes that one aspect of the sit-in he would change if starting all over again would be to implement “a more systematic education strategy to illuminate issues of economic disparity and social justice for mainstream students.”

Meanwhile, PSLM has faded slightly in prominence with the rise of terrorism as there arises another focus for social activism. One of the most recent demonstrations of any size right here at Harvard had about 600 students and community members in a rally for peace—and this just days after Sept. 11. Undoubtedly the PSLM has more to say about workers’ wages, but the question remains: have they revised their tactics and recreated their image enough to help sell their cause to the student body?