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In 1793 France, the Reign of Terror commenced, coating the streets with crimson. French revolutionaries violently turned against the country’s monarch and attempted to establish order via the guillotine. Bread was sparse and tensions between wealthy aristocrats and commoners were high. An estimated 27,000 people were killed. The widespread starvation and executions popularized a saying attributed to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich."
“Eat the Rich” is now a rallying cry against an overly capitalistic economy that encourages the rich to become richer while the poor starve. People such as the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, are a cautionary tale of success. For while Bezos’s philanthropic efforts have helped many people, he has notably donated less money than other billionaires to the point that some consider him unethically wealthy. At current costs, Bezos could cover the cost of direct care expenditures for every cancer patient in the U.S. for the next 30 years, and still have plenty left over.
“Eat the Rich” is directed toward people like Bezos and their wealth hoarding. This hoarding lifestyle has a tendency to promote outrage, especially when people like Bezos derive much of their wealth from the labor of low-wage workers. This is, in part, the reason for the enormously wealthy minority holding an incredible majority of the world’s money pool. According to Forbes, “the top 1 percent of U.S households hold 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50 percent combined.”
“Eat the Rich” comments on money hoarders who gluttonously bathe in billions, a fraction of which could easily end world hunger.
Before you deem this a passing phrase, take a walk along the Charles River and look at the pavement below your feet. You are sure to find a simple, white, all-capped “EAT THE RICH” written. Perhaps then you would begin to notice this rallying cry of oppressed revolutionaries painted in multiple spots around campus: “EAT THE RICH.”
That these phrases are scattered within such a tight radius of Harvard’s campus can hardly be coincidental. “Eat the Rich” is a reminder to Harvard students; a reminder to us that while we may go on to succeed, wealth must not consume us.
Graffiti of such strategic placement is meant for a certain audience; it’s meant for Harvard students and affiliates. Harvard students who attend the university with the largest endowment. Harvard students whose salaries 10 years after enrolling are 299 percent higher than the national median. Harvard affiliates who make up 40 percent of President Joe Biden’s proposed innermost circle.
This Charles-side graffiti may also be directed at the current Harvard community’s place in Cambridge. The Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened the struggles of those experiencing homelessness, as Boston-area homeless shelters have reported an infection rate of 35 to 40 percent. With shelters now having a lower capacity due to Covid-19 concerns, many individuals are presumably deserted to freezing temperatures during these winter months. Now more than ever, shelters need community support.
While Harvard University donates some money to homeless shelters, they could be doing more in Cambridge to alleviate the struggles faced by people experiencing homelessness. On any given day, you are bound to see at least 10 people without housing sitting on curbs outside of the Harvard Yard. Ironically, the Yard is cluttered with 500 $381 chairs — yes, that amounts to $190,500 in chair costs. This extravagant purchase is eerily reminiscent of the French monarchy’s thrones: Students carelessly sit upon them, unaware of those that may be crushed underneath.
“Eat the Rich” graffiti is both directed at the Harvard student body and the University community. It serves as a reminder and a cry for us to give back to Cambridge and society as a whole. Next time you take a stroll along the Charles, look for “EAT THE RICH,” and rather than ignoring the poignant painted words of Rousseau, remember to watch where you’re stepping.
Kaela D. Ellis ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor.
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