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Did Occupy Matter?

By Mercer R. Cook and Hana N. Rouse, Crimson Staff Writers

When one of Harvard’s most prominent professors gave a lecture entitled “Rich and Poor: The Economics of Inequality,” students who cared passionately about social justice might have wanted to listen.

But one Wednesday in November, 70 such students chose instead to stand up in Sanders Theatre and walk out of Economics 10.

These students harbored discontent with the principles espoused by the course’s instructor, N. Gregory Mankiw. They said that the Occupy movement that emerged that fall, criticizing conservative economic policies like those taught by Mankiw, had inspired them to demonstrate their frustration.

In a class of more than 700 students, the protesters represented a minority. And according to Mankiw’s account of the protest in the New York Times, at least one student walked out only to sneak back in minutes later so as to avoid missing lecture.

At Harvard, an institution that fosters academic discussion of topical issues, a physical demonstration seemed, to some, out of place.

One week later, an arguably more incongruous sight materialized: a tent city in the middle of the Yard, bearing signs decrying the advantages of the country’s wealthiest 1 percent in a place home to some of the nation’s most educationally privileged students.

Harvard Yard had been occupied.

As domestic unrest spread to more than 600 communities in the United States in the form of the Occupy movement this fall, Occupy Harvard aimed to bring the spirit of the national movement to the Yard.

Harvard’s occupiers embraced some of the frequent demands of the national movement but paired them with Harvard-specific grievances as well.

On those issues, including requests that Harvard not reinvest in a controversial hotel chain, HEI Hotels & Resorts, and that the University heed custodians’ wishes in contract negotiations, Occupy Harvard claimed success.

Yet closer examination suggests that the achievement of Occupy’s goals was a result more of circumstance than of action, as the movement estranged everyone from administrators, to tourists and freshmen trying to enter the Yard, to even those undergraduates who initially supported it.

WHO OCCUPIED HARVARD?

To the core group of occupiers who camped out from Nov. 9 to Dec. 19, protest was far from new. Many students behind the Occupy movement were involved in some form of on-campus activism long before discontented citizens occupied New York City’s Zuccotti Park, termed their encampment Occupy Wall Street, and sparked a national movement.

“[Student Labor Action Movement] members played a pretty major role in Occupy,” said SLAM member William P. Whitham ’14, who described himself as tangentially involved in Occupy Harvard. “SLAM’s interests were very much intertwined with Occupy.”

Some of the students who joined Occupy Harvard had already been protesting at Occupy Boston’s tent city in Dewey Square.

Participants say that Occupy also engaged some students inexperienced with advocacy. The group’s connection to a national movement that addressed big topics—primarily economic disparity and a cluster of other issues of social justice—was, for some, a powerful draw.

Gabriel H. Bayard ’15, one of the organizers of the Ec 10 walkout and an occupier, said that he was excited about Occupy because he “felt that movements in the U.S. had been lacking” since the financial crash of 2008.

“I had never been part of much protesting in high school,” Bayard said. “But Occupy was so big—when it came to Harvard, there was no way I was not going to be a part.”

It is unclear exactly how many protesters occupied the tents in the Yard at any given time. Among the 16 occupiers interviewed for this article, estimates of the number of participants ranged from 25 to 100. But all agreed that the movement was dominated by graduate students.

“I have really not seen, in all my years at Harvard, such an active participation by grad students in protest,” said Karen A. Narefsky ’11, a longtime leader of SLAM and an occupier.

While Narefsky said she was excited about graduate students’ participation in Occupy Harvard, she also acknowledged that their overwhelming presence may have alienated the undergraduate population. She blamed the “disconnect between the way grad students and undergrads understand Harvard” for some of the negative undergraduate reaction to the Occupy Harvard movement.

Whitham agreed, “Grad students definitely dominated the Occupy Harvard movement, especially at the end.”

He added, “I think some undergraduates felt a bit isolated.”

GATED COMMUNITY

One night in November, students supporting the Occupy movement announced a three-hour protest in front of the John Harvard statue.

They found, however, that security personnel had been stationed at all the gates to the Yard to prevent anyone without a Harvard ID from entering. To include Harvard staff, Occupy Boston protesters, and others who wanted to attend the rally, they relocated to the Law School.

