HU Resist’s threat to protest at Howard University’s Opening Convocation on Friday became a reality as the administration failed to meet its demands to refrain from giving James Comey a platform to speak. The student group interrupted the former FBI director’s speech with chanting and singing as soon as he stepped before the microphone at Cramton Auditorium.
Many students had opposed welcoming Comey as the convocation speaker — especially for Howard’s 150th anniversary — because they said his actions at the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not reflect Howard’s values and morals. Campus organizations such as HU Resist, created in 2015, were dissatisfied with the university’s direction and its interactions with the Trump Administration, such as a previous visit by Education Secretary Betsy Vos. HU Resist threatened to protest at convocation if the administration refused to acknowledge the views of its student body.
Over 400 students signed our petition denouncing the appointment of Comey as our guest speaker at this year’s welcoming convocation. pic.twitter.com/Xcklx8ghLA
— #HUResist (@HUResist) September 20, 2017
During the ceremony, which signals the start of a new year and welcomes the incoming freshman class, a student was escorted from the top tier of the auditorium for holding a sign and being disruptive. Although the ruckass was not loud, it caused many people to turn their heads to see what what was going on behind them. Stacey J. Mobley, chairman of the Board of Trustees, had just encouraged the audience to leave a legacy by creating a plan and name for themselves in keeping with the university’s new motto, “The time is always now.”
Once Comey stood in front of the microphone to address the audience, other protesters in the top tier broke out in a civil rights song, “I Shall Not Be Moved.” Chants followed as the students shouted “no justice, no peace,” a slogan popularized decades ago by the Rev. Al Sharpton and later used by Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown. Comey stood attentively listening to the protesters as they voiced their opinion and exercised their First Amendment rights.
However, once the protesters appeared to quiet down, James Comey asked the protesters to listen to him since that he had listened to them. He attempted to speak about having healthy conversations about their claims. Still, the students continued to interrupt Comey with chants as they held signs featuring Fred Hampton and Assata Shakur or brown papers with Black Lives Matter written on them.
The protests continued unchallenged for more than 15 minutes until Comey decided to begin his speech. Although competing with the voices of the students protesting, Comey continued to speak encouraging students to encompass post-secondary education as a glimpse of the real world. He also spoke on the importance of “schools like Howard,” and the significance of being able to have healthy conversations with people who may not agree or otherwise understand different perspectives on issues facing society.
The protesters eventually walked out the side exit of Cramton Auditorium, holding their fists in the air as a symbol of the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s.
In closing, President Wayne A.I. Frederick spoke of his love for Howard students despite their demonstration differences. He said that although he honors the voice of his students expressed in protest, he acknowledges the importance of respectfully addressing people of different views and also giving them a chance to speak. He ended on a light note assuring professors that they will have interesting experiences if their students happen to be the protesters, by adapting one of the chants and saying “unless your name is Comey, then they won’t be your homie.”
Ending in light laughs and claps, the crowd crossed arms and held hands with the people sitting to their left and right as they stood to sing Howard’s alma mater. Waving programs in the air, students then watched the exit of the academic procession as Comey left through another door while the protest continued outside.
Brianna Nargiso is a journalism major at Howard University.