Katie Sturm

Expecto Patronum: Lessons from Harry Potter for Social Justice Organizing

Expecto Patronum: Lessons from Harry Potter for Social Justice Organizing
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Have you daydreamed about being a member of an intergenerational social justice organization like the Order of Phoenix? Do you want Dumbledore to be your mentor?

Have dementors ever burned you out to the point where you doubted your ability to take on the Voldemorts of our world? Do you find yourself analyzing Dumbledore’s Army for lessons on developing liberatory vision, culture, leadership, and organization?

Me too. Let’s develop our magic, build our liberation movement, and defeat the Voldemorts in our world. I’ll meet you in the Room of Requirement, and until then, here are my top lessons from Harry Potter for social justice organizing.

1. The Voldemort Principle of Systems of Oppression and Getting Free

Voldemort and the Death Eaters suck and they want to impose pure-blood supremacy in the magical world as a means to consolidate their power. Their strategy follows a familiar logic. Organize society into classes according to socially perceived biological differences. Criminalize those on the margins, those born of muggle parents, like Hermione. Position themselves as the defenders of Tradition and the Natural Order. Divide society according to socially perceived biological differences and political loyalty. Use fear and hate to weaken the bonds of solidarity throughout society, while simultaneously uniting the right. Fight the Left, take power, and remake the world in their own image. Dismal? But there’s more, and here’s where the insight lies.

Just as many of us come into activism through our growing awareness of injustices in society, such as economic inequality, war, sexism, and racism, Harry comes into activism through his growing awareness of Voldemort’s evil. But over time, Harry realizes that Voldemort is also inside his head. While we who are activists can and must be literate in the ways that white supremacy creates profound disparity of access to resources such as housing, health care, and education, we also come to find that white supremacy is inside our heads – for those of us who are people of color as internalized inferiority and for those of us who are white as internalized superiority. Voldemort, like the real-world systems of oppression we are up against, is both a force in the world structuring our society and inside our heads.

The great South African anti-Apartheid leader Steven Biko once said, “The most powerful weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” If the oppressed fight each other based on differences of race, gender, ability, citizenship status, sexuality, and so on, and if the oppressed also believe that there is no alternative – that they are incapable of making substantial change and are incapable of self-governing – then the oppressed will maintain the logic and institutions of deeply unequal and unjust societies.

In order to effectively take on Voldemort in the world, Harry must come to consciousness about the Voldemort in his head and resist his influence. Voldemort’s influence leads Harry into the battle at the Ministry of Magic, which results in Sirius’s death. It is Voldemort’s influence that also fuels Harry’s anger, which at times, isolates Harry from his comrades. When Harry directly challenges Voldemort in the world, Harry is able to free his mind of Voldemort’s influence. On the flipside, as Harry becomes more aware of his connection with Voldemort, he is able to gain insights into Voldemort’s logic and plans. This moment, an apex of Harry’s consciousness, is also an important insight about our internalizing of the logic of systems of oppression. Through reflection and awareness, we can draw lessons on how oppression operates and use those lessons to help develop an anti-racist, feminist, disability justice, queer and transgender liberationist, working class-based anti-capitalist movement (aka the Left).

As social justice organizers and leaders, the responsibility rests on us to help more and more activists understand the world of power around them and its historical roots, to realize the way socialization and position in society impact our consciousness, and to understand our own personal decolonization from systems of oppression as part of collective struggles for social justice and structural equality. We must help one another become conscious of the ways Voldemort gets in our heads and, together, work to get free.

2. The Power of Love as the Practice of Freedom

After Dumbledore and Voldemort duel in the Ministry of Magic, Voldemort possesses Harry’s mind, and tells Dumbledore and Harry that their defeat is imminent. Voldemort declares that Harry’s efforts will fail and then fills his mind with images of the horrors that will engulf the world. As Harry struggles in anguish, lying on the floor, Dumbledore whispers to him, “Harry, it isn’t how you are alike [with Voldemort i.e., white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy]. It is how you are not.” At that moment Harry sees Hermione, Ron, Ginny, and others enter the room and his mind fills with images of loving embraces with his family and friends, of his beloved community. At this juncture, Harry responds to Voldemort, “You’re the weak one, and you will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.” Through reconnecting with his values and his community, Harry accesses the power of love, repels Voldemort, and finds his courage for the fight ahead.

Anti-racist feminist socialist scholar bell hooks speaks of love as the practice of freedom. What we are up against is daunting and, at times, voices in our heads tell us that we will be defeated or even that we already are. hooks asks us to take up work against injustice in the spirit of Dr. King who said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Harry often struggled to see the power of love, as revenge and anger weighted his motivation. While anger helped bring him into the struggle, just as it brings many of us into social justice work, it couldn’t sustain him or ultimately help him achieve his larger goals.

One of the recurring images throughout Harry Potter is his mother, Lily, standing between her newborn son and Voldemort. Lily’s sacrifice was a powerful act of magic which saves Harry. The love of Harry’s mother and father was a source of power that healed and emboldened Harry. The more he opened himself to their love, the more he was able to powerfully act from love. In our social justice movement, when we are tired, weary and beat down, we must let the love of our ancestors heal and embolden us. The greatest of our leaders and organizers spoke of working for a better world for the coming generations. We are the ones they fought for. The extent to which we are disconnected from their love and our own ability to love is the extent to which Voldemort influences us.

“Your mother died to save you,” explained Dumbledore. “If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.” It is imperative that we ground ourselves in the visions we work for, the values we work from, and the love we have for our friends, families, and communities with which we work. While Voldemort might be in our heads, while there may be ways that we ourselves reproduce systems of oppression, while there will be many mistakes along our journey, how we are different from systems of oppression, how we love, is what is of utmost importance.

