Occupy Harvard puts ironic spin on protest against the elite

Pitching protest in Harvard Yard means hoi polloi aren't admitted after dark

The leaderless, hyper-local, democracy-by-consensus approach of the Occupy movement means the makeup, attitudes and behavior of those Occupying Wall Street is far different from those Occupying Oakland, or Occupying Boston, let alone Occupying Albuquerque.

The differences aren't purposeful. They depend entirely on the perceptions and decisions of those making up each local movement.

OccupyHarvard, for example, is much different in character than other Occupations because it was organized and comprised first of students at Harvard.

Orgnizers make clear the whole Occupation is open to non-Harvard students, non-students and anyone else who would like to join either the protest or the discussions.

There is still something distinctly Harvard crimson about it, though.

In most places organizers have to struggle to find space for tents and people and are often in constant negotiations with city officials about where they can camp, in what numbers and under what conditions.

The most violent confrontations at both OccupyOakland and OccupyBoston were set off largely, if not entirely, by efforts by the police to move or limit the public space being Occupied.

During the Movement's birth in New York, the Occupy Wall Street crowd were almost driven from the streets the first few nights by crews of New York's Finest charged with making sure no one set up camp in public parks, squares or other spaces.

Occupiers had to break up into smaller groups – often nano-marches of one or two rebels that could pass as pedestrians – Occupying individual streetcorners, park benches or other mini refuges.

Even in privately owned Zucotti Park, where the Occupation quickly settled because its non-public status limited the protest-herding efforts of the city. Occupiers still face periodic tent pogroms by police sent to make sure the tarps and blankets covering what equipment the Occupiers use aren't clandestine, illegal artificial shelters they can sleep in at night.

By contrast, OccupyHarvard have centered the protest in Harvard Yard – the grassy, traffic-free oasis in the center of urban Cambridge that is the symbolic heart of Harvard, though not the logistical center of a university that has metastasized into real-estate holdings and campuses throughout Cambridge and Boston.

The nation's oldest, richest university didn't make it easy for the Occupation to get in to Harvard, however.

Beautiful by day, barrier by night

The brick walls and ironwork gates that are picturesque architecture during the day are locked barriers after 7 p.m. – guarded by Harvard Police who allow entry only to those with valid Harvard IDs.

When OccupyHarvard tried to hold a General Assembly meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday– as other OWS groups do nearly every day, usually at 7 p.m., to discuss everything from trash disposal to the philosophy of civil disobedience – many of the 350 trying to attend didn't qualify, according to a story in the student-run newspaper the Harvard Crimson.

So organizers moved the protest to the campus of Harvard Law School a few blocks away, chanting “Out of your rooms and into the Yard,” as they marched past the Freshman dorms along the way.

“I think it’s absurd. Do we really need eight guards per gate?” according to Harvard junior Nicandro G. L. Iannacci, who has been part of other Occupations. “The idea that the only people allowed here to have this conversation are members of the Harvard community, specifically, is wrong. Why not welcome more people in?”

Later, meeting finished, protesters marched back to the Yard to set up the tent city they had planned earlier in the day but had not built, only to find that even those with valid IDs weren't allowed in.

Harvard Police and hired security wouldn't let through even students waving IDs

Tempest in a very expensive teapot

Protesters tried other gates. They tried shortcuts through libraries and other buildings. Every entrance was guarded, though some gates opened for some residents, some of the time.

“I think it’s a little ridiculous," according to Leonie A. Oostrom, who lives on the Yard and was trying to get home, not participating in the protest. "I think it’s almost dangerous to have the gates closed."

Protesters wanting to set up their tent city and students trying to get back to their dorm rooms circled the walls like Vandals at a siege "for hours" before guards began letting more students through, according to the Crimson.

Around 10:30 a group of 120 or so protesters – mostly Harvard students – who had slipped through or been allowed in – converged on the iconic statue of John Harvard in the center of the Yard, some linking arms in a circle, to protect others who began pitching tents.

Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson flew out to try to talk Occupiers into pitching camp in a less conspicuous corner of the Yard, away from Harvard's statue. She was shouted down, but organizers did agree to shift camp away from the statue but still in a prominent area in front of University Hall.

The whole thing was a tempest in a teapot compared to the riots in New York and Oakland, but one the protesters took just as seriously.

"I’m here because I think this is one of the most important social uprisings in modern American history," Occupy Harvard protester and Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy told the 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."

Occupy Harvard is more specific in its demands than other Occupations, which oppose policies that encourage wide divergence in income, increasing financial pressure on the middle class and exploitation of the poor.

Members of the group oppose the "corporatization of higher education," the "unjust" range in salaries between the lowest-paid Harvard employees and the highest, who make 180 times as much. They don't like Harvard's investment policies, tendency to outsource jobs to save money and crushing debt many graduating students take with them.

They also oppose "legacies," children of Harvard graduates who are given a better chance of admission than those without a Harvard pedigree. They don't say how many of them qualified.

They also don't say how they believe standing up for higher wages for Harvard employees (which has become a traditional student-protest cause at Harvard) addresses the fundamental restructuring of the U.S. economy most other Occupy groups demand.

Their demands focus on a social perspective as bounded by college life as Harvard Yard is by its wall.

Even their difficulties building a public protest site in a well-guarded gated community makes their rhetoric sound hollow and their protest ironic.

There is no shortage of pieces making fun of both in today's news.

Plant a seed where it's likely to grow

The demands may be narrow but they focus on decisions that can be affected by pressure on those who work or live right where the protesters sit. That's why Occupy Wall Street occupied Wall Street rather than Times Square.

And they do have a point that ideas implanted at Harvard tend to grow into decisions among the "1%" economic elite at whom the Occupy movement takes aim.

"Economic lectures have a way of becoming economic policies in Washington," according to Occupation organizer Benjamin L. Beachy, a student at Harvard's Kennedy School. "Before the economic crisis, Harvard professors taught the inefficiency of financial regulation and the manifest rationality of investors."

Like the tech industry, Harvard is a bounded world filled with people who are very smart, very ambitious and who have their hands on the tools that will make a big difference in the way individual lives, businesses and the economy overall will change during the next decade.

A micro protest in a haven of the over privileged won't have much immediate effect. It may not change any minds in the long term, either.

But big change has to start small somewhere, even if it's only a change of mind.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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