I began my Wednesday night around 9:30 feeling mildly inconvenienced: my printer was out of ink and I had a paper that needed to be printed.  On my way out of the Yard to Staples, I was stopped by security officers and told to wait a minute before leaving.  The Occupy Harvard protest was happening just outside the gate, and they were trying to control foot traffic in and out of the Yard.  By the time I got to Staples, it was closed, which added to my agitation.  I then headed back to the Yard, where I was redirected at three different gates before I finally made it to my room a half hour later.

All around me, students were complaining about how annoying the protest was, and I had to agree.

So here I was, a liberal student, one among many on campus, feeling angry at protesters whose ideas I generally agree with.  Indeed, the Occupy Harvard protest, which was meant to raise awareness of Harvard’s socially irresponsible investment tactics and espousal of economic orthodoxy that favors the rich, instead served to alienate parts of a generally liberal student body against causes they otherwise would likely support.  More concerning, the responses I saw from some Harvard students were an embarrassment to our education, intellect, and institution.

The Goal of Occupy Harvard

The Occupy Harvard movement was organized by a group of students from across several of Harvard’s schools to protest Harvard policies that they view as benefiting the privileged minority at the expense of the struggling majority.  Carrying signs that read, “We Want a University for the 99%”, members of the Harvard community showed solidarity with the nationwide Occupy movement.  Students joined in with the protests, and a few faculty members gave speeches decrying Harvard’s investment policies and dominant economic ideologies.  Protesters from movements like the the 180:1 cause for greater wage equity for Harvard staff joined in as well.

All in all, their demands were not radical.  The protesters spoke about Harvard’s investment decisions that promote self-interested gain over larger societal benefit.  Specifically, they were referring partly to the controversial land acquisition and construction on the Allston campus.  The problem in Allston is real, and every student should be asking whether the benefits of a few extra percentage points in return – if that – on Harvard’s endowment are worth the societal costs.

Further, we should be open to the idea that the economic theories formulated and taught at top institutions like Harvard may be incorrect, and that they will not necessarily create the most efficient, equal, and just society possible.  Alastair Su, writing for the HPR, made a similar point in response to the Ec 10 walk-out.  These are things an intelligent group of future leaders – and a largely liberal one, at that – should at least be open to considering.

A Misdirected Movement

Unfortunately, the protest struck the wrong cord.  Logistically, the protests prevented students from going in and out of the yard without a hassle and created unnecessary noise and chaos in the prime work hours on a school night.  This was a tactical error on the organizers’ part, as it created a feeling of inconvenience and agitation among busy students attempting to travel to the library, meetings, and their dorms.

What turned this annoyance into anger, however, were wild misperceptions about organizers and targets of the protest.  While the protests were led by a pretty well-organized, certainly well-educated group of students with reasonable demands, the protest projected chaos and decentralization.  Even the name, Occupy Harvard, carried connotations of the amorphous and seemingly demand-less Occupy Wall Street movement.  More importantly, as the protest grew in numbers, the outcry morphed into an attack on Harvard as a whole and its students.  Protesters attacked the perceived injustice of Harvard’s admissions and financial aid policies – which have actually made impressive strides towards equality in the past few decades – and criticized Harvard students themselves for their privilege.

All in all, a protest that should have targeted Harvard’s administrators and decision-makers, or at least compelled students to take the issues to them, instead came across as an attack on the very students whose support it needed (and could have gotten).  Any heightened awareness among the student body on the issues was overwhelmed by a sense of annoyance.  This served to radicalize those inside the Yard gates against those on the outside when they should have found common ground.  In that sense, the movement missed its target.

A Shameful Response

That said, the response I saw from a group of fellow Harvard freshman was a disgrace.  Stepping out of my room in Wigglesworth, I witnessed a group of about 10 freshman engaging in a shouting match with protesters on the opposite side of the gate.  I heard my classmates, supposedly some of the smartest students in the world, yelling things like “get a job!”, “we worked hard to get here; what do you do?”, “flip me some burgers”, “we are the 1%”, and “f*** you, lazy a**holes”, just to give a small sample.  Besides displaying ignorance of the fact that many of the protesters were students, staff, and faculty members themselves, these comments showed a level of closed-minded elitism that I never expected to find here.

Indeed, the counter-protest that eventually amassed about 30 students inside Thayer Gate represented the worst of Harvard and only further perpetuated unfavorable perceptions of our school.  While the anti-Harvard-student remarks made by some protesters heightened defensiveness on both sides, there was absolutely no excuse for what my classmates said that night.  After a woman in the protest told a story of not being able to afford Harvard’s tuition after going through medical procedures that bankrupted her family, one student responded simply, “Get insurance.”

There’s no way around it: these students should be ashamed.  The ignorant, compassionless insinuations and sneers they made are inexcusable.  But of course, this was just one small (yet, unfortunately, quite vocal) subset of the student body.  Many students, I’m guessing, look much more favorably upon today’s protests.  Yet, largely, they stayed in their rooms, turned off by the chaos.  The ones that did come out were outshouted by radical views from both sides, and the rational middle went mostly unheard during the height of the protest.

Despite the important distinctions between Occupy Harvard and the broader Occupy movement, what happened in Harvard Yard may be a microcosmic representation of what could happen to the Occupy protests on the whole.  The disorganized, amorphous form of Occupy Wall Street and other affiliated protests has alienated many Americans and threatens to delegitimize the movement’s ideals.  If the movement does not delve deeper into substantive policy recommendations, the American people will be increasingly hard pressed to take it seriously.  I fear the further radicalization of American politics on the order of what happened at Harvard, where an intelligent debate descended into perverse personal attacks.  I fear the departure of the rational middle – or what’s left of it – from a public discourse that has the potential to descend into barbarism.

If it can happen in a group of intelligent college students on a busy school night, it can happen anywhere.

Note: I just revisited the protests to find a group of students sitting around tents in the Yard discussing the future in an intelligent and civil (and quiet) way.  I have hope that, despite what I saw earlier, the protest has a chance to succeed.  If it can bring people together to speak their minds, then I’m all for it.  But if it continues to instigate fits of rage on both sides, as I saw earlier, I don’t see much success coming from it.

Photo Credit: Ralph Lopez, Daily Kos

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