When Barrett Popped the Bubble, and What Came After

The University of Notre Dame exists within a superficial, apolitical bubble, and let’s be honest, we all know it.

During our first weeks at Notre Dame, the vast majority of us took a Moreau module about politics and civic engagement. After learning about the importance of active listening and respecting the perspective of others, my Moreau professor turned and asked us all who we thought was going to win the upcoming presidential election. No one knew what to say, or more accurately, no one wanted to be the one to share their own political opinion.

The curriculum presented to us emphasized the importance of good conversational skills and emphasized the importance of respecting the opinions and beliefs of others. However, here at Notre Dame, not every perspective is considered equal in the eyes of those in positions of authority. But beyond that, few are willing to talk about it. People are hesitant to make even slightly political comments within social settings, much less confront the larger power dynamics that restrict certain ideological perspectives from appropriately expressing themselves at Notre Dame.

All these things considered, it was quite a shock for me and many others last fall to see this apathy begin to shift here on campus. Looking back, it was the culmination of a semester of political chaos — the time was ripe for students to take action and finally speak up publically and politically beyond the methods of civic discourse we had been taught in Moreau those first few weeks of freshman year.

2020 was quite a year for activism in our nation. From the horrendous murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others early on in the year to the many multifaceted inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, there definitely were a lot of things to protest. Even on campus, student activists from various student groups led by the Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy organized a Zoom protest focused a magnifying lens onto Notre Dame’s history of investment in private, for-profit prisons, showing this community that even here at Notre Dame, there are many modes of injustice that have long flown under the radar and will continue to do so unless many voices speak up about them.

These instances of activism, from the widespread Black Lives Matter movement to the localized SCIA demonstration, primed the Notre Dame community to finally step outside of its anti-politics zone. As election season ensued, political discourse on campus moved from within homogenous student organizations and behind closed dorm room doors into the open. Organizations like Bridge ND, ND Votes, College Democrats, and College Republicans capitalized on this shift, providing the student body community with a consistent variety of outlets to engage with this atmospheric change. From mock debates to collaborative tabling events, there always was something political on the horizon.

What was the catalyst that took this tense but stable political atmosphere to the next level? The answer to that question is quite debatable, but I would argue that it started with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18th. Her death became a political moment within hours, when former president Donald Trump announced that he was planning on appointing a new justice to the Supreme Court. His political rivals, including current president Joe Biden, condemned this course of action by highlighting the fact that early voting had already begun for the presidential election in November, which was a mere 35 days away.

What does this debate have to do with Notre Dame? Justice Amy Coney Barrett, that’s what.

I probably don’t need to detail the chaotic story of Justice Barrett’s confirmation and nomination; if there is one thing that Notre Dame students remember from last semester besides the football game against Clemson, it was the anger and frustration that many of us felt when Fr. John Jenkins attended Justice Barrett’s confirmation ceremony (later shown to be a maskless super-spreader event) and afterwards tested positive for COVID-19. However, it was quite apparent that the campus community was intensely divided on Justice Barrett and her legal and academic history — which is made up of arguments for textualism and originalism as well as support for the restriction of women’s reproductive rights, various LGBTQ+ civic rights, and several immigration cases that ruled against immigrant families among other things. Despite this division, Fr. Jenkins issued a blanket-statement endorsement of support for Justice Barrett, both as a person and as a judge. Suffice to say, this filled a lot of people with a lot of anger, and rightfully so.

When I got the notification about Justice Barrett’s confirmation the night of October 26th, I was in a Zoom meeting with my friend and later my co-organizer Emma Dudrick. After the meeting, we stayed on the call, commiserating with one another about how frustrated we were about the whole situation, in particular about Fr. Jenkins’ endorsement which had dropped minutes after the news about the confirmation. Emma made a remark about how no one, neither group nor individual, in the Notre Dame community would actually provide a space for us to be vocal about our frustration, about how no one would support organizing any sort of demonstration of dissent against Justice Barrett’s confirmation and Jenkins’ endorsement. At one point, she even said, “Honestly, WE should organize a protest about this…” That’s exactly what we did.

However, while Emma and I played a role in managing the logistics of what turned out to be a 350+ person demonstration against both Justice Barrett and her discriminatory history as well as the Notre Dame administration’s endorsement of her, the ND Against ACB demonstration was by no means our project alone. It was the product of the hard work of dozens of student organizers from over a dozen campus communities and student organizations. They all answered our initial rallying cry and contributed their various talents and skill sets to making the demonstration what it was. Some people gave speeches at the demonstration, and others worked on social media. Some people spread the word around campus, and others engaged in other forms of peaceful protest. Even others simply showed out and shared their support for the cause. All were essential in making the demonstration what it was for so many in this community.

Each and every person who helped organize, as well as all those students, faculty, and other members of the Notre Dame community that attended the anti-ACB demonstration, intentionally stepped outside the apolitical bubble of this community. By doing so, they all showed a great deal of solidarity with the many different marginalized and underrepresented student communities on this campus, as well as these communities on a national scale, who now feared that legal protection of their human and civic rights would come under fire.

The pillar of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) known as Solidarity refers to the principle of recognizing others as our brothers and sisters and actively working toward their common good. True solidarity for marginalized communities can be hard to find on the cis-heteronormative, socioeconomically privileged, PWI that is the University of Notre Dame, with the apolitical cultural bubble being only one of many problems that plague this place we all call home. This is why it means all the more that so many took that uncomfortable step to come out and support the threatened and the vulnerable.

What comes after the popping of the apolitical bubble of Notre Dame? The answer to this question is still a mystery. With COVID-19 (and thankfully COVID-19 vaccination) dominating our lives, one cannot truly gauge what the effects of these public demonstrations might have in the future. One cannot even gauge if there will be any effects at all. Regardless, the ND Against ACB demonstration created a network of organizers and student communities that was not there before, a network that is now ready and primed to demonstrate against injustices in our society as they inevitably will continue to arise in the future.

To the reader… remember that there are many frustrating injustices ingrained within our communities, both here in the Tri-Campus Community and beyond. Chances are, if you are frustrated about these things, a lot of other people are too, even when it may not seem like it. There is a widespread web of student communities who are ready to help support you should you step up and decide to organize a grassroots demonstration of your own.

The University of Notre Dame exists within a superficial, apolitical bubble, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t step outside of that bubble and raise our voices about the things that we care about. Bubbles were meant to pop, and I’m sure that this one will pop again, and one of you might be a part of the students who will pop it.

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A recorded livestream of ND Against ACB demonstration from October 29th, 2020 can be found on Instagram at @ndagainstacb

Author

  • Matt Heilman is a sophomore from Carmel, Indiana studying Neuroscience & Behavior and Gender Studies in the College of Arts and Letters alongside a minor in International Development Studies. He serves as a general staff writer, contributing to whatever section his writing topic of interest best fits within. Matt is extremely passionate about public health inequities especially with regards to access to mental healthcare, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and other more specialized yet equally necessary healthcare treatment; he is an strong advocate of the abolition of the for-profit healthcare system currently dominant in the United States. He is involved with a number of student organizations and coalitions on and off campus that focus on a wide variety of issues including interfaith advocacy, gender relations, violence prevention, sexual and reproductive health & reproductive justice among others. He also likes to read and write a lot in his free time, which is part of what led him to the Irish Worker.

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