Two nights ago, a group of Harvard students set up camp on the soggy ground in front of University Hall, staging an “Occupy” demonstration that has effectively shut down access to Harvard Yard for thousands of local residents, tourists, and at least one mildly amused alumnus.
To keep non-Harvard activists out, the administration has locked the gates to the Yard, posting Harvard University Police Department officers at the few open entrances. Only those showing current Harvard ID may enter. A shadow has fallen on one of America’s most picturesque campuses–on a crisp fall day when bright New England fall colors burst forth from every branch, no less.
The students’ demands are unclear, beyond urging the university to be mindful of its “perceived complicity in growing income inequality across the country.” (Given the rapid increase in economic inequality under Harvard Law graduate Barack H. Obama ’91, that might not be such a bad idea.)
Regardless, there is something rather pathetic about a spectacle in which 1% of students from across the nation and around the world, having declined to join 99% of their high school classmates in community college, unemployment lines, or Yale, now claim to speak for that downtrodden majority.
The students are being led–not surprisingly–by a professor at the Kennedy School of Government, Timothy P. McCarthy, whose stirring oration was quoted by the Harvard Crimson:
“If Harvard is going to be a place that produces people with power, then Harvard must be an institution where the public good is more important than private profit,” McCarthy said. Earlier, he told a crowd that “Harvard has economists that teach us that profits are more important than people.”
The Occupy protest is not the first time Harvard students have set up camp in the Yard, nor the first time they have attempted to occupy university property.
In the 1980s, Harvard students erected a shantytown in the Yard to protest the university’s reluctance to divest from apartheid South Africa. (Ironically, post-apartheid South Africa has even more shantytowns–the result of rural poverty, urbanization, and slow economic growth rather than racial discrimination.)
In 1969, during protests against the Vietnam War, a radical splinter group from Students for a Democratic Society occupied University Hall itself, defying a vote that the Harvard SDS chapter had taken the night before not to occupy the building. After police removed the students in a bloody raid, opinion rapidly swung against the administration. One eventual result was the removal of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) from campus–a move that was only reversed this year by Harvard president Drew G. Faust.
Both of those earlier protests were controversial, divisive, and disruptive.
Yet what each of those previous demonstrations had, and which Occupy Harvard lacks, was a point.