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Dispatches from Dewey (er, Harvard) Square: Harvard shuts its gates on the 99 percent

Posted by Alex Pearlman  November 10, 2011 10:15 AM

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occupyharvardpolicestudentspeaking.jpgBy Max Chalkin

If you happened to be passing through Harvard Square last night, you may have witnessed the confusing events taking place outside Harvard Yard. Occupy Harvard, a nascent organization formed in solidarity with the Occupy movement, had scheduled a 7 p.m. rally, to be followed by an 8 p.m. General Assembly. Their plan was to pitch tents and occupy Harvard Yard by the end of the evening.

“There’s no better symbol of privilege and inequality in the United States than Harvard University," said Rudy, a Harvard student who stood with the protesters. “The university is beholden to wealthy donors. If Drew Faust is going to our next fundraising event, she’s not going to be talking to the 99 percent about raising funds for the school; she’s talking to the 1 percent.”

By 7:15 p.m., it became clear there was a hitch in the plan: Harvard police and security guards shouted, “Only Harvard students may enter the Yard!” and “No ID, no entrance!” As the rally continued to grow larger and louder, the police stood their ground, although some Harvard students with the group got inside. At 7:30 p.m., organizers began directing people up Mass Ave. to the Harvard Law School campus. Protesters carrying signs declaring, “We want a university for the 99%,” marched in the streets, blocking traffic; Cambridge police followed closely. The plan to hold an 8 p.m. GA was still intact, but the location had changed: Now, it would be on the Law School quad.

But when the floor opened up to proposals, it became clear very quickly that Occupy Harvard did not want to be on the Law School quad -- it wanted to be occupying Harvard Yard. And so, by 8:55 p.m., a resounding decision was made to take another attempt at the Yard. Protesters shouting, “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” defiantly marched from the Law School campus, across Cambridge Street, and towards Meyer Gate. The gate was open, and it looked like access to the Yard was assured. As they proceeded towards the entrance, protesters chanted, “Whose yard? Our yard! Whose yard? Our yard!”

“The administration is historically against allowing students to occupy the Yard," said a female student who declined to give her name. "They’ve always been against it because it brings bad press.  It’s just frowned upon by the administration.”

Suddenly, burly Harvard policemen swept in and began drawing the gates closed. Protesters pushed forward, scrunching their bodies together and pressing against the iron bars. Chaos ensued as the police tried to close and lock the gate while the protesters tried to gain entrance. When the former succeeded, the latter snaked their way through Harvard Square and down Mass Ave. to Widener Gate -- also closed. It was 9:30 p.m., and the crowd, now sitting on the sidewalk, had grown into the hundreds and was completely surrounded by police. The crowd continued to swell as protesters made proposals: some wanted to scale the gates; others wanted to shut down Mass Ave. until they were allowed entrance to Harvard Yard; and still others wanted to march around the yard until they were let in.

News of the night’s events spread inside the campus and trickled back out, via text message and Twitter. Students who were sympathetic to the movement started pitching tents that had been previously hidden in Harvard Yard. At 10:20 p.m., a proposal was adopted to break into two groups -- those with Harvard IDs and those without them. Protesters with IDs would try to enter to the Yard and join the students inside, while protesters without IDs would march around the perimeter.

Within the next hour, tweets from @occupy_harvard confirmed that the number of tents in Harvard Yard was rising. One tweet reported nine. Within a few minutes, another said there were “a score,” and then a third reported 20 tents. Harvard students inside the fence -- the sympathetic, the curious, and the completely outraged -- began trailing the protesters outside the fence. Some began chants of “1 per-cent!  1 per-cent!” and others began heckling the protesters.

“Harvard students are divided on occupying the Yard," said Andrew, another Harvard student. "Most are willing to talk about it, and once you engage them in a discussion on why we want to occupy Harvard, they are definitely willing to talk about it."

One particularly poignant moment occurred when student protesters from Bunker Hill Community College and Harvard students engaged in a peaceful but heated debate through the wrought iron fence, sparring over educational opportunities and student loans. Before being separated by security guards, a couple of them reached through the iron bars for a handshake.

The march around the periphery continued until about 11:30 p.m., when the crowd finally dispersed and tents in Harvard Yard were staked. Until midnight, frustrated Harvard students with IDs could be found loitering around locked gates, awaiting entrance to their dorms. “It’s kind of ridiculous," said one Harvard freshman. "It’s a Wednesday night, we have a lot of work to do, and we need a place to sleep, and here we are, locked out.”

“Do you even know what they’re protesting? What did we do? Doesn’t Harvard have the most financial aid in the country?” he asked a friend standing next to him.

“Whatever they are protesting, it’s not cool that they’re keeping students out," the friend answered.

“[Harvard Yard] may not be a public space, but it’s a communal space, it’s a common space. It’s the center of this community," said Joshua Eaton, a Harvard alum, current school employee, and Occupy Harvard organizer. “I mean, keep in mind: This is a space where, once a semester, at midnight on the day that exams begin, there is a big event where a bunch of undergrads come and run naked around the yard....So this isn’t just about rowdy conduct in Harvard Yard. This isn’t about large groups of people late at night, doing things in Harvard Yard. This is about politics.”

At least for the time being, the politics of the protesters trumped those of the
university, and Occupy Harvard got what it came for: an occupation in Harvard Yard. They will hold their second GA there tonight at 5 p.m.

Photos by Courtney Sacco. Video footage courtesy of TNGG.

Max Chalkin is spending time "in the trenches" at Occupy Boston, speaking with occupiers, attending general assemblies and marches, and learning what camp life is like. His thoughts and observations will be published twice each week as TNGG Boston's “Dispatches from Dewey Square” series.

About Max -- Max Chalkin is a recent graduate of Tufts University and is currently working in biotech marketing. His interests include entrepreneurship, technology, politics, food, and nightlife. He is an avid photographer, cook, and scuba diver.

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