Balloons and roughly 100 people filled the student lounge at Harvard Law School to commemorate graduating student activists and a year of continued race-related activism at the school in an informal commencement ceremony Tuesday evening.
The ceremony was held in the Caspersen Student Center lounge that activists have occupied since February and refer to as “Belinda Hall,” named after the slave of Isaac Royall Jr., whose 18th century donation helped establish the first law professorship at Harvard. The event featured spoken word and singing performances, a teaching presentation on structural racism, a slideshow, and speeches from students, clinical instructors, and staff members thanking activists for their work.
Race-related activism took off at the Law School in October, when students began calling on the school to change its controversial seal, which featured Royall’s family crest. The Reclaim Harvard Law movement emerged in the wake of a racially-charged incident of vandalism in November, and activists presented Law School Dean Martha L. Minow with a series of demands in December for better treatment of minorities at the school. They began occupying the student lounge in protest in February, sleeping overnight in shifts. In March, activists achieved a decisive victory when the Harvard Corporation approved a Law School committee’s recommendation to remove the seal, which has quickly disappeared from the school’s campus.
Activists continued to press for their remaining demands, however, and tensions escalated in the ensuing months as the lounge became the physical center of a debate over free speech at the Law School. That debate was complicated in April when activists discovered recording devices that had been illegally surveilling their conversations in the room. An investigation into the recorder is ongoing.
Second-year Law student and Reclaim Harvard Law member Aparna Gokhale said group members came up with the idea for a commencement ceremony several weeks ago during what they called a low point in their activism efforts.
“People were feeling pretty exhausted and burnt out from having done a lot of work over the semester and then facing a lot of opposition to what we’ve been working towards,” Gokhale said. “Commencement was a way to honor all the work they put in this year and over the last two years, and also a way for us to get positive energy into the space again, to remember why we started Belinda and what the ethos behind Belinda was.”
Third-year Law student and Reclaim Harvard Law member Rena T. Karefa-Johnson spoke about the support system she found among activists and the lessons in “radical love and resistance” she learned from the movement. Johnson recalled that during her first year at the Law School, she found that people were hesitant to speak publicly about race.
“To see what this room looks like right now is so crazy to me,” she said, looking around the crowded lounge.
To conclude the ceremony, first- and second-year Law students presented around 30 graduating third-years and Law School masters students with certificates and personal tributes. In an interview, Karefa-Johnson described the event as more meaningful for her than the Law School’s official commencement ceremony, which will take place on May 26.
“I think a lot of us have put more work into this work than into our school work, and in a lot of ways, it is more fulfilling for some of us who have really focused on [activism] throughout our time here to commence through this space,” Karefa-Johnson said.
Gokhale said the departure of the group’s senior members does not mark an end to Reclaim Harvard Law. The group will resume activism efforts in the fall, she said.—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.