May 3, 2001

A Life Of Its Own - Harvard Sit-In, Now In Day 16, Goes Far Beyond Protestors' Expectations

By JOANNA WEISS, The Boston Globe

A few hours, that's how long they figured the sit-in would last. Or, at the most, a few days. Then they'd surely be arrested and dragged from Massachusetts Hall. They'd draw attention to the living wage, make Harvard look momentarily bad, and feel they had accomplished something big.

But here they are, 16 days into the sit-in, and the Harvard Corp.'s unair-conditioned offices are smelling increasingly funky. As they look out the windows at a Harvard Yard plastered with banners and signs, the student protesters are as surprised as anyone at what this has become.

"We thought it was going to be short and sweet," marveled graduate student Maple Razsa, 29, his curly hair growing a bit out of control. It seems long ago, that afternoon when about 50 of them silently stormed the building, secured the bathroom - very key - and linked arms to block the police. "It was so exhilarating," he said. "We almost couldn't believe it."

So it's harder still to believe all of this, Harvard Yard looking like a cross between a campground and a police state, with nearly 80 tents dotting the greens and university police stationed all over. Senators drop by, national labor leaders turn up for rallies, Rage Against the Machine sends a letter of support, and emboldened Harvard workers come out and speak in public for the first time. The 30-some remaining kids in the hall feel responsible for it all.

They also feel a little overwhelmed because this standoff seems increasingly hard to resolve. When a protest grows so impossibly large, and draws such unexpected support, how on earth is it expected to end?

"The momentum is building here," said Ian Simmons, 25, whose blond hair, over two weeks without benefit of a shower, has gotten cowlicky and vertical.

"I think we're changing the definition of sit-ins," said Harvard junior Lara Jirmanus, hanging out the same window moments later.

Regardless of whether that's true, the proposed $10.25-per-hour minimum salary for Harvard workers has become an unlikely rallying cry in the university and outside it. Yesterday the Cambridge mayor and city councilors led a march of sympathizers from Cambridge City Hall to Harvard Yard. Last night, the Harvard Dining Hall Workers' union gathered at Massachusetts Hall. Custodial workers planned a rally this morning at Harvard Medical School.

All this milling and marching has been calm, so peaceable it sometimes seems absurd. The students inside Mass Hall have hung posters on the walls - using Harvard-sanctioned sticky-tack. (Tape might damage the wallpaper.) They stockpile deodorant, organize food into neat piles, collect trash and recycling, and roll their sleeping bags to the side every morning. They vacuum.

And they pride themselves on their cordial relations with university police, who guard the doors - allowing only Harvard-approved people inside - and carry in hoards of donated food from Harvard workers, friends, and anonymous supporters.

Relations may be cordial, but they're strained. The officers are working mandatory overtime. Some grumble that they haven't seen their kids for a while. They worry, too, about how this will end, and sometimes greet each other with a wry, "Hey, hey, ho, ho."

There has been tension, too - or, at least, a cosmic disconnect - with pieces of the Harvard student body. Some freshmen who live in Harvard Yard are weary of the tents, the singing, the prayers, and testimonials, the open-mike poetry. A sign in one dorm window says, "Hey Hey Ho Ho GO HOME!" Another adapts a computer-age nonsense cry to the circus outside: "All Your Wage Are Belong To Us."

But signs of support outnumber all else. Dozens of student groups - even the Libertarians - have posted pro-living-wage banners. The tents are largely occupied by compatriots from outside Harvard: Tufts students and local residents with a common sense of politics and an urge to be a part of this.

And for all the work the student organizers have done, handing out leaflets and calling senators and signing up volunteers, a lot of the help they've received has been unsolicited. One recent night, as tent-dwellers prepared for their nightly candlelight vigil, the sound of chanting wafted in from a distant corner of the Yard.

"That sounds like a living wage chant!" someone said, surprised. And soon enough, they appeared, a group of 30 from the Divinity School, shouting, "Where's your horror? Where's your rage? Div school wants a living wage!"

"People just show up," said Roona Ray, 21, a Harvard junior organizing the protest from the outside.

Inside Mass Hall, the protesters are equally amazed, though also equally consumed by their organizing work. Except for occasional diversions - they did yoga together for a while, and some of the students are making a video for a French film class - the students are spending most of their time sending e-mail, making phone calls, forming committees, and making decisions by consensus. Schoolwork is not a priority.

"I can't. I've tried. It's hard. There's just so much to be done," explained Adams Rackes, 21, a Harvard junior.

How can you concentrate on something as mundane as a final exam, they asked, when you're shaking hands with dining hall workers, and accepting gifts labeled "Vegan Brownies from Tent 73," and hearing that hundreds of professors have signed a petition supporting a living wage?

How can you write a paper when students and professors stop by to say hello, and a pair of Arlington middle-school students send a go-get-em letter that began, "Dear Harvard Sit-In People. . . " Or when you hear that Harvard students outside the building are talking about the living wage issue, sometimes even with dining hall workers?

"It's really amazing," Jirmanus said. "To get Harvard students talking about something other than class, you know."

There is something unlikely about the way this protest has grown, on a campus that - like most - tends to be consumed with the angst of tests and relationships and future plans. That could be one reason the sit-in has mushroomed into a cause. It feels good to stand on principle once in a while.

"I definitely have protest envy. I won't hide it," said Zayed Yasin, 21, a Harvard junior on the outside, who wishes he could tell his grandkids that he once occupied a building. "I think it's the greatest thing to do."

The dozen or so students who already left Mass Hall have felt it. Protesters say the exits are often marked by tears. The students inside are worried, too. Some day this will end, though nobody's sure how.

"It's going to be hard when we come out," Razsa said, "because other things we do are not going to feel as important as this."