In an exclusive published here on December 14, I reported that at their December 12 “General Assembly” meeting the space occupants of Harvard Yard, in a near-total capitulation to the requests of the Harvard administration, “consensed” (their term for an affirmative vote of 75% of those present at a particular meeting) on a resolution to end the encampment by taking down all of their tents by December 20 — by which time, conveniently, almost all students will be gone over winter break so few will witness the camp’s dismantling.   The vote to launch this Operation “Deoccupy Harvard” was contingent, however, on approval at the next “General Assembly” meeting, on December 15, of “messaging” to explain that decision.

As I noted on December 12 (Para. 4, here) the actual “message” behind the decamping is not difficult to grasp.  “Occupy Harvard” was launched on November 9 by undergraduate student labor activists who were piggybacking on the nationwide “Occupy” movement as a tactic in their struggle with the Harvard administration, in the face of a November 15 deadline to finalize a new janitors’ contract.  Indeed, so involved was “Big Labor” that money donated by the SEIU was used to buy many of the tents (here).  On November 18, after these labor activists had helped the janitors win an acceptable contract, at the “General Assembly” meeting they pressed for a date certain for decamping, to ensure a dignified exit given that the number of people committed to actually occupying the site 24/7 was rapidly dwindling.

The alternative, these labor activists pointed out, was to sit by while people continued to quit the movement, with the encampment predictably fizzling out to almost nothing by the late December winter break.  Twice on November 18 a majority of the “General Assembly” voted to close down the camp sometime around Thanksgiving, but Harvard affiliates whose social concerns are much broader than labor activism, and who were determined to try to continue the occupation, blocked the measure from achieving the needed 75% consensus.  (For more details see here.)  Many of the labor activists then quit the movement (some before the meeting was even over).

Despite their best efforts the remaining members of “Occupy Harvard” were unable to attract enough new members to the movement to keep even one person at the site at all times. The “Occupy Harvard” site was repeatedly left vacant, not just in the early morning or late at night, but in the middle of the afternoon, as this December 7 video showed.   So the concerns pressed by the labor activists on November 18, but rejected by a determined minority, turned out to be exactly correct.

In making my various observations about the site repeatedly being left vacant, I mean no disrespect to the incredibly committed core of “Occupy Harvard” members, not much more than a dozen, who have attempted to continue the occupation for the past several weeks despite the enormous personal sacrifices this involved. That they proved unable to reinforce their ranks enough to continue a meaningful occupation is through no lack of effort on their part, and is due in part to the weather, the exam schedule, the gates being closed off to outsiders, and the low opinion many undergraduates have of “Occupy Harvard” due to its roots in what many view as radical labor activism.  If I had been among this core group I would be making the same decision they’re making and I would be proud of having managed to exert the effort required to maintain “Occupy Harvard” this long.

Rather, the continuing coverage in this blog is aimed at documenting for the record — whatever conclusions people might now or later draw from it — that apparently unique among prominent “Occupy” occupations, “Occupy Harvard” is the first occupation that will end not because the occupiers were forced out by authorities (the Harvard administration has made clear they’re free to stay as long as they wish) but because the occupiers concluded that they did not have enough support in their ranks to continue a meaningful occupation.

One conclusion that might be drawn from this, with potential implications beyond Harvard, is that the “Occupy” phenomenon is nothing like the “Tea Party” phenomenon in its present potential to have a meaningful impact on American society, because in contrast to the “Tea Party” very few people are willing to take concrete steps to advance its goals.  If 400 people — just 1/10th of 1% of the perhaps 40,000 Harvard i.d. holders with access to Harvard Yard — had been willing to help occupy the site, the occupation would have continued indefinitely.  “Occupy Harvard” fell far short of this.  Even at its peak, “Occupy Harvard” had at most 1/100th of 1% of the Harvard community within its ranks, only 40 people willing to meaningfully occupy the site.

What we’ve had at Harvard this past month is a social experiment to test the viability of the “Occupy” movement.  Even at Harvard, where one would expect “Occupy” to be at its strongest, “Occupy” failed.  Members of a movement that advocates for 99% of society sat in Harvard Yard, with its few members rotating in shifts in a courageous but futile effort to staff a 24/7 occupation, while 99.99% of those eligible to help occupy declined to do so.  “Occupy Harvard” didn’t come even close to succeeding.  To have real viability the “Occupy” movement would need to grow by an order of magnitude beyond its present level of support, so that it could count at least 1/10th of 1% of the Harvard community as active supporters.

