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We Occupied the Harvard President’s Office. We Didn’t Face Involuntary Leave.

A protester hangs out of a window during the Progressive Student Labor Movement's 2001 sit-in at Massachusetts Hall.
A protester hangs out of a window during the Progressive Student Labor Movement's 2001 sit-in at Massachusetts Hall. By Jonelle M. Lonergan
By Lynne E. Lyman and Susan Misra, Contributing Opinion Writers
Lynne E. Lyman and Susan Misra are graduates of Harvard Kennedy School.

On a chilly day in mid-April, we received the clandestine message we had been waiting for: location, day and time.

We rushed to grab overnight bags that had been packed for weeks and made our way to the meeting location across from Massachusetts Hall, the seat of Harvard’s administration and the president’s office. At the change of security guards, 50 students silently entered the front door of Mass. Hall. In a single file, we fanned out across every office, sat down, and linked arms, quickly occupying the entire building.

It was 2001, and this was the culmination of a four-year effort by Harvard students to get the University to pay its workers — specifically food service workers, janitors, and security guards — a living wage.

Watching today’s pro-Palestine student encampments brings back a flood of memories from our three-week sit-in: Long nights of consensus-style decision-making. Frenetic “digital organizing” in the early days of cell phones. Creating a “hygiene committee” to manage a small space without showers. The camaraderie of those who delivered us meals through windows. The “city” of tents containing more than 100 people that sprung up in support of the occupation.

The Harvard Living Wage Campaign never planned for an ongoing campus occupation. They assumed the police would arrest and remove us quickly. In planning the demonstration, the question was who was willing to spend a night in jail for this cause.

But they did not arrest us. Likely recalling how they were made out to be the bad guys when they dismantled a student demonstration advocating divestment from apartheid South Africa in the late ’80s, Harvard and the police standing guard took a courageous position: they would not touch the protesting students.

We lived in Mass. Hall for three weeks. The administration sent in a negotiating team, and the creation of a committee to study our proposal was secured. That committee eventually offered its support, and in 2002, Harvard officially agreed to pay its workers a living wage.

While some schools issued minor disciplinary sanctions to their participating students, we received none. Shortly thereafter, the Harvard Kennedy School gave each of us one of its annual awards.

How times have changed. The recent response to the pro-Palestine encampment from interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 — droning on in emails about inconvenient disruptions and the “rights of many” in the Harvard community while brave and righteous students risk grades, diplomas, and careers — feels contemptuous.

It appears that a number of developments over the last two decades have made it harder for students to engage in peaceful and impactful protest.

Observing the military-style police tactics on college campuses like UCLA — where officers have handcuffed, body slammed, and arrested students and professors — underscores how police have increasingly become a threat to community members. The transfer of military weapons to local police, elite combat training, and police union protections for civil rights violations have both emboldened such violent tactics and widened the gap between officer and civilian.

The administration’s approach to protest has also changed. Since our protest in 2001, the University has formalized a prohibition on the occupation of University buildings. This, along with Garber’s comments, signals a shift in posture that increasingly seems to be willing to close civic space and oppose campus protest.

What’s more, while the general public might have disagreed with our tactics in 2001, they appeared more open — or at least ambivalent to — our cause. Many workers, students, and community members came out to support the Harvard Living Wage Sit-In.

Certainly, there weren’t means to intimidate and vilify us. Today, internet-enabled doxing has made it easier for people to subject protestors to hateful rhetoric. These factors have raised the risks of participating, making students less willing to speak out and increasing the pressure to conform.

Despite this, sit-ins and encampments are an effective and powerful strategy. These types of protests are a disruption, but also a gift, challenging the power of universities in four ways.

First, successful negotiations for divestment have the potential to disrupt financing of a war that has already killed, maimed, or starved over 100,000 people. Second, sit-ins and encampments oppose the University’s narrative about how students should engage in society — moving from lessons in a classroom to witnessing and experiencing leadership in practice.

More fundamentally, sit-ins reveal the police state and its power to repress vulnerable people. This affirms what many people experience daily and what other activists have experienced during movements like the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, catalyzing empathy in those who have not experienced the fear, terror, and rage of state-sanctioned violence.

Fourth and finally, encampments teach us how to work in solidarity with each other, calling on those of us who are bearing witness to reconnect to our humanity, to our compassion for others, and to a life-affirming way of being in relationship with all.

When these peaceful and radical forms of expression are eliminated, we all lose. We silence the very bellwethers that might lead us to evolve our current understandings. We become more willing to accept state actions and silence differences in order to maintain our sense of safety, respectability, and comfort.

Harvard and many other universities should reconsider both their response to this current historical moment and their ongoing use of militarized policing to manage student, faculty, and community spaces. The University of California, Riverside, Brown University, Rutgers University, Evergreen State College, Sacramento State, and other campuses have reached peaceful resolutions with their students, demonstrating the possibility of constructive engagement.

When we occupied Mass. Hall, we got awards. When today’s protesters occupied the Yard, they got suspended. Harvard should stop the double standard.

Lynne E. Lyman and Susan Misra are graduates of Harvard Kennedy School.

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