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Brandeis and Harvard students fighting for racial justice protest Gittler Prize recipient

About 20 students from the Ford Hall 2015 movement and Harvard Law School students protested the recipient of a Brandeis prize, Martha Minow, Dean of Harvard Law School. The Harvard Law students have been occupying a building at Harvard to protest racial injustice at the school. The students find it hypocritical that Minow speaks about fighting for justice while not engaging with Harvard’s Belinda Hall movement.

Minow was awarded the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize, created to recognize “scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic and/or religious relations,” according to the event’s program, which comes with a $25,000 prize. In her talk, Minow encouraged everyone to be an “upstander” as opposed to a bystander, to speak out and challenge bullying and injustice.

Students dressed in black entered the room as University Professor Anita Hill introduced Minow and stood along the far side of the room with signs reading “Reclaim Harvard Law” and “Belinda Hall stands with Ford Hall,” among others. Students from Ford Hall spoke at Belinda Hall last week, according to the Ford Hall Facebook page. The group has also shared an article about the law student’s occupation and encouraged everyone to follow Reclaim Harvard Law on social media.

During Minow’s speech, the students began to chant, saying “Injustice is in Cambridge. 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.”

Some audience members expressed frustration with the protesters. “This is an obstruction of someone’s right to speak,” one said.

Student protesters were the first to ask questions during the Q&A that followed Minow’s talk. They asked what she was doing to “upstand” against racial injustice at Harvard Law.

“I am very honored by your upstanding, and I think you know that I’ve been in many conversations with many of you,” said Minow. “So it’s interesting for you to say that I don’t listen.”

According to Harvard students, however, Minow is “disingenuous” in her talks with student activists, both one-on-one and in groups. They find her to be “comfortable with the status quo” and unwilling to fight for change at Harvard.

Minow also questioned the use of social media and the internet as a way of promoting their activism in her response to the students. “I think the really interesting question is…what does it take to have meaningful face to face conversation when it’s appealing and attractive to post things on websites, to take photographs and to go the the media before actually talking to people that you’re actually trying to convince,” she said.

Harvard students, however, do not see Minow as an ally. As she and the students corresponded back and forth, they began speaking over one another, until Minow told the students she would speak with them on campus and suggested other audience members should pose their questions. At this point, the protesters left the room.

In the fall, students from the group Reclaim Harvard Law issued demands calling on the school to hire a more diverse faculty and change the law school’s seal which is the Isaac Royall family crest, according the group’s “wordpress” website. The Royalls were a slaveholding family from New England who donated money to Harvard Law School after its inception. Student activists do not want the legacy of slavery tied to the law school. Minow has established a committee to explore changes to the crest, though the Harvard Corporation must make any final decisions.

Unsatisfied with the school’s response of demands, students began occupying Fireside Lounge in the Caspersen Student Center on Feb. 15, though they have renamed the building Belinda Hall for one of the Royall family’s slaves who took the family to court and won reparations for her enslavement, according to the group’s website. Activists at Brandeis renamed the Bernstein-Marcus administration building “Ford Hall” in reference to the old Ford Hall administration building that students occupied in the 1960s.

An audience member gave a summary of these events for those who were not aware of the context of the protest.

Minow’s speech called attention to the privatization of functions that used to be run by the government, including privately owned prisons or schools. She explained that contracts made with private corporations often prevent people from filing charges against these companies in court. Because constitutional values don’t apply to the private sector in the same way the do to the public sector, Minow said, consumers aren’t protected.

More than 20 audience members gave Minow a standing ovation. The majority of them were not students.

Students involved with the Ford Hall movement occupied Bernstein-Marcus for 12 days, resulting in a Diversity and Inclusion Action plan. Since the protests of late November, the students have stayed active. They organized a drive to raise awareness of the water crisis in Flint Michigan and, yesterday, protested Minnow with Harvard Law students.

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