3. Expecto Patronum – Letting Our Light Shine

A Patronus charm conjures up a protective guardian, taking the shape of an animal that can repeal Dementors. The incantation, as Professor Lupin explains, will only work if you are concentrating on a very happy memory, which later we learn must be a memory rooted in love. Dementors are creatures that guard prisons, and in the words of Lupin, “drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them… every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” Dementors are all around us, from pundits on Fox News to Internet trolls who fill the comments section on blogs and Facebook with name-calling and insults. Dementors are also the voices in our heads that Biko warned us about, voices meant to keep us disempowered.

Our casting a Patronus mobilizes love as the practice of freedom that connects us to our power and express it in the world. All of us must work to connect to our own inner power, our own happiest of memories, and our own calling into courageous action. As liberation organizers, our responsibility is to foster culture and practices that light up the world with our collective Patronus charms. When everyday people in the Civil Rights movement sang “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Going to Let it Shine” in the face of violent police, attack dogs, and jail time, they connected to a deeper collective power that not only gave them the courage to act, but communicated the power of love over Jim Crow apartheid, to the world.

We can create a wide variety of such collective practices and rituals that help us step into loving liberatory power. That power removes Dementors and helps us be bold for justice. We can also create personal practices and rituals to connect us to our power, to help us cast our own Patronus charm. Take a moment to reflect on times you have experienced deep joy, liberatory power, and the tenderness of humanity. Now go forth and let your light shine!

4. Hogwarts, the Order of the Phoenix and Building Movement for Justice

Hogwarts is where young witches and wizards are educated and brought into the magical world. It is here they can be who they are, develop their powers, and be with peers, friends, teachers, and mentors. Hogwarts, like many schools around the world, is the primary place where new people come into contact with counter-narratives of history, interact with a wider cross section of people than they have before, learn values of equality and democracy, and, often, through groups like Dumbledore’s Army, have opportunities to join groups putting ideas into action in the world.

While a plurality of ideals exists at Hogwarts (including discriminatory policies against Squibs and non-human magical creatures), the institution is nevertheless deeply influenced by its Headmaster, Dumbledore, a queer, critical educator and a leader of the anti-Voldemort (i.e., anti-imperialist collective liberation-oriented) Order of the Phoenix. Over time, Hogwarts becomes a key site of struggle between the right-wing Death Eaters and the Left. There are Dolores Umbridge’s efforts to take over Hogwarts to suppress opposition to Voldemort and gut Defense of the Dark Arts classes (i.e., Arizona banning Ethnic Studies classes in conjunction with anti-immigrant legislation designed to disempower working class communities of color). Then Severus Snape takes over as the headmaster under Voldemort’s rule. The struggle over Hogwarts is ultimately a struggle over whose values will shape the common sense understandings of society.

On the eve of the final showdown, the Left retakes Hogwarts as Dumbledore’s Army unites with the Order of the Phoenix and in the struggle for power, everyone, regardless of previous affiliation or neutrality, must decide on which side they stand. As Professor McGonagall steps forward to defend Harry and vanquish Snape, all the other professors, along with the students in the houses of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw, unite behind the liberation movement. In a matter of minutes, with a new united power led by Left forces, the agents of Voldemort in the administration, and student sympathizers in the house of Slytherin, are disempowered, marginalized, and removed. With the neighboring town of Hogsmeade, Hogwards becomes, becomes a bastion of the anti-Voldemort movement, and the power of the institution and its communities (from the stone soldiers to the formerly neutral professors, students, and townspeople) are aligned with the Left and in motion to fight back.

Six key lessons emerge for our movement. First, we must assess the institutions in society, determine which ones have the most liberatory potential, and actively support efforts to govern them from the Left and marshal their powers to further social justice. Through our work, our values can shape the institutions and influence the common sense understandings in society.

Second, we need autonomous Left organizations like the Order of Phoenix to keep us guided by a larger vision, unite people across many institutions and communities with shared values and strategy, and take actions beyond the constraints institutional positions have on us. For instance, Kingsley Shacklebolt must play a limited public role in the fight against Voldemort through his position at the Ministry of Magic, but he is able to share information gathered at the Ministry with the Order of the Phoenix and is able to take action against Voldemort as a member of the Order. And even though he is in the Ministry, Kingsley and the Order prioritize direct action as their primary strategy for change.

Third, we need to be mindful of entry points for people to get actively involved in social justice efforts. We should support those entry points with people who have experience and connections in the broader movement, so that when new people come to consciousness about feminism, anti-racism, economic justice, disability justice, queer liberation, and so on, they are adequately supported as budding activists. Schools are hotbed entry points where tremendous national and local student organizations and tens of thousands of fantastic teachers thrive. We need more organizations like the Order of the Phoenix to help connect highly motivated and committed new activists (like Harry, Hermione, and Ron) with experienced activists and a larger multigenerational community of social justice thinkers and activists.

Fourth, there will be times, like the battle at Hogwarts or Occupy Wall Street, where large numbers of people, previously uninvolved, will take sides, get involved, and fight back. They might not all be involved for the same reasons as the Order, but their involvement is what turns the struggle into a mass movement potentially capable of making the systemic changes for justice we want and need. As we do the day-to-day work of social justice organizing, we must remain nimble in times of mass involvement so that we can be expansive while also helping bring leadership in a new phase of mass participation.

Fifth, there will be divisions among our opposition. Severus Snape’s love for Lily Potter converted him from a being a member of Vold

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