‘We refuse to be silenced or deterred,’ says Reclaim Harvard Law member
Reclaiming our voices in the midst of audio surveillance
Weeks after a recording device was found at Harvard Law School, a quiet lull has come upon the entire community. As the HLS community prepares for the end of classes and beginning of exam period, one might argue that more practical concerns—grades, jobs, graduation—have dulled the sense of moral indignation that this event should necessarily bring. As black and brown bodies continue to recover from the unwarranted (indeed, illegal) recording of their thoughts, the hush of white supremacy has once again succeeded in quieting the masses.
The spirited discussion of free speech and censorship that sparked throughout the school has dissipated. All the while, an egregious free speech violation—the recording of conversations throughout the law school—has brought unnatural pause to an academy in the throes of revolution. Where have those fervent advocates of free speech gone? Do they share the fears of activists who have retreated from these spaces to protect their privacy? Surely, even the most ambivalent of onlookers can understand the gravity of these findings: any number of students, staff, faculty, and guests could have been recorded while at HLS.
What, then, can be said of this extreme invasion of privacy? What of the second recording device found, along with numerous strips of velcro ostensibly used to relocate the devices throughout the school? What can be said of the HUPD, a Harvard enforcement agency now tasked with investigating its own administrators? As a member of Reclaim Harvard Law, whose beloved Belinda Hall was targeted in this surveillance, I can not help but question the symbolism of this event in the context of our activism.
Surveillance is both a tool of knowing (the thoughts and actions of targets) and silencing (dissenting opinions and challenges to the status quo). Michel Foucault, in his writings on power and resistance, noted surveillance as a key strategy by which to coerce the oppressed into conformity with the current system. This is achieved, Foucault argued, by placing subjects in a constant state of apprehension, created by the ever-present potential for one’s thoughts and actions to be recorded without their knowledge. Beyond the indignation of being recorded without consent, the threat of having one’s voice misrepresented is ever-present. This fear becomes internalized, ultimately quieting dissent even outside spaces of surveillance.
Historically, surveillance has been used against dissenters who challenge oppression in the status quo. The threat of being photographed, videotaped, or doxxed (involving the release of personal/contact information) each operate as mechanisms by which to frighten marginalized groups into complacency. Indeed, Reclaim has already been the target of surveillance; audio surveillance marks only the newest tool to be used against this movement.
Lauri Siisiäinen, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, has continued Foucault’s work to further clarify the use of audio surveillance to silence resistance. Speaking on the concept of pan-auditory surveillance—the creation of an omnipresent eavesdropper—Siisiäinen notes:
“Through the auditory apparatus, it is also the production of alert and acute knowledge of the subjects under inspection, which becomes maximally emancipated from the limits of space-and time. The continuous surveillance, of each and every person, of each and every place and location immediately, at once, regardless of obstacles, without gaps or delays, or the fantasy of such perfect surveillance, could be characterized in terms of the acoustic/auditory. It is the panauditory fantasy of being constantly heard by the all-hearing ear, in constant audibility…”
When I began this work, I accepted the possibility that this might be a potential form of retaliation by those who disagree with our mission. Nevertheless, challenging an institution that has consistently fell short in supporting me and others like me should not come at the risk of being surveilled. Even worse, capturing the conversations of numerous individuals—including those who are not affiliated with Reclaim—speaks to a larger narrative of oppression at Harvard Law School. It is still unclear how many recorders have been used, how many locations throughout campus have been targeted, how long this surveillance has continued, and what conversations—confidential or otherwise–have been captured. The infinite possibility of privacy infringement should be enough to call the entire community to action. The weight of this evidence and its implications should spark furious discourse. But, as of yet, the clearest indications of the success of this surveillance are the faint murmurs throughout the law school in reference to this incident. In essence, the surveilled have been brought to silence.
For weeks, Belinda Hall stood as a hollow space, bereft of the powerful spirit created there by the many students, staff, practitioners, and scholars that have affirmed its existence. The fear of being wrongly persecuted for our work and the chance for our words to be mangled and misrepresented are strong enough to bring pause.
As the investigation continues quietly at the periphery, Reclaim works lovingly to restore that sense of passionate, supportive activism to Belinda Hall. As we continue, we remain vigilant in securing our thoughts, voices, and bodies from those that would seek to bring harm. These revelations of surveillance at Harvard Law will not deter us from our greater initiatives to create systemic change here and abroad.
Our goals—of an equitable HLS community, of robust and critical curriculum, of an affordable legal education—lead us to pursue this mission despite the multitude of institutional pressures we still face. Shaken but resilient, we will continue the work to which we have dedicated so much of our time and energy.
We refuse to be silenced or deterred.