After a quiet winter term, student activism is back in the air at Harvard Law School.
Since February 15, dozens of students have staged an indefinite occupation of the Wasserstein Lounge in a protest against what they see as an unjust institution and an opaque administration. Representing Reclaim Harvard Law School, the protestors have stayed day and night, bringing in air mattresses and sheets to help them weather the evenings. In a move to bring about the administrative transparency they’ve demanded, they’ve also released a confidential email from Dean Martha Minow with the list of faculty committee assignments.
“We’re here to bring visibility to Reclaim Harvard Law School,” said 3L Annaleigh Curtis. “But we’re also here to create the spaces we’re asking the administration to create.”
At the Wasserstein Lounge, which Reclaim HLS has redesignated Belinda Hall after one of HLS donor Isaac Royall’s slaves, activists have aimed to create an area for marginalized students that they feel has been missing at HLS.
“We wanted to create a safe space for students who haven’t felt that on campus,” 2L Isaac Cameron said. “You’ll see people interacting in Belinda Hall in ways they’ve never interacted before. There’s a lot of love, there’s a lot of fellowship. There’s a fundamentally different atmosphere.”
Indeed, Reclaim HLS has put up posters and signs for reading rooms, fireside chats, and areas for contextual learning. Regular speaker events, open meals, and group discussions have transformed the student lounge.
Criticizing Harvard for what they see as a “sterile, oppressive, and cold” environment, the activists have created a list of demands for the administration. Besides changing the Harvard Law seal, increasing the number of critical race theory professors at Harvard Law and increasing the contexualization of the Harvard Law curriculum are at the top of Reclaim HLS’s demands.
“Sometimes race is completely stripped out [of the classroom],” said 2L Keaton Allen-Gessesse. “Sometimes our professors will bring up race, but they don’t know how to bring it up in the ways we know are constructive.”
The activists, who plan to stay possibly into the summer, criticize Harvard Law’s pedagogy as not only incomplete, but inadequate.
“I came to Harvard wanting to represent minority and low-income communities like the one I came from,” Cameron said. “I don’t get taught in a way that prepares me to do that.”
Reclaim HLS members point to cases such as People v. Newton and Coker v. Georgia as cases that are taught without proper context. In Newton, the California Court of Appeal reversed Huey Newton’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter for failure to provide a jury instruction for the defense of involuntary unconsciousness. The activists say that the case is often presented without the critical context that Newton was a leader of the Black Panther Party and that race was implicated in the case and its outcome.
Similarly, the activists cite Coker, in which the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as a punishment for rape on 8th Amendment grounds, as a case where race was an important yet untaught driver for the decision.
“People in the South were sending black men to death after being accused of raping white women with such frequency that the Supreme Court felt like they had to stop it,” Cameron said. “And that’s something that could be taught without any background.”
“It turns out they don’t teach you half the things that are necessary to understand what’s going on,” said 3L A.J. Clayborne.
Another demand of the activists is that the Law School bring in critical race theory scholars as professors.
Critical race theory looks to analyze the law from a race-aware perspective, asking how laws and legal frameworks perpetuate racial inequalities and seeking to reverse these inequalities by changing the law. Critical race theory had many roots at Harvard Law School, though today the Law School has no tenured faculty specializing in the field.
“Imagine taking contracts without learning about consideration. That’s what learning the law is like without understanding how race fits in,” said 3L Bianca Tylek.
At the occupation, speakers such as Derecka Purnell, Margaret Montoya, and Juan Parea have spoken to crowds of dozens of students.
“We’re looking to provide substantive information, for example, on critical race theory and the context of legal decisions,” Curtis said. “But we’re also showing how the process would look if it were in the classroom.”
Reclaim HLS characterized the occupation as the latest in a series of strategies to change what they see as years of administrative intransigence in the face of student activist demands.
“This is an iteration of multiple campaigns that span decades,” said Cameron. “There’s a misconception that the timeline is very narrow, but students have been asking for these things for decades.”
The activists also welcome all students to come talk with them.
“If you look around we’re entirely transparent, entirely open,” Cameron said. “Anybody can come and engage.”
However, some students have been critical of Reclaim HLS. Some students have criticized the disruption from the 24-hour occupation, while others say that the activists are not as open as they portray themselves to be.
“The leadership has done a good job of being open,” 3L Kurt Krieger said. “But there are vocal members who take a hard-line stance. They’re fighting a monster, but they’ve become that monster.”
Cameron says he understands that some students might feel that the occupation of the Lounge might feel a little displaced, but he says that minority students are facing a much more significant burden in the current curriculum, and that a purpose of Reclaim HLS is to alleviate that burden.
“The way marginalized students are portrayed in the curriculum or left out of the curriculum and their experience at the law school is not comparable to [what Reclaim HLS is doing in Belinda Hall],” Cameron said. “It’s disingenuous to frame the conversation around the inconvenience faced by [majority students].”
The activists maintain that they are not occupying the Lounge merely for themselves, but to further the aims of justice. With plans to stay indefinitely until their demands are met, they say that they are not here just to make law school more comfortable for themselves. Rather, they are seeking to change the curriculum in order better understand the law and to learn how to change the law for the better.
“Where people are violated, where violence is used illegitimately, we have an obligation to see that that injustice is corrected,” Clayborne said. “I hope my activism won’t stop here.”