Saturday, May 18, 2024

Occupy Harvard holds a general assembly late Wednesday on the Harvard University law school quad. (Photo: Jason Pramas, Open Media Boston, CC-BY-NC-SA 2011)

A sign at the Occupy Harvard protest Wednesday presents a challenge to the 375-year-old elite Cambridge university. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Before Harvard police relented late Wednesday and unlocked the gates to Harvard Yard, the day’s Occupy Harvard protest proved one thing you don’t need a Harvard diploma to know: 1 percent and 99 percent are each endlessly indivisible.

Occupy Boston and its protest for economic justice for the lower-income 99 percent of the United States has been camped out and marching through Downtown Crossing since Sept. 30, but a Harvard branch of the movement began only Nov. 2 as a walkout of an economics class and took more physical form Wednesday afternoon.

By early Thursday, several tents were up near the famous statue of a seated John Harvard, with figures going as high as 20 tents (and one person tweeting that Harvard Dean Suzy Nelson was asking campers to relocate) after a large-scale general assembly — indications there would be an enduring Occupy Harvard movement. Later that day, Harvard Yard remained open only to those with Harvard ID; the tents inside were occupied only by members of the Harvard community.

The restrictions to Harvard Yard are in place indefinitely, security staffers said.

The earlier stages of the Cambridge movement had looked less promising, and more divided. While a few dozen protesters held a far smaller general assembly late Wednesday while locked outside university gates on Massachusetts Avenue, ultimately deciding to march around the campus, there were students inside eager to taunt and argue with them — for very different purposes.

“What 99 percent? What are you talking about? We have people from every socioeconomic class at Harvard,” screamed an impassioned black, female student through sealed wrought-iron gates as  protesters passed by, chanting. (A young protester called back to her, “Why are you so angry?”)

The white male students next to her were having a much better time, yelling, sometimes through a megaphone, “One percent!” and “Har-vard-I-D!” and “Get a GPA!” and even a slightly less inflammatory “We worked hard to get here!” Then they ran across campus to catch the marchers on the other side, yelling similar things.

Student project

They may not have known that Occupy Harvard was begun in early November by Harvard students, and that the protesters outside in Harvard Square — who were themselves nearly surrounded by a couple of dozen largely amused Cambridge Police officers earning mandatory overtime — included some outside activists but also many from the 375-year-old institution who were opposed to its treatment of workers, investment policies or approach to teaching economics, since Harvard-educated economists are likely to someday run the country (and have already).

But as the marchers reached the opposite side of the Harvard Square campus, on the Broadway and Cambridge Street overpass across from the Science Center, they met an even larger group who did seem to know there were Harvard students at the heart of the protest and were still upset. That group, some hundred strong, were students who wanted back into the yard and access to their dorms, but found themselves locked out since about 6 p.m.

“I understand what they’re protesting, but they chose to go here,” said one student waiting to be let in.

“We want to get into our dorm rooms!” another student yelled at the passing protesters.

“Boo hoo,” one yelled back.

Later, a Twitter account identified as belonging to Ben Rasmussen, a Wisconsin native playing defensive end for Harvard’s football team, was used to utter a line sure to be disappointing to those earnestly trying to fight for social justice:

“By the way, thanks, Occupy Harvard. I appreciate the 30 minutes you stole from my life while I was locked out of the yard.”

Locking the gates

Interestingly, the decision to lock the gates — which Cambridge Police Lt. Dan Wagner confirmed was “definitely not made by Cambridge Police” — was blamed solely on the protesters, not on Harvard, its police department or members of the Securitas private security staff who stood just inside the gates.

When the gates were opened at 11:08 p.m. for those with Harvard ID, with no guests allowed, the students flowed inside, with some thanking and even hugging the HUPD officers as they passed.

“So selfish,” one said, referring to the relative handful of protesters who’d inspired the lockdown.

A Harvard police spokesman didn’t return a message left late Wednesday, and there was no statement posted to explain why the gates were locked or why there was no access for those with Harvard ID for some five hours. Typically gates are locked, with access only to those with ID and  possibly a guest, during times of high traffic in the square, such as during the annual Head of the Charles Regatta. Even recent protests about Harvard policies haven’t drawn such a response — possibly because the Occupy movement seems more like Vietnam-era activism, when in April 1969 only 30 students “entered University Hall and ejected all administrators and staff from the building ‘under duress,’ as one participant described it,” according to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities site “Students picked up and carried one dean outside — a scene pictured on the front page of national newspapers and an action for which the students were later severely disciplined.”

As the site says:

As word of the takeover spread, students and faculty gathered outside. Meanwhile, inside, the students chained the doors shut, raised the red and black [Students for a Democratic Society] flag outside, and began an intense debate about what to do next.

To “minimize the risk of any spread of further violence,” officials closed off Harvard Yard, except for one gate through which ID-carrying freshmen could return to their dormitories. President [Nathan Marsh] Pusey dismissed the student demands out of hand. Various points were being or would be considered by appropriate committees, he said, and the rest had “no basis in fact.” Despite administration threats that students would be arrested for trespassing, the number of protesters grew; by nightfall, The Boston Globe estimated that there were 500 inside … The students had vowed non-violent resistance to any attempt to remove them; they formed a human chain across the doorway. Armed with billy clubs and mace, 400 police officers arrested more than 100 protesters.

… The campus was almost universally opposed to the administration’s actions, and a boycott of classes began. On April 14, 10,000 to 12,000 people attended a four-hour meeting at the Harvard Stadium. Six thousand remained by the time the voting began. A series of votes was taken and a motion to continue the strike for another three days finally carried. On the 17th, a smaller crowd of 5,000 attended a second mass meeting at the stadium. They voted by a margin of more than two to one to suspend the strike. The University Hall takeover and the strike that followed produced changes not only in the university’s policy toward ROTC but in its governance, curriculum, and community relations as well.

There was also a 21-day student occupation of Massachusetts Hall in 2001 over employee wage issues. But even the SDS actions were hardly the first Harvard protest. The site notes the first: “The first major demonstration occurred two centuries earlier in 1766 when students staged The ‘Butter Protest,’ with the rallying cry ‘Behold, our butter stinketh!’ The college responded by expelling 155 students.”