There, they decided to attempt reentry to Harvard’s historic center.

For hours, a massive crowd tried to enter at every gate, chanting slogans as they went. Eventually, every protester with a Harvard ID gained access to the Yard, but the guards remained posted at the gates.

They would stay there at their stations for the next six weeks.

Those occupiers who entered the Yard hastily constructed a tent city at the foot of John Harvard statue. The next day, the occupiers released their first set of demands, a list of policies for “a university for the 99%.”

But despite their adoption of the rhetoric of the national movement, many of their goals were specific to Harvard. They called for a fair contract for custodial workers and a commitment from Harvard to not reinvest in HEI Hotels & Resorts, which had come under fire for repeated allegations of failure to comply with labor regulations.

As the weather grew colder and the campus’ patience for the locked gates grew thin, the tent city teetered on the brink of decampment.

Winter break spelled the end of the occupation. In mid-December, occupiers elected to remove their residential tents, leaving only their weatherproof dome and information tent still standing. The ID checks at the gates stopped.

At the time, occupier Summer A. Shafer, a teaching fellow in history, characterized the decampment as a transition into “a new phase of activism.” The protesters called it Occupy Harvard 2.0.

In January, the last physical vestiges of the encampment disappeared. Forty-five-mile winds blew the dome into the tent, causing the tent to collapse. Administrators then removed what was left, out of concern for the safety of passersby.

Looking back, former occupiers said that without an encampment serving as a physical embodiment of their ideas, the movement began to lose steam.

“Occupy lost its edge when it failed to move on from occupation,” Bayard said.

The announcement at the end of January that library workers might face layoffs served as a rallying point for a movement in need of a new focus.

After a series of protests failed to draw substantial attention, the occupiers returned to their namesake tactic—they occupied Lamont Café.

But there were noticeable differences between this manifestation of Occupy Harvard and the original. The group that occupied the undergraduate library was smaller in size and made up almost exclusively of graduate students.

Lamont Café was more isolated; freshmen no longer walked out of their dorms to a daily reminder of Occupy’s ideas. Many former occupiers felt that the new occupation, which seemed to be focused almost exclusively on library issues rather than other concerns of the national movement, held less appeal.

“I think that the numbers have dwindled because of an inflexibility that prevented us from moving on,” said Bayard, who said he was significantly less involved in Occupy 2.0. “The undergraduates that were sympathetic felt that there was no room for them to expand.”

UNWELCOME GUESTS

A tent city, a geodesic dome, and locked gates made one thing certain—Occupy Harvard got noticed. Students and occupiers agreed that the movement was a polarizing presence on Harvard’s campus.

“It got a huge negative reaction, especially in the undergraduate community,” Narefsky said.

For a Statistics 104 final project, a group of students asked 1,035 undergraduates to gauge their impression of Occupy on a scale of one to ten, with ten being most positive. They found that the average ranking of Occupy Harvard was 2.84 out of 10. Many Occupiers attributed the movement’s chilly reception on campus to what some called an “anti-protest culture” at Harvard. They theorized that this mentality was a result of Harvard students’ success within the current system.

“One explanation is that in order to get to Harvard, you have to be very good at playing the game and have a strong belief that the system is meritocratic,” said occupier Jennifer A. Sheehy-Skeffington, a teaching fellow in psychology. “That selects for the kind of people who do not look for solutions that are extra-systemic—it’s threatening to have a group come along and challenge that altogether.”

Eric J. Weiner, senior editor and director of communications at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, said that Harvard students do not fit the profile of typical occupiers.

“In terms of Occupy itself, it’s talking about a fundamental unfairness in our global economy that’s real and getting worse,” Weiner said. “Harvard is not necessarily a reflection of that.... It’s hardly a microcosm of the United States.”

Other Occupy Harvard members attributed students’ negative reactions to the University’s lockdown of Harvard Yard, which they say students unfairly blamed on Occupy Harvard.

“They closed the gates, and a lot of students’ gut reaction was to blame the protesters,” Bayard said. “I think that, to a certain extent, the administration did a smart move.”

