Playbook for Student Resistance

The results of the recent election have triggered much soul searching, perhaps no more so than with students enrolled in colleges, law schools, and other institutions of higher education, wondering what kind of world awaits them. Many are frustrated, asking if there is more that could have been done to change the outcome of the election, or what can be done now to protect our most vulnerable communities from harm, discrimination, and the fear of persecution. I teach now, in a law school, and I have heard the anxiety and confusion in my students’ voices, and seen it in their eyes. But I’ve also seen something else: a desire to get involved, to do something, to play a part in something bigger than themselves, to have a role in combatting discrimination and the forces of fear.

I was a student once too, and my fellow students and I saw injustice in the world and wanted to correct it. It was why many of us had gone to law school in the first place. This was in the middle of the first Bush Administration, when a so-called New World Order meant disruption throughout the world and a new American dominance on the global stage. When a coup in Haiti ousted the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, thousands of political refugees fled the country, many by boat, and fears of an influx of these refugees in the battleground state of Florida (the 1992 election was looming), set the Bush Administration to open a camp for them at a place few had heard of before: the U.S. Naval Base on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At first, the camp became a staging ground, where refugees would be assessed for their claims of political asylum. Consistent with the U.S. government’s international obligations, if the refugees were found to have a credible asylum claim, they would be taken to the United States for processing of that claim, with full due process protections.

But this was also a time of AIDS hysteria, and the Haitian refugees were screened for their HIV status. If a refugee tested positive, he or she was detained, indefinitely, in the camp. Given their health status, one government official even said they would likely die there.

As students, we were appalled at this treatment and sought tools to combat it, turning to what we knew best — litigation — to challenge this policy and seek to close the camp, bringing anyone with a credible asylum claim, regardless of their HIV status, to the United States, or at least anywhere but Haiti, where they faced certain political persecution and even death were they to be returned there.

The students marshalled resources and took the lead, turning to faculty and practicing lawyers for guidance on how to challenge these practices in court, determined and motivated to take action. We sued President Bush and ultimately prevailed after an 18-month battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, closing the camp and bringing the refugees to the U.S., many of whom now still lead productive lives and contribute meaningfully to their community.

The reason I write about this is not simply to tell about a successful campaign of student resistance, but to expose some of the components that I believe made it possible and effective and potentially lend some guidance to those who might look to launch similar campaigns on their own.

In assessing this effort, I believe there were several core components that were the ingredients of its success.

First, work on a cause larger than yourself.

As students, it can be easy to get caught up in grades, career prospects, networking, and socializing. We were motivated by a strong desire to get out of this endless cycle of self-regard, to struggle for a cause that brought us out of our bubble, and engage with things happening in the real world. It’s what helped us get out of bed in the morning, and motivated us late into the night.

Second, choose a cause you care about.

When students do get involved in extra-curricular activities, it can often be a project selected by their professors, and they serve as research assistants or in some other subordinate role. In our case, the students were the main drivers of the campaign, first choosing it and second recruiting faculty and practicing attorneys to help us. They would become central figures, leaders without whom we could not have done what we did, but they came to the issue at the invitation of the students, not the other way around.

Third, engage in peer-to-peer outreach.

Once you decide on the issue you want to address, find like-minded students and bring them into the fold. Don’t rely on faculty or other “authority figures” to conduct the outreach to other potential colleagues. In our case, students recruited students, and that kind of peer-to-peer outreach meant we were all equals on the team, and the idea of working on a cause, in a team, with people you cared about, seemed like fun (more on that in a moment).

Fourth, find your strengths and build on them.

The student group working on the case, which, at times swelled to over 100 students, tapped into and built on our own individual strengths. Some students were better at legal research; others at media outreach; and still others at coordinating, organizing and recruiting other students and community partners. We all were driven by the cause to put ego aside, recognize our own individual skills and strengths, and maximize them and put them to use.

Fifth, work hard.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but difficult times require hard work. Students looking to engage in campaigns for social justice will find that the harder the problem, the harder the effort required to tackle it, and they should not get dispirited or give up when things get challenging. The Guantánamo litigation required us to find new depths of resilience and grit that many of us did not know we had, and we would not have ever discovered these reserves if we had not tried to test them. Given the challenges ahead, students today will need to drive themselves to understand where their limits are, and maybe even try to push beyond them, in the service of causes that matter to them.

Sixth, find “player-coaches.”

As law students, there was only so much we could do without supervision and guidance because the law imposes prohibitions on the unauthorized practice of law. At the same time, we needed supervisors who would allow us to flourish, find our own limits, and channel our energy to productive uses. Even chess grand masters and PGA pros have and need coaches. Student advocates are no different. But such coaches should be willing to roll up their sleeves with their students, embrace the student cause, and allow the students to spread their wings. We had remarkable coaches, including Harold Hongju Koh and the recently departed Michael Ratner, two gifted lawyers and inspired and inspiring professors. So often, they gave us the perfect balance of guidance and support, without stifling student creativity or energy. Students should lead efforts of resistance, but should also seek out those with experience and a record of accomplishment for social change for help where needed.

Seventh, have fun.

Work on important issues will be hard, for sure, but those engaged in the struggle on such campaigns should strive to care for each other, and, when possible, try to have fun doing it. It is part of sustaining the work, and ensuring the work is a labor of love. In her amazing book, “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World,” Tina Rosenberg writes that student-led social change campaigns have elements of optimism and playfulness, and it is those components that are needed to sustain hard-fought campaigns.

Fear of a Trump presidency has inspired many to look for ways to fight for social justice. While today’s advocates will likely need to chart their own course, and make the road by walking, the future can, at times, learn from the past, and our experience fighting back a prior administration’s discriminatory policies may offer some insights into future campaigns for social change. Those interested in learning more about the Guantánamo litigation can read Brandt Goldstein’s “Storming the Court: How a Band of Yale Law Students Sued the President and Won,” or my shorter piece on the working of the team, which is available here.

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