Occupy Harvard protests outside of Mass Hall, where students in 2001 launched a Living Wage campaign.
Occupy Harvard protests outside of Mass Hall, where students in 2001 launched a Living Wage campaign.

Tent Talk: My Night With Occupy Harvard

There is no disputing that the movement has brought the issues of the broader Occupy movement to the forefront of discussion at Harvard, but success with their other goal—demonstrating that there are allies of the broader Occupy movement at elite institutions like Harvard—seemed a little less certain. Do other occupiers know? And do they care? What do the tents, empty or not, really mean?
By Justin C. Worland

It was 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday night and the Occupy Harvard encampment was deserted.

Ten minutes passed and still no one was there. I peeked into a few tents. Nothing.It seemed that the question being tossed around by my peers—“Do they actually sleep in the Yard or do they just have tents?”—had been answered. Still, it would have been hard to blame them for not wanting to sleep outside in a tent. The night was cold and rumors of the season’s second snowfall had circulated.

Perhaps there would be no occupation.

Just as the scene could not have appeared any more devoid of activity, the occupiers began to arrive as if by clockwork. The movement’s leaders were absent, but the protestors knew the drill—with a glance at the centrally located white board they learned their tent assignments. Backpacks and sleeping bags in hand, they headed to their shelter for the night.

By 10:30 p.m., 10 to 20 protestors had arrived, including the movement’s leaders. Gabriel H. Bayard '15 would handle logistics for that night and Sandra Y.L. Korn '14 was in charge of the group’s media outreach. She had slept in the tents every night since the occupation began. That had been nine days before. I decided to spend a night with Korn and her compatriots, in the center of Harvard Yard, under the shadow of the John Harvard statue.

* * *

I hadn’t yet been assigned a tent when the Harvard University Police arrived. The HUPD car had been idle on the opposite end of the Yard, but quickly sped from its perch to the periphery of the campsite.

The moment of the raid had come, I thought. Oddly, no one seemed alarmed at the fast approaching authority figure.

“Where’s the boss lady?” the officer asked in a light-hearted tone without getting out of the car. He wanted to speak to Korn, who was perhaps the most familiar face for HUPD.

“She’s not here, but I can help,” Bayard told the officer.

“Alright. You guys doin’ alright tonight? Anything you need?”

“No, we’re all good. Thanks.”

“How many you got sleeping out tonight?”

“It’s tough to say, I think we’re at maybe 70 percent to 90 percent.”

While a considerable number of people were sleeping out, the figure seemed exaggerated, from a quick glance around the tents. The officer appeared skeptical, but not particularly concerned with the figures.

“Any propane?” This was apparently a standard question. Propane is strictly forbidden.

“No propane.”

“Alright, you guys take care and have a good night.

The officer drove off. I expressed my surprise at the friendliness of the interaction to the occupiers.

“They like us,” Korn told me later. “They’re the 99 percent too.”

* * *

Protests and encampments at universities have been the most recent iteration of the Occupy movement that began on Wall Street in September and spread across the country throughout the fall.

When a group of Harvard students set up camp in Harvard Yard in early November to protest what they described as the problems of income inequality, unfair treatment of workers, and Harvard’s questionable investments, the University took a measured approach. Though Harvard Yard was closed—and remains closed—to non-Harvard affiliates, University officials took the stance that students have the right to protest.

It’s hard to imagine the University ordering that the occupiers cease and desist anytime soon. Even if officials did, the overtly sympathetic attitude of the officers makes it hard to imagine a scene like the one at University of California at Davis, where officers—also perhaps the same “99 percent” as HUPD—pepper sprayed peaceful protestors. There, police officers were suspended and calls were made for the university chancellor’s resignation. Here, on the other hand, Harvard students know HUPD officers to be the most friendly of local law enforcement.

There’s also, of course, the added monetary factor: the overtime pay is an extra incentive for the police to keep the occupiers happy. The longer the occupation lasts, the longer HUPD earns overtime.

* * *

Another pair of uniformed officials visited later in the night, this time from Securitas, an outside security company that Harvard contracts to assist with campus safety.

“I heard about the contract,” one of the security guards told Korn. “It sounds awesome.

