Closing the Gates and Opening the Conversation

Two years out, many former Occupy Harvard participants challenge the notion that Occupy “failed.”
By Aemilia M. Phillips

By early November 2011, the gates of Harvard Yard were shut, enclosing a jumble of tents scattered across the Yard. Dozens of students had braved the chill of a New England fall to bring the Occupy Wall Street movement to the heart of Harvard’s campus. Among these students were Jennifer A. Sheehy-Skeffington, a graduate student in psychology and a tutor in Winthrop House, and Summer A. Shafer, a graduate student in American Studies. Both are still involved with activism at Harvard—and both are among the many former Occupy Harvard participants who challenge the notion that Occupy “failed.”

Since January 2012, many have claimed that Occupy—both at Harvard and in general—failed in some way. A New York Times article described the movement as a fad with no real accomplishments. According to an op-ed published in The Crimson almost a year ago, Occupy was unsuccessful because it didn’t garner enough public support. “Occupy had the chance to spark a rational and important campus discussion of inequality in America,” wrote its author, Wyatt N. Troia ’14. “But it shot itself in the foot.”

As fall turned to winter two years ago, the outcome was far from predictable. Throughout the semester, Sheehy-Skeffington and Shafer manned Occupy’s information desk for several hours a day. Occupy Harvard persisted through January, until one freezing night when Shafer was alone in the Yard. A huge burst of wind moved the massive geodesic dome, one of Occupy’s permanent structures, across the Yard. The administration immediately shut down the movement because of what it deemed to be safety concerns.

Even after this abrupt end to the movement, Sheehy-Skeffington and Shafer were eager to continue to employ their passion for activism through discussions about protest at Harvard. They became involved with the graduate student council, which, after a hard-fought battle, passed a resolution to condemn the violence against protestors at UC Davis and UC Berkeley. Shafer said that this resolution sprang from the ideas of Occupy.

Former Occupy activists like Shafer claim that to label Occupy as a “failure” is misleading. “[A change] in politics among grad students was a tangible effect of the occupation,” Shafer said. “It brought people together politically. Students became more involved in thinking about how student government was run among graduate students at Harvard.”

Because of the renewed interest in protest and activism, she said, the infrastructure of student activist groups changed. Sheehy-Skeffington added that Occupy created “a lasting impression that connects students across generations.”

Others involved in the protest also maintain that there were measurable effects resulting from the occupation of the Yard—effects that persist to this day. “The biggest change was in terms of conversation,” said Gabriel H. Bayard ’15, a member of the Student Labor Action Movement. “Students still talk about it.”

Like Bayard, many say that the movement was designed to raise awareness of the power of protest, sparking new discussions about class and wealth.

“We changed the consciousness of campus,” said Sheehy-Skeffington, “and opened a conversation in a way that was hard to ignore.”

Some students cite an explosion in interest in student activism groups as evidence that this movement did trigger a renewed interest in student protest, one that had been long dormant in Harvard’s culture. According to Alli J. Welton, who entered Harvard with the class of 2015 but is now on a leave of absence, “that is the legacy [of Occupy]. All the things it started lead to other organizations and groups and activist campaigns.”

One of these campaigns involved fighting for fair contracts for custodians and unionized workers. These contracts were eventually passed in a way, according to some students, that influenced people’s daily lives.

Bayard was active in lobbying for these contracts, and stated that he used the protest culture of Occupy to draw attention to their goals. “That was why I was out there,” said Bayard. “That was why it mattered to me.”

But the Occupy’s legacy is still complicated, especially considering interactions with the administration and other undergraduates. Many of the people involved understand that the University administration’s decision to close the gates to the Yard to anyone without a Harvard ID could have been handled better. These participants express frustration that many undergraduates subsequently blamed Occupy for the inconvenience of having the gate shut, even though the movement itself wanted the gates to stay open.

“Everyone was so furious when the Yard shut down that they started trashing Occupy,” said Welton. “But when we explained our goals, most of the students agreed with us.”

Looking back on the movement, Shafer said she wishes Occupy Harvard could have “maintained the undergraduate presence with the same enthusiasm [they] had started with.”

Even so, Shafer cites current conversations on campus around divestment as an example of a more entrenched legacy of Occupy. “What Occupy did was really publicize some of the more problematic investment conditions,” she said. “That became part of the conversation after Occupy.”

For Shafer, these changes bode well for the future of student activism. “There’s always possibility for protest culture at Harvard,” she said. “And people shouldn’t be afraid of that."

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