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‘99 percent’ occupy Harvard Yard

Published: December 2, 2011
Section: Featured, Front Page


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For three weeks, Harvard students have inhabited tents, occupying their campus not only in solidarity with other protests around the country, but also to demand changes to their own university, which is one of the ivy-covered institutions that have historically educated the children of the top 1 percent or less. Protesters have, however, been placed under intense scrutiny by the university, removing the public element from the protests and requiring a Harvard ID to enter the campus, which has always been open to the community.

“They’re keeping the community out,” said Gargo Chatterji, a Harvard protester, “which is unfortunate, because we should have the greatest possible dialogue between Harvard and the community at this point.”

The university claims that the heightened security is meant to keep the first-years, whose dorms edge the occupied yard, safe. In a published response, the occupiers said, “The decision to only grant entry to Harvard ID holders has reinforced the institutional exclusivity and elitism that Occupy Harvard seeks to change.”

Summer Shafer, a Harvard graduate student and Occupy Harvard organizer, explained: “Legally, they’re worried about vagrancy, which was a big problem with Occupy Boston. We’ve had other occupations before, and they’ve never closed the gates. By keeping the gates closed, it keeps the opinion of the movement negative.”

Ironically, the security personnel keeping non-Harvard students out are those whom the movement initially supported. The custodial staff and Securitas security officers were part of the union for which the students had occupied, in solidarity with the union during contract negotiations. There is, though, little animosity between security and the protesters, who understand “they’re working people pressed for wage, part of the whole issue we’re fighting,” Chatterji said.

Security personnel, checking IDs at the gate, declined to comment.

The protests began in order to assist the janitorial staff in achieving better pay and working conditions, and when custodial staff and supporters were locked out of the first general assembly, according to Shafer, students began to discuss how to get into the yard and put up tents. Since then, “Occupy spread and connected out with the ideas of limited demands, in the other movements.”

They have expanded their list of demands to include greater investment transparency, and that Harvard discontinue its investment in HEI Hotels and Resorts, which has come under fire for maltreatment of labor, and Emergent Asset Management, which is criticized for its practices, Shafer said, “buying land in Africa, displacing the local populations, and using it for agricultural export or development.”

“We don’t want our university to be a part of displacing people. That’s not what Harvard should be about,” Shafer continued. Protesters think Harvard, as one of the leading universities in the country, she said, “should use its position to communicate with Washington,” to address the inequalities of the country.

They aim to disintegrate the legacy system at the university, as well as to increase debt relief and financial aid for students in need, and ultimately to create a “University for the 99 percent,” according to the movement’s website. They plan to meet with the student newspaper The Crimson to publish a definite list of demands, which has raised skepticism from some protesters, who feel that concrete demands could hurt the movement.

Many feel the occupation of Harvard by its students is hypocritical and according to Sneha Walia ’15, “Even if they’re not in the 1 percent, they’re at Harvard, they’re going to be.”

Others, like Flora Wang ’15, bemoan Occupy Harvard’s futility: “I don’t see the purpose, the space they chose to occupy is their own. It doesn’t really make that much of an impact.”

The Occupiers, however, say their efforts would be far less futile if the university would open the gates and allow sympathizers and press onto the campus.