”The previous day Harvard had reached a tentative agreement with the union that represents Harvard custodial workers to provide all outsourced employees with access to childcare and a tuition-assistance program.

The officer thanked Korn and the Occupy folks for supporting the cause. Korn acknowledged that she didn’t really know the terms that had been tentatively agreed upon, but was elated nonetheless.

“I can’t believe it,” she said after hearing a few of the take-away points. “Oh my God, that’s awesome.”

“Hey, do you guys want some pizza?” the Securitas officer asked. It was unclear where the pizza was coming from, but it was a generous offer regardless.

“I’m going to bring you guys some pizza,” the officer decided, responding decisively to a moment of hesitation among the occupiers.

Korn asked to tag along so she could hear the details about the contract negotiations. The pair departed only to return a few minutes later with a cheese pizza. The pizza was cold, but delicious. In 35-degree weather at one in the morning, any sustenance becomes welcoming.

Korn said farewell to the security officer and explained that such generosity from Harvard employees is something the occupiers had come to expect—a group of service employees often drops off a helping of coffee and doughnuts in the morning.

For Korn and Bayard, the relationship with service employees and Harvard goes back much further. As members of Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), they have campaigned to decrease the gap between the salaries of the highest and lowest-paid Harvard employees. A 180:1 ratio of the salary of the highest-paid Harvard employee to the salary of the lowest-paid employee is unacceptable, they argue. Though nominally different, their aims and membership overlap a great deal. With Occupy Harvard, SLAM has been able to garner more attention for its concerns.

Alone again, the occupiers continued their conversations. The diverse group of Harvard affiliates—undergraduate and graduate students, psychology post-docs and freshmen at the College—isn’t usually found interacting together. Unsurprisingly, discussion quickly turned to the common denominator—the movement.

That evening’s forum at the Institute of Politics had apparently gone well. But the previous night people had run across the Yard yelling foul slurs and telling the occupiers to go home. And there’s that one proctor—they say he’s attractive, but has a knack for disturbing their peaceful nights with constant complaints and nagging. He repeatedly advises them to leave and use their time more constructively, they said.

While the proctor’s criticism doesn’t fall on deaf ears, the occupiers are insistent that their movement’s demands are not pointless or nebulous. Although it is often difficult to discern the goals of other embodiments of the Occupy movement, the group at Harvard has moved beyond the slogans. The specific demands include fair pay and contracts for service workers and divestment from corporations that they say exploit laborers.

But while the occupiers strongly hold on to those aims in conversation, there is also a tendency to move beyond them.

After I explained that I cover admissions for The Crimson, a graduate student from Ireland asked me to explain legacy preference in the admissions process. That’s something that people are concerned about, she said.

But a set of concrete goals did not keep some from arguing for more abstract aims.

“The movement at Harvard has a broader purpose beyond the institution it occupies,” said Justin A. Jung ’03, a psychology post-doc from Orange County, Calif. “I want to show the other Occupy movements that there are allies in places of power and of course to bring the issues here.”

There is no disputing that the movement has brought the issues of the broader Occupy movement to the forefront of discussion at Harvard. Students and faculty all face ID checks and empty pathways in the Yard—constant reminders that an encampment lurks in front of University Hall.

But success with Jung’s other goal—demonstrating that there are allies of the broader Occupy movement at elite institutions like Harvard—seemed a little less certain. Do other occupiers know? And do they care? What do the tents, empty or not, really mean?

* * *

Despite not wanting to join in the sleepover, most people seem sympathetic to the movement’s concerns, Bayard suggested to me. He commented that even the petition requesting that they move—freeharvard.com—complains just about the inconvenience of the movement rather than concern with its aims.

“There has to be disruption to get people’s attention!” he declared, dismayed that his classmates started a petition solely because they felt inconvenienced.

Bayard remained focused on the convenience question. Most people who stopped by the camp’s info desk were tacitly supportive or just curious, he said. Nearly all of the audience at the IOP forum was supportive. But Bayard said little of the principled opposition that is expected with a movement like this.

It didn’t take long to see such principled opposition, a little after one that night. Like overly eager students in section, a group of four freshmen approached the camp, ready to debate.

