Washington — A small but boisterous contingent of student protesters disrupted what might have otherwise been an unremarkable convocation speech by former FBI director James Comey Friday at Howard University.
A Diverse writer had a front row seat for the convocation chaos — and its aftermath — which marked the historically Black university’s 150th year. The convocation ceremonies began smoothly enough with the traditional formalities, prayers and banter from university president Dr. Wayne A.I Frederick, who jokingly lamented how the Twitter-sphere slept on so many of the university’s recent accomplishments, from moving up 14 spots to No. 110 in the US News college rankings to a historic, record-breaking upset against UNLV during week one of college football.
Frederick heaped praise upon Comey for his professional career in criminal justice and for deferring his $100,000 in compensation for his position as 2017-2018 Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard to support seven students who were in foster care.
After the accolades ended and once Comey stepped to the lectern, before he could utter a single word from the microphone, a group of about two dozen students in the balcony seats in the Cramton Auditorium broke out and started singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” and then transitioned to “I love Being Black.” They shouted “No James Comey / Not our homey,” then “No Justice, No Peace,” and accused Comey of representing white supremacy.
At one point they shouted obscenities but that prompted the audience to turn against the protesters and shout “Let him speak.” As Comey waited for the commotion to subside, campus police moved in closer to the student protesters but were largely restrained.
Comey tried to humor the situation away by saying he only planned to speak 12 minutes and that the protesters were “getting in the way of lunch.” When it appeared as though the police might be about to forcibly remove the student protesters, Dr. Bernard L. Richardson, dean of the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, stepped to the microphone and called the officers off.
“Hold up, officers, hold up,” Richardson pleaded. “Hold up for a second. If you want to know the Howard way, that’s not the Howard University way,” he said to loud applause. “You made your point,” Richardson said. “Now let us debate and discuss the issue.”
His appeal, however, was to no avail. “White supremacy is not a debate!” one of the protesters shouted back.
Richardson asked how many wanted to hear Comey speak and virtually everyone in the auditorium stood up.
Nevertheless, the protesters continued their disruptions, saying they were there to “reclaim this space.”
With that, Comey decided to give his speech regardless. Some of the speech seemed applicable to the protesters except for the fact that Comey was reading prepared remarks. He criticized those who seek a platform before they seek a purpose and of taking a particular side rather than trying to understand if they are on the right side.
“They are mostly about their side,” Comey said. He praised Howard University for producing graduates who have gone out and reshaped the world. He extolled the university as a “safe place” for students who face the “opportunity and challenge of being Black in America.” He said Howard was designed and remains to be a place where bright and young people can be tested and challenged.
“It’s a place where the people will insist that you actually listen and understand those with whom you are speaking,” Comey said to applause. He said the United States had been through some “very tough times” but that Howard University “reminds us that every single person can make a contribution and a difference. “Be that kind of person,” Comey said.
The remarks that seemed most pointed at the protesters but which were evidently part of his prepared remarks came at the end, when Comey said: “Welcome to Howard. I’m honored to be here with you and I look forward to adult conversations about what is right and what is true.”
Later, in impromptu speeches outside the auditorium and later at the nearby Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration building, student protesters — who declined to be identified and refused to grant interviews to the media — said Comey represents a system of white supremacy and an agency that has been complicit in the murder of Black leaders.
They flat out rejected Comey’s broad invitation to have a discussion and debate, and criticized the “bourgeoisie” who gave him a standing ovation for making that statement and dismissed it as being disingenuous given what they believe is the agency’s complicity in the murder of Black leaders.
“Let me ask Comey: Did the FBI let Martin Luther King participate in the conversation?” one male student protester asked. “No!” the crowd shouted back.
“Did the FBI let Malcolm X participate in the conversation? Did the FBI let Fred Hampton participate in the conversation?
Jordan Jean, who identified himself as senior and political science major and aspiring law school student, is an outspoken critic of the student protesters at Howard.
“I think they have a point but the way they go about it is not conducive to any real … we won’t have any real solutions the way they go about it,” Jean said in an interview outside the auditorium. “It’s all emotionalism,” Jean said. “They can’t expect the world to change by acting like this.”
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