Although I maintain, and indeed emphasize, that the real reason why “Occupy Harvard” will imminently decamp is that it was unable to sustain an encampment without the support of the labor activists who launched it, one certainly cannot blame the members who remain for deciding on how best to “message” their decision to decamp, at least as long as the message is not completely divorced from the facts on the ground, and as long as their decision is reached through the “deliberative democracy” model they embrace, in “General Assembly” meetings open to the public, and not secretly, in pre-meeting meetings (as has unfortunately been the case from time to time).

And “Occupy Harvard” did a good job of messaging in its final statement of the reasons for decamping approved in the December 15 “General Assembly” meeting and published the next day on the OccupyHarvard.net website (here). Understandably that message does not dwell on past problems but looks forward to “the next phase of its occupation, with a focus on moving beyond mere physical occupation to occupying the hearts and minds of those beyond the university’s walls.” Rather than dwelling on (or even mentioning) the removal of all the tents presently at the site, the statement focuses on how “Occupy Harvard will consolidate the footprint of its original encampment to a winterized geodesic dome — provided by Occupy supporters at MIT — serving as a hub of activity and growth for the movement.”  (It is my understanding that the word “winterized” was added at the last minute to flag the possibility that there might be sleeping in the dome in the winter, which may fuel concerns by Harvard administrators about a possible “Trojan Dome Tactic” to make the site the 24/7 home of “Occupy New England,” concerns that the movement members may need to belie in talks with the administration in order to get the gates reopened.)  The statement ends with a focus on several of the “successes” during the past month, at least some of which seem arguable.

After the release of its statement, “Occupy Harvard” has gotten mostly positive press about its move, setting aside a short piece by Lauren Landry on web-based BostInno.com which snarkly — but concisely and accurately — summarizes the story as follows:  “The tents in Harvard Yard are coming down. Occupy Harvard is declaring victory and packing up.”

For example, this article in the December 16 Harvard Crimson stating that members of the movement insist “that the agreement to get rid of the tents was not due to administrative pressure” but instead due to the “impending winter weather and the inconvenience many people said they have experienced as a result of the closed gates,”and noting:  “Over winter break, an undetermined number of Occupy Harvard supporters will stay in the area to guard the remaining supplies and staff the information desk in the Yard.”  Somewhat negatively, however, the article points to vagueness on plans for the site going forward:  “What protestors will exactly do with the dome remains unclear, but they have tossed around several ideas, including using it as a movement hub, a space for an information desk or even as a place to sleep. “

Also quite positive is this article in the December 17 Boston Globe, which summarized the move as follows:  “Calling it a transition, not a retrenchment, the student occupiers said they would remove the 20 sleeping tents that form the bulk of the camp but maintain a continual presence at the geodesic dome erected at its center, even through winter break.”

A longer, more nuanced, article by Eric Moskowitz appears in today’s Boston Globe (here).  In one of the few media accounts to note that “Occupy Harvard” has nothing like the sustained level of occupation which was continuously maintained at other “Occupy” sites until they were shut down, Moskowitz observes:

“A handful of occupiers sleep in some of the camping tents every night, and they also keep an information tent continually staffed, but the network of students and employees comprising the movement float in and out around classes, work, and exams.”

Obviously, as this blog has documented in detail, that observation is factually correct — indeed, at times the “occupation” has been so thin in staffing that the site has been left vacant, even in the middle of the afternoon.  Yet despite these obvious facts on the ground, today I noticed that on December 16 the “Occupy Harvard” twitter feed asserted (here) that “we’ve had about 20-25 people out there every night,” in response to a tweet by Cambridge resident Andy Mills (here) that the tents have “been empty every time I’ve walked by the yard and speaking with Harvard employees apparently they usually are.”  In response, Mills included links to internet resources (including this blog) documenting vacancies at the site (here).

It’s been awhile since I stopped by the site to see if anyone’s around.  Given the recent “Occupy Harvard” tweet claiming that at least 20 people are maintaining the encampment and its discrepancy with today’s Boston Globe, I think I ought to visit again to get another head count on the site.  I’ll try to report on that later today.

–“Major Tom”

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