Interrupted Reclamation!

No matter what one conceives of her task, the minority wins not when she has convinced those in power of the righteousness of her cause but when she has drawn the silent and perhaps even indifferent majority to her side. While the comfort and lack of urgency of ‘those perceived as having no skin in the game’ is most disabling to any social movement, alienating them further rather than winning them over is the guillotine on which many a righteous cause have breathed their last. But here is the catch; even more righteous causes have become diluted and completely irrelevant while stretching themselves to appeal to the recalcitrant armchair majority. Worse, still for social activists, the seeming propensity sometimes of self-professing sympathizers to raise their voices in criticism of social activists – or as Tess Peacock puts it eloquently “writing vague critiques which conceal a desire to pacify” – more often than they are given to questioning the status quo is a fundamental source of frustration and resentment.

The ongoing conversations in Harvard Law School these past few days on the use of Belinda Hall and of the place of dissenting – read hate- speech within a social movement that prides itself on leveraging diversified voices and on the diversification of academe and legal thinking as well as the institutions and assumptions that sustain same highlight historical tension in social activism. The fact remains that those who speak against the status quo bear a larger burden than those who defend it. The actions of those who call for reform are scrutinized way more crudely than those who caution against change. When characters are assassinated, both literally and figuratively, those characters are less those in charge but more those who invite our institutions to introspect.

Yet the more I read reactions and counter-reactions to the debacle, the more troubled I am by the success of the disruptor. By enrolling Reclaim Harvard Law in his disruption, Bill Barlow has managed to not only gain more attention from the administration than Reclaim has for substantive issues thus far but also managed expertly to distract attention of the “silent majority” from the pressing and valid proposals Reclaim Harvard Law has invited this community to reflect on in order to improve our spaces. In the advocacy for the hearts and minds of the couch protestor and of the indifferent majority, Reclaim’s conservative adversaries have by disruption set the movement up.

While it is true that the privileged distance of the silent sympathizer frustrates us, and her sharp rebuke at each turn may seem disingenuous, ours is not to disbelieve the honesty of their disappointment. After all, they too have been played. The fact is, when I read Marlen Thaten write to Reclaim that “You broke me today”, my soul hurts way more than it does when when Bill Barlow compares me to Donald Trump or calls me a Fascist.

The disruptive tactics of Bill Barlow and supporters itself is not new, my suspicion is that this is not the end of such antics. Reclaim’s burden however is to remind itself that “the function, the very serious function of [your adversary][1], is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

– Toni Morrison, “Black Studies Center public dialogue,” Portland State University, May 30, 1975

[1] I have substituted “your adversary” for racism.


Mawuse Vormawor is an LLM student at Harvard Law School.

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