What Student Protest?

In recent months, it has become a trend to decry the apathy of Harvard students. Christine Hurd wrote in the Harvard Political Review Dispatch about “Harvard Political Apathy.” Anita J Joseph wrote in The Crimson, “We got into Harvard by showing respect—nay, devotion—to social rules, and rebellion just isn’t in our blood.” And the Crimson staff itself opined, “Harvard’s culture simply does not lend itself to creating the levels of concerted protests seen recently at Berkeley and University of California Davis.”

There are plenty of apathetic students at Harvard. As a student activist, I have encountered students who agree with the end goals of protest but are uncomfortable with direct action as a means of enacting change. I have spoken with others who simply don’t agree that workers deserve higher wages and Wall Street bankers lower. The Harvard student body could certainly be more mobilized and activist. However, articles that deny the existence of student activism are not only inaccurate, but also destructive.

In fact, Harvard students do mobilize around the issues that they care about—and student activism at Harvard is stronger than it has been for at least a decade, and maybe half a century. This past year saw one of the largest student mobilizations in Harvard history: hundreds of people showed up to the first night of Occupy Harvard. Some of these protestors were faculty, workers, or perhaps curious bystanders, but the one hundred and twenty Harvard students who slept in Harvard Yard on the first night of Occupy certainly demonstrated commitment to a cause.

In fact, 1969, often cited as an era of “true” student activism, was not all that different from 2011. The group from Students for a Democratic Society that occupied University Hall in April 1969 was made up of three hundred and fifty student protestors. Many of the twelve thousand students who marched to Harvard Stadium and eventually voted for a student strike disapproved of SDS’s radical actions; however, they were motivated by horror at the decision of President Nathan M. Pusey ’28  to call four hundred police officers to brutally evict student protestors from University Hall, arresting hundreds and sending dozens to the hospital with injuries. When similar police violence took place at the University of California Berkeley and University of California Davis campuses this fall, students at those universities mobilized as well. I am certainly grateful for the 2011 Harvard administration’s decision to simply lock the gates of Harvard Yard instead of sending police to brutalize student protestors. However, that decision undoubtedly contributed to students directing frustration against Occupy Harvard instead of against the Harvard administration or the police.

Before a journalist suggests, yet again, that Harvard students never put their feet on the ground about issues they care about, I think it’s important to point out the impressive nature of this school year’s student activism. In the fall, students from the Trans Task Force and Anti-Imperialist Movement  protested President Drew G. Faust signing an agreement that brought Naval Reserve Office Training Corps back on campus. The students of the Environmental Action Committee and Students for a Just and Stable Future travelled to Boston and Washington D.C. with the Tar Sands Action Campaign to protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline; meanwhile, the Global Health and AIDS Coalition held multiple actions all year calling out both Senator Scott P. Brown and Merck & Co. for their failure to support global health goals.

While students staged a walkout of professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s Economics 10 lecture and prompted Goldman Sachs to cancel recruiting events at multiple colleges, Occupy Harvard maintained a tent city in Harvard Yard for over two months. Other students concerned about economic justice organized with library workers to demand no layoffs in the restructuring process. The Palestine Solidarity Committee held a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with Palestinian administrative detainees; black student groups organized a rally for Trayvon Martin. And just last Saturday, Harvard students joined with feminists from around Boston to protest the War on Women. Moreover, this year’s student campaigns have been successful: In response to student demands, Harvard not only halted future investments in HEI Hotels and Resorts but also funded cage-free eggs in the dining halls and sustainable jobs for Harvard’s food service.

When Harvard students are organizing around issues ranging from labor rights to environmental sustainability to global health to justice in Palestine to queer and women’s rights, it seems ludicrous to suggest that our campus is politically apathetic. Denying the existence of student activism demeans the organizing done by student activists on Harvard’s campus, discouraging future activism and discounting true victories.

Not every sympathetic student will come to every action—after all, even those who strongly believe in direct action understand that the largest march must be complemented by weeks or months of organizing—but Harvard undergraduates have a pretty good track record so far. So let us recognize, and celebrate, the achievements and victories of student activists at Harvard this past year—and let’s spend the summer researching, planning, and organizing for another year of making our campus, and the world, a better place.

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