“I have a question! Literally, I’m not judging. I have a question,” shouted the first freshman. Let’s refer to him as Matt. In drunkenness and attitude, he was the leader of the pack. He spoke louder than his companions with a tone that was notches more condescending.

The occupiers waited for his question.

“How many of your tents are actually occupied?” Matt finally asked.

“Seventy to ninety percent,” Bayard responded. The camp is certainly not empty, but this is probably a stretch.

“Matt. The tents are occupied,” said one of the freshman’s more sober friends with an unexpected biting sarcasm.

“I’m sobering up and I have a question,” Matt declared. “Do you think 12 dollars an hour is unreasonable?”

The occupiers argued that the situation for Harvard employees is more complicated than wages would indicate. Some work only part-time and couldn’t support a family with that income. Others are subject to split shifts that force them to work odd hours that disrupt family life. More brashly (and perhaps counter-intuitively), one of the occupiers corrected the freshman for an error in his figures. Harvard’s lowest paid employees likely make more than 12 dollars an hours—14 or 16 perhaps—still not enough, in the occupier’s mind.

Another freshman—I’ll call her Helen—stepped in this time. Larry Summers spoke at her freshman seminar earlier that day. This made her, it seemed, an expert on economic policy, fiscal policy, and fundamental questions of human nature.

“We’re altruistic to our family and our kin,” she explained. “Why are you guys on the side of the janitors?”

While the other occupiers were patient, William P. Whitham ’14 was not amused.

“You’re talking about people who clean the vomit you leave everywhere,” he said, directing this comment at Matt with a hint of derision. “Can you show some respect? People are trying to sleep.”

“Our vomit?  You live here too, don’t you?” asked Matt, pointing out the divisiveness of Whitham’s comment with surprising coherence. Perhaps this wasn’t what Matt expected from a movement arguing for unity. But it seemed that Matt was associating himself with that one percent.

Regardless of Whitham’s intentions, the conversation devolved, making it difficult to determine who said what. Finally, one of the previously silent freshmen jumped in to end the confusion.

“Matt, there’s a girl that I know who really wants to meet you.”

“Come on, Matt, she really wants to meet you.”

This was sufficient distraction for Matt. His willingness to argue broken, the group departed to meet the anxious and perhaps fictional girl.

The exchange between these two groups, certainly representing ideologically distinct factions of the student body, reminded me of outside criticism of Occupy Harvard.

They’re just a bunch of elite college kids creating a disturbance, the critics say. When enflamed, both sides, it turned out, could play the part of the obnoxious Harvard elite.

Bayard seemed a little dismayed by the exchange.

“We always try to be friendly,” he assured me. “We also keep alcohol out at all costs. You see why.”

* * *

The night quickly became quieter. Discussion continued around the info desk. Eventually, Jung went on a Starbucks run to pick up hot tea. I learned that as a non-freshman I would need to run to the Science Center to use the bathroom.

With most of the campers already in their tents, I announced my intention to retire. Bayard offered me an extra sleeping pad to help me stay warm. I shrugged, questioning whether I should accept the extra luxury.

“Take it,” he told me. “You can never have too much.”

I accepted, chuckling at the irony. Was the 180:1 ratio too much?

* * *

But as I soon found, you really can’t have too much padding in 30-degree weather in a cold tent in Harvard Yard.

The tents are not the top-of-the-line luxury shelters that people have accused the movement of buying. As Bayard explained to me, SLAM bought the cheapest tents possible. A night sleeping in one certainly makes this claim believable.

Though I eventually grew accustomed to the cold, I never ceased to be amused by the occasional taunts of passersby.“

We are the one percent! We are the one percent!”

“Get out of our Yard."

“I occupied your mom last night!”

Although the jeers were met with silence from the occupiers, I couldn’t suppress a little laughter. I wondered whether the taunts in the Yard were the most cogent existing articulation of the opposition to Occupy Harvard in the student population. Regardless, the occupiers were starting a conversation.

I made it through the night, but left early the following morning, before the others had woken up.

As I left the Yard, I overheard a snippet of a conversation between two HUPD officers. One of them had been asked to work the graveyard shift, keeping the Yard secure by standing overnight at the now-closed gates. The situation wasn’t ideal, but he was glad to accept.

“It’s big money,” he said to his partner. “I can’t turn it down.”