Kicking Out Condi: No Rice at Rutgers
By David Bedford
After Rutgers students sat-in to protest Condoleezza Rice’s selection as commencement speaker, media outlets from across the country, ranging from USA Today to Fox News