How to win a sit-in

Submitted by AWL on 28 July, 2009 - 6:17 Author: Amy Offner

Although a student sit-in is different from a workplace takeover, there is much to learn from the successful occupation by the Harvard University students' campaign for a living wage for campus workers in 2001. These are excerpts from an article by Amy Offner on the lessons of that sit-in.

On the inside, the major task of the first few days was just holding the space. The police did not try to drag everyone out, but made it very difficult for us to stay inside and function. For instance, they prevented people from leaving the room they were in to go to the bathroom, and they forced their way into a room that the inside team had staked out as a cop-free room for meetings.

The inside team eventually got the police to back down by threatening to go to the bathroom in wastebaskets if they couldn’t use the bathroom, and by having the outside team make a huge amount of noise in the middle of the night to get the cops to leave the meeting room. The noise produced so many angry calls to the police department from students trying to sleep that the cops decided it wasn’t worth staying in the room. For the remainder of the sit-in, however, the outside team was careful not to make noise at night because we didn’t want to alienate students.

On the inside, we also worked to keep the cops from being thugs by videotaping them: at least four people on the inside brought in video cameras and recorded everything...

Filming on the inside was also a central part of our media strategy. The inside team tossed tapes of footage out the windows to the outside team, where a member with filmmaking experience quickly produced a highlights tape which we copied and gave to TV news crews...

Another early concern was food: we needed to get it inside. The campus dining hall workers solved this problem for us. On the first night of the sit-in, a group of workers marched to the building with a stack of pizzas and essentially browbeat the police until they were allowed to deliver the food. From that point on, the police let food in, and every day, the outside team arranged for donations from unions, community groups, and restaurants.

On the outside, the goal from the start was to bring as many people as possible to the building, to isolate the administration by eliciting active support from as many constituencies as possible, and to generate positive publicity about the campaign.

A first step was to see that, every day, the noon rally and 8pm vigil were well-run. We made sure the speakers list was diverse, including workers, union reps, faculty, representatives from other student organizations and community groups, politicians, alumni, parents, and big-name speakers. We included musicians, spoken-word artists, and comedians. And we had a good group of drummers who backed up the chants.

We spent a lot of time making phone calls and canvassing to increase our turnout every day. Over the course of the sit-in, we chose three of our daily rallies to pump up into huge affairs: one after we’d been inside for a week, another about a week later when we got members of the AFL-CIO executive board to come and speak, and one on the day we left the building...

We scheduled other events all day long so that people could always come by the building and find something happening. Events ranged from a teach-in on race and poverty by the Black Students Association to salsa dancing lessons in front of the building... Every morning, we would plaster the campus with posters announcing that day’s schedule, and we included the schedule in our daily e-mail updates and on our website.

After the first few days, when it was clear that our support was growing, the police stopped fighting over space inside the building. At that point, members of the inside team split into work groups, and for the remainder of the sit-in, they spent all day making phone calls to turn people out to events, solicit endorsements from national figures, and speak to reporters.

Workers and unions took part in all the events outside the building, and also organized their own. Janitors held their own rally, and off-campus unions sponsored a solidarity night. For many people, the highlights of the sit-in were two explosive night-time demonstrations with the campus dining hall workers. The sit-in coincided with the dining hall workers’ contract negotiations, and the two developments fed each other...

The outside team found unique ways to involve every possible constituency. We attended meetings of student groups to answer questions about the sit-in, and those meetings generated new endorsements. We then got supportive student organizations to co-sponsor our noon rallies...

A few days into the sit-in, our most supportive faculty members organized the Faculty Committee for a Living Wage. They wrote an open letter in support of the campaign, collected over 400 signatures in a few days, and published it in the Boston Globe. Some professors held their classes outside the building...

On campus, we worked to constantly escalate the pressure on the administration: we didn’t want them to think they’d seen everything we could do. For instance, we arranged... to run a mass civil disobedience training on campus during the sit-in, and had people role-play getting arrested on the steps of other administrative buildings. The implication was clear: we were ready to spread the sit-in if necessary, and many new people were willing to risk arrest.

Our most important escalation was the sprawling tent city that we built outside the occupied building. The university actually has rules banning anyone from camping out in Harvard Yard, so campus police could have arrested the entire outside team for doing this. To prevent arrests, we assembled a large crowd to launch the tent city. Over the next few days, the city grew to 100 tents and physically transformed Harvard Yard.

We put tremendous effort into media work, and this more than anything was what won the sit-in for us. Many off-campus supporters assumed that we got a lot of media coverage because Harvard was an irresistible draw. In fact, we got almost no media coverage for the first week of the sit-in, most likely because Harvard was using its connections to black out the story. We broke the blackout by being creative and unremitting. We had supporters call and write to papers and networks to ask why they weren’t covering us.

We also understood that once the sit-in started, reporters would not consider it newsworthy in itself: we had to constantly create new angles for reporters. New endorsements from national figures could create stories that our support was growing. When janitors held a rally, we placed stories about workers getting involved. We turned the dining hall workers’ strike authorization vote into a story about a swelling labor crisis on campus... In addition to our press team on the outside, several members of the inside team did nothing but call media outlets and plan stories for three weeks.

By the end of the sit-in, about eight very creative and persistent campaign members working with no budget had secured coverage in every major newspaper in the country and every major TV news show.

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