The administration said concern for student safety, not desire to vilify the occupiers, motivated the decision. In an email to the Harvard community, University President Drew G. Faust cited police reports that some of the protesters attempting to enter the Yard on the first night of Occupy Harvard had engaged in “violent behavior elsewhere with the explicit goal of causing disruption and with little connection to any particular cause.”

Faust’s message, sent nearly two weeks after the occupation began, was the only communication from Harvard administrators to the entire community regarding Occupy.

Despite the University’s assertion that closing the gates was a safety measure, occupiers felt that the increased security violated Harvard’s principles of free speech.

“I was deeply disturbed that my University had locked the gates in order to prevent others in the community, from janitors to sympathetic organizers at Occupy Boston, from joining our protest,” Shafer wrote in an email.

Occupiers also complained that Harvard’s leaders did not engage in dialogue with them as much as they would have liked.

When the protesters first pitched their tents, Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson reportedly promised to attend a general meeting of the movement the next day.

“I would like this meeting to be the beginning of a conversation,” Nelson said at the time. But she did not attend the meeting the following day.

Yet despite occupiers’ complaints of lack of access to administrators, many Harvard officials said they wanted to let the protesters voice their views.

“We tried very hard last fall to hear the concerns of the occupiers, to make sure they had freedom of expression to articulate their views and to balance that with the safety concerns for the rest of the campus,” Faust said.

AIMING TO DISPLEASE

Although many of the specific demands that Occupy Harvard issued were met during the occupation and soon after, the extent to which the occupation served as the impetus for these changes seems minimal.

Reinvestment in HEI, for example, was an issue under discussion in the University long before Occupy came to campus.

“This was definitely an issue SLAM was addressing before,” Whitham said.

University Executive Vice President Katie N. Lapp issued a statement in December announcing that Harvard would reconsider the controversial investment, a move that occupiers heralded as a victory. But when the Harvard Management Company announced in March that it would not reinvest in HEI, it made it clear that it was a decision based not on the ethical concerns raised by Occupy but rather on the financial viability of the asset.

“Importantly, this decision was based on factors related to the HMC portfolio and its strategy and needs, not on concerns about HEI’s practices,” HMC President and CEO Jane L. Mendillo wrote in an email to Faust.

Occupy Harvard also claimed responsibility for the signing of a just contract for custodial workers. But while Wayne M. Langley, the director for higher education at SEIU Local 615, said that union organizers were grateful for the “important presence” of Occupy, they believed that the outcome of the contract negotiations was probably not affected by the movement.

“I think the results would probably have been similar if we had not had protesters,” said Langley, though he noted that he did appreciate the support.

Beyond specific goals, Occupy prided itself on bringing issues like economic inequality to the forefront of the community’s conversations.

“Messaging was really important—it is important not only to say how they feel, but to communicate it in a way that other people can understand and that can bring people together,” Narefsky said.

To some, that message made its mark. Former Undergraduate Council President Senan Ebrahim ’12 said that the movement “polarized students and administrators [but] opened up the conversation.”

Ebrahim is now involved in Responsible Investment at Harvard, a group of students who hope to influence the manner in which Harvard manages its money, a goal that echoes the ideas touted by Occupy. He said he believes that Occupy Harvard helped spur the group’s creation.

Others said that Occupy could have been more successful at voicing its opinions.

“The most ineffective part of the Occupy movement was definitely communication,” Whitham said. “It definitely hindered how far this movement could go.”

Narefsky agreed, “It’s important for protesters to think about the way they put forth their message. It could have been done more deliberately. It’s always a struggle.”

But even with the iconic dome cleared away and the people who call themselves occupiers at Harvard down to a few diehards, those who slept in tents for their beliefs this past fall see cause to celebrate their lasting impact, however embattled and unpopular their protest was. Because in the end, the aim of Occupy was not to please but to inconvenience.

“It unavoidably disrupted the comfortable image of Harvard as a constant contributor to society, of everybody being happy,” Sheehy-Skeffington said. “It interrupted that for students, professors, the president, tourists—and forced a new conversation.”

—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at mcook@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at hrouse@college.harvard.edu.

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LibrariesYear in ReviewProtestsOccupyCommencement 2012