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Theory of Occupation


Two weeks ago, Harvard administrators removed the geodesic dome that had served as the home of Occupy Harvard over winter break, leaving the movement without a physical encampment. The transition Occupy Harvard has undergone—from physical occupation of space to meetings and actions—has taken place at Occupies across the country after evictions by city governments and inclement weather.

This transition has provided urgency to philosophical discussions about the purpose and meaning of Occupy. The conversations on this topic that have taken place among the tents and list-serves of Occupy Harvard often parallel discussions happening elsewhere in the global Occupy movement. They center on what some consider a fundamental question of Occupy: Is it a protest or a community? While those who view Occupy as a protest seek to rectify specific problematic practices, those who see Occupy as a community attempt to model a more just society.

Like many of the students, faculty, and staff who worked to organize some of the first Occupy actions on Harvard’s campus, I originally thought of Occupy Harvard as a protest movement. After months and years of fruitless and frustrating discussions with University administrators about issues like ethical investment and benefit parity for indirectly hired employees, I saw Occupy Harvard as a way to escalate these campaigns. I assumed that rallies and a tent city would put more student, alumni, and media pressure on the University to do the right thing.

Indeed, Occupy Harvard has been a very effective protest. It achieved its goal of helping the custodians’ union secure a favorable contract for the next five years. It convinced the University administration to investigate its investment in HEI Hotels and Resorts and to release its first statement about ethical endowment investment since 2005. It sparked national discussion about how classical economics is taught in the college setting. It encouraged discussion about the role of Wall Street recruiters on campus and apparently inspired the Phillips Brooks House and Center for Public Interest Careers to host a conference on public service careers over Wintersession.

Hopefully, as Occupy Harvard turns its attention to the University’s conflict of interest policies and executive compensations, more positive changes will follow. This is exciting for those frustrated with Harvard administrators’ unresponsiveness to previous student requests.

The global Occupy movement is full of disillusioned citizens who have become frustrated that despite their votes and phone calls, elected officials continue to serve the interests of the upper class and Wall Street instead of passing legislation to help the 99 percent. They, too, have succeeded in changing national discourse about income inequality, sparking political moves like President Obama’s proposal for student debt relief, and countering the actions of big banks by installing homeless families into vacant homes.

Many, however, view Occupy as more than simply a protest movement. They consider it a community of like-minded people gathering in tents or in rallies who can work together to address fundamental problems in American society, ranging from wealth disparity to racism and sexism.

Occupy Harvard’s physical encampment did create a space on campus where those interested in economic justice could meet each other, reach out, and connect to the larger community. I spent many hours sitting at Occupy Harvard’s Information Desk, where community members ranging from graduate students to Harvard employees would come to talk about their insufficient health care plans, their fears about being laid off, their frustrations with temporary work contracts. They would note to me, “I never had anyone to tell that to before. Thanks for being here.” The tents in the Yard became a symbol of a community at Harvard that was paying attention to inequality and trying to overcome it.

Similarly, some view the global Occupy movement as an experiment in radical democracy. Every Occupy utilizes consensus-based decision making, a democratic process designed to let every single voice be heard, however loud or wealthy. Occupiers try to envision what a better society would look like and construct it in their own tent cities and gatherings.

Some view the distinction between Occupy as protest and Occupy as community as irreconcilable. The conflict has played out in consequential decisions faced by Occupy: for example, Occupy Wall Street has struggled over whether it is more important for the group to focus on planning new actions (focusing on the “protest” vision of Occupy) or simply finding food and shelter for homeless Occupiers (the “community” vision of Occupy).

However, I believe that protest and community do not exclude each other. Occupy Harvard can work with allies in the administration to organize University-sponsored events about economic inequality (creating a conscious community) while at the same time pressuring the University to change its labor practices and investment policies. Similarly, Occupy movements across the country can form stronger communities while challenging specific corporate or government policies. This combination may let Occupy avoid the inconsistencies of previous social movements like the Civil Rights movement, which ignored blatant chauvinism among its leaders in pursuit of racial justice. In fact, perhaps Occupy could not stand alone as either a protest or a community, and is necessarily both at once.

These two visions of Occupy, as a protest movement and as a new community, may come into opposition as Occupy Harvard creates a vision for its future. However, they need not be radically different, or even in conflict. Existing without a physical encampment allows Occupy Harvard, like Occupations across the country, to explore more fully what, exactly, it wants to be.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ‘14, a Crimson editorial associate, is a history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House.

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