Protesters disrupt Gittler lecture for racial justice
This article has been updated in the March 1 issue of the Justice.
Approximately 20 demonstrators interrupted the annual Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize presentation and lecture on Thursday to protest the recipient — Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School — because of her inaction toward the Reclaim Harvard Law movement at Harvard University. The demonstrators included members of both the Ford Hall 2015 movement and Reclaim Harvard Law, which has occupied Harvard’s Wasserstein Hall for 10 days demanding the school address racial injustice on the campus.
Minow — who has been the school’s dean since 2009, when her predecessor, Elena Kagan, was appointed to the Supreme Court — was recognized in the ceremony for her scholarship on race relations and legal issues. The event featured introductory remarks from Interim University President Lisa Lynch and an introduction from Prof. Anita Hill (Heller).
Since Feb. 15, Harvard activists have occupied Wasserstein Hall, renaming it Belinda Hall after Belinda Royall, a slave owned by Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveholder whose donation was instrumental to the school’s founding. Reclaim Harvard Law’s occupation is ongoing and indefinite, according to a Feb. 22 Harvard Law Record article. The group, which formed in fall 2015, issued a list of eight demands in December that call for the Harvard Law administration to alter the curriculum to include narratives of marginalized racial groups, create a critical race theory program and provide more resources for minority students.
One notable demand calls for the removal of the school’s seal, which features the Royall family crest. Previously, a group of students calling their movement “Royall Must Fall” petitioned the school in October to remove the seal, and in November, Minow formed a committee to review the seal’s use. According to a Feb. 22 Harvard Crimson article, the committee will likely release its report on the seal later this week.
Minow’s lecture, titled “Bystanders, Upstanders and Justice,” distinguished between individuals who remain silent when facing injustice and those who take action to right wrongs. She also addressed the issue of state rights in both public and private spaces, noting that there is a need for a term for the erosion of rights due to privatization. She argued that “upstanding” can be an effective tool in allowing the full scope of civil liberties to be present in private spaces, stating, “Seeing the patterns is a first step to becoming an upstander, and this is a topic in which I invite your help.”
While she noted that protest can be an “important tool” in sparking dialogue and change, she also argued that “understanding what lever of power works in addressing any kind of injustice is the first step to being an effective upstander. And not understanding what lever of power is relevant is a mistake and a diversion. Who actually has the power to make the changes on any subject should be a critical step in any analysis.” She also advised audience members to listen and “engage constructively with views with which you disagree” to further support conversations about difference.
Shortly after the ceremony began on Thursday, approximately 20 student protesters from Reclaim Harvard Law and Ford Hall 2015 entered Rapaporte with signs and banners that featured slogans like “#Reclaim Harvard Law” and “Racial Justice Lives at Belinda Hall,” as well as some that showed a revised version of the Harvard seal with black silhouettes carrying sheaves of wheat on their backs. The Harvard seal features three sheaves of wheat.
In an email to the Justice, Ford Hall 2015 organizers specified that 15 Ford Hall activists and five Reclaim Harvard Law activists participated in the event. According to the Ford Hall leaders, Ford Hall 2015 served as an inspiration to the Harvard Law students when they began their occupation. Ford Hall 2015 stated that they stand in solidarity “with Reclaim Harvard Law and the students who are putting their bodies on the line in the name of justice in Belinda Hall. Together we are moving our people toward a liberation that has been long denied.”
Student Union President Nyah Macklin ’15, who participated in the demonstration, wrote in an email to the Justice, “The protest today occurred, (from my understanding,) because the students at Harvard Law School are fed up with [racial] injustice [on their campus] and the complacency their administration has with the status quo. And we as a community must understand that and welcome such frustration with a system that has continuously harmed Black and brown bodies on their campus and even on ours. These students are standing up for their right to be heard. And we as a community must not criticize that frustration. We must listen to the frustration, and react in a way that does not demean their work.” Macklin stated that she did not directly organize the demonstration on Thursday but did participate as a member of Ford Hall 2015.
The protesters began a call-and-repeat directed at Minow shortly after entering Rapaporte, chanting, “Your school is racist. Your school is not inclusive. Harvard Law School does not teach justice; Belinda Hall teaches justice. Belinda Hall is inclusive. Belinda Hall is anti-racist, and Belinda Hall stands with Ford Hall against administrations that talk justice but do injustice. Today we upstand, we speak out in public, we face danger; we build anti-racism while you bystand.” They ended their chant by reiterating a quote from Black Panther activist Assata Shakur that had been widely used during the Ford Hall 2015 occupation in November and December: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Minow responded, “It’s thrilling to see students engage in upstanding, and it’s delightful to have a chance to talk about work I and others have been doing for some time. And it’s an honor to be here with Brandeis that shows such a meaningful commitment to this kind of engagement.”
After Minow’s lecture, Hill also took a moment to discuss the protest, reflecting, “I would just add that I am really moved by the idea of encouraging upstanders, and I think we have some examples of upstanders here today, and we’re thankful for that. I also am very thankful for the ideas of engaging in dialogue. We have made great progress, I believe, in a lot of different fronts. … But clearly, clearly, we have a long ways to go. And so dialogue is still important, as well as standing up, and again, the violations and exclusions that continue to exist today.”
Hill then opened the floor to audience members for a question-and-answer session, and some of the protesters began asking Minow about her response to and involvement in the Reclaim Harvard Law protests. One student stated Minow has failed to engage with the Harvard activists and not listened to their demands. Minow responded by saying, “I am very honored by your upstanding, and I’ve been in many conversations with many of you, and so it’s interesting for you to say I don’t listen. Sometimes when I’ve invited you to have more meetings — indeed every time — I’ve never gotten a response,” she said, addressing the protesters. “The really interesting question, I think, for all of us at this moment, is, ‘What does it take to have meaningful, face-to-face conversation in the digital age, when it’s appealing and attractive to post things on websites, take photographs, and go to the media before actually talking to the people you’re actually trying to convince?’”
“You are comfortable with the status quo,” one protester, a Harvard Law student responded, adding, “You are constantly condescending, like you know what’s best for us.”
The protesters then silently filed out of the room, and a few other audience members asked Minow various questions about her legal philosophy and views on prevalent social issues before the event came to a close.
This story was originally published on Thursday, Feb. 25. It will be updated as more information is gathered.
— Max Moran contributed reporting. Ben Feshbach contributed audio recording.