Harvard — November 10, 2011 10:49 am

The Unintended Consequences of Occupy Harvard


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

  • Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington

    Great article, but I wish you had moved beyond the assumption that the protesters actually wanted the gates to be locked. The decision to lock them, and certainly to continue this into today, is an overreaction on HUPD’s part. There were a few radical activists who had come in from outside and wanted us to consider civil disobedience and attacking property, but we voted them down, and they are now gone. The yard remains closed not to satisfy Occupy Harvard, but against Occupy Harvard’s wishes – I would have expected this to lead to alienation from and anger at the administration, not the protesters.

  • Confused

    Wait, aren’t they protesting land grabs in AFRICA not Allston? (http://www.occupyboston.org/2011/11/10/occupy-harvard-press-release/) by HMC?

    ….I’m pretty sure I’m right, and if I am, then this is a pretty poorly researched article.

    If I’m wrong, my apologies.

  • JK

    If they hadn’t been loud or hadn’t (indirectly) inconvenienced you by causing the university to close the gates, would you have paid them any attention? Written this article? A protest which didn’t disrupt anything also wouldn’t get any message across.

    Something Tim McCarthy said (I think it was quoted in the Crimson) was that if Harvard’s going to educate an elite, it has to impress the importance of public-spiritedness. In that light, I’m sorry that protests about income inequality made it hard for you to get ink for your printer.

  • anti-terrorism

    saying locking of the gates is not occupy’s fault is like saying additional security after 9/11 is not the terrorists’ fault.

    terrorists went after the top 1% country in the world while occupy people are going after the top 1% in the U.S.

  • Guest

    Great article! Well articulated and cognizant of both sides of the issue. Well done!

  • Pan Angelopoulos

    Well done on calling out the student reactionaries, but don’t push the “rational middle” stuff. In these times to be in the middle is not rational, you have to decide, which side are you on? Now, granted, the real left in this country has been on its back for decades, what’s left of it at least, but you can’t deny that this crisis is radicalizing people, and up until now the right has been able to take advantage of this (as history proves, scared and threatened people turn to reaction, not progress). But to say that most people are being alienated by OWS because it is radicalizing is just not true. Just because “rational” Harvard students can’t imagine anything outside the system (or outside the Democratic Party for that matter), it doesn’t mean working people can’t. And to be honest, I’m not at all concerned if we alienated Harvard students, because those lackeys who were chanting for the 1% were never going to join us anyway. They are our enemies, and we will do what is necessary. One union or one community group on our side is worth more than the entire Harvard population, and if you’re asking us to back down to appease those who this movement is directed against, we’re not going to. Its people like this who in France in May 68 were calling for law and order, who in England a few months back were complaining about their classes being disrupted when thousands were confronting the right-wing government outside Parliament, and who in Chile today are denying their fellow students the right to a free education. And as you know very well Daniel, people like this (whether they call themselves liberal or conservative, lets not behind labels right now, you;re either with the people or against them) are in the majority at Harvard, and that isn’t going to change. I’d rather we take them on sooner rather than later.

  • Stanton

    boring pseudo-centrist piece recycles all the tropes of the corporate media: criticizes “chaos and decentralization” and “unfocused messaging”; criticizes clearly successful Occupy tactics while attempting to strike a false tone of sympathy in a condescending way; criticizes the dumb reactionary elements on the path to defending one of the most elitist and corrupt institutions–and yes, student bodies–in history. Yep, keep it up and the NYT will be knocking on your door pretty soon…

    Good work, lemming.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/spaceoccupants Space Occupants

    “Occupy Harvard” is a bit of a misnomer, as virtually no one is actually on site — for example, on Monday morning, only Day 5 of the occupation, photographers and cops outnumbered the occupiers by 3 to 1:

    Apparently a similar situation exists even at Zuccotti Park:

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