Sign from Occupy Harvard (Photo: WBUR, Public Radio)

Earlier this week, a few dozen students and others from the Harvard University community began an Occupation in Harvard Yard, setting up tents on the lawn inside the University’s main yard and remaining there.  University officials did not move to expel the occupants, but they immediately closed the gates to Harvard Yard, allowing only persons with Harvard IDs to enter that area of the campus.

The “Yard” is a large square several blocks on each side and is completely enclosed by a tall, spiked iron fence.  The closing meant that Harvard University police are now stationed 24/7 at each of the Gates,  and no one is allowed to enter without an ID.  This severely limited the size of the encampment to about 60 people or so, hampering its ability to gather strength from outside the Yard.  Nevertheless, the encampment remains, and tonight they held their 3rd General Assembly (GA).  It was an unusual event even for a GA.

The Harvard area of Cambridge is the heart of a vibrant university and professional community stretched out along the Red Line “T” –  one of the main Metro subway lines serving the Boston region.  Towards one end is Tufts University, then Harvard, then M.I.T.  The Red Line then crosses the Charles River into Boston. You can transfer to other T’s heading to Boston University, Boston College and many smaller colleges, or continue on to the University of Massachusetts.

Boston is also a huge labor town.  So this is a region where one might expect a lot of support for the Occupy movement.  And sure enough, a main Red Line T stop in downtown Boston is South Station, a major transportation hub for Amtrak, commuter rail, buses and the T.  Right across the street is Occupy Boston, where occupiers and many unions held a labor rally in support of Verizon workers a few weeks ago.   So despite Harvard officials sealing off Harvard Yard to the public, there are many occupy sympathizers in the region who simply can’t get into the Yard, because they’re not Harvard students, faculty or employees.

One problem this creates for Harvard Occupy’s GA is how to connect those inside the Yard with supporters outside.  It’s easy.  They held the GA at one of the main iron gates and used a dual mic check, with repeaters on each side of the huge gate relaying the speeches.  I’d estimate there were at least 60 occupants inside the Yard at the GA and about 45-50 just outside the tall Johnston Gate, with the two groups facing each other across the iron bars and repeating each other’s statements.

Tonight’s GA began about 5:15 and included two special guest speakers.  It started with those inside educating those outside on the mic check communication rules and hand signals.  When both sides got that, they introduced two of the more prominent members of the Egyptian uprising — Ahmed Maher and a woman named Esraa, who described their Cairo and other Arab Spring experiences and answered questions. Ahmed was introduced as “the Che of Egypt.”   What follows is a very rough summary from my notes — not exact quotes — from their statements.

Ahmed Maher introduced himself as one of the the participants from the April 6 movement, which he described as starting from “youth like you” who had hopes for democracy, equality, free speech, and social justice and were united in their “struggle against a corrupt regime.”  During their struggle, they were helped and inspired by youth from many countries, and “we learned from each other.”   There were many experiences and beliefs, but they found “we had common interests.”

The most important thing, he told the Harvard occupants, was to believe that change is possible, that you can create it.  “Believe in the fact you have common interests, and believe in yourselves,” he said. “I’m proud to be here with you,” he added, to the waving hand/finger signs of approval.

Esraa is a prominent activists in her own right.  She told the occupants, “we are here to express solidarity with you and with those like you in other countries.”  All of us, she said, “will be as one hand; united we are one.”

Their opening statements were followed by a short Q & A session, with questions alternating between the occupants on the inside and supporters on the outside.   Here’s a sampling:

Q.  Many students at Harvard don’t support us or disagree.  What should we do to get more support?

Ahmed:  We had the same problems in Egypt.  The issue is learning how to talk to people.  Find a new language, use cartoons, try different methods, search it out.  But remember, it’s the people who create the real changes, not the elites.

Q.  What is the next step to get more support?

Ahmed:  It’s important to define your common goals and interests; you have to arrive at a clear vision of what you want.  Without that, it’s very difficult.  But believe in yourselves, that you can make change.  Also, create a “schedule.”  [agenda?].  Then use it to put pressure on government and pressure on those responsible.  Constant pressure.

Q.  What do you think about the importance of WikiLeaks and people like Bradley Manning?  [At this point, I peaked through the bars to see who asked that question; the voice was familiar for a good reason: it was David House on the inside.  David, with Jane Hamsher's help, had visited his friend Bradley Manning while Manning was imprisoned at Quantico.]

Ahmed:  WikiLeaks was very important in Egypt’s uprising; it gave us evidence about the corruption and crimes of the regime.  It helped us demand transparency from our government.

Q.  Were you surprised to discover that America is not always the model for democracy from its image?

Ahmed:  No.  We knew that the American government supported our corrupt regime; so we had to search for real democracy.  We believed we could create it, if we “made pressure.”

Esraa:  Not all of us believed that American democracy was ideal.  We believed there were limits, and the US government did not represent the ideal.

Q.  How do you decide when/whether violence is needed versus non violence?

Ahmed:  There are many forms of non-violence and civil disobedience.  There’s a lot of history, experience with them.  We learned from Ghandi, from Martin Luther King, from South Africa.   And we watched movies, about Seattle, but we also saw V for Vendetta.

After this Q & A, Ahmed and Esraa wished the occupiers well to cheers on both sides.  The GA then continued with other business, including reports from various working groups.

I spoke for a while before the event with several Harvard students, some opposed, some skeptical, some very supportive.  Some had come to cover the event for student organizations and media.  The skeptics questioned whether Harvard is the appropriate target for an occupation; after all, they say, Harvard does a lot in the local community. The supporters responded that even though most of them see themselves as “middle class” or at least part of the 99 percent, they see Harvard as strongly oriented towards protecting large corporations, which they identify with the 1 percent, and it was important to pressure the University to change that orientation.

Has the occupation changed the conversation on campus?  Yes, they all agreed.  “Everyone’s talking about it,” even if most don’t support it now.  By this time, ten students had gathered around to voice their views and others leaned in to listen.

For more on Occupy Harvard, including pictures, see these links.

Occupy Harvard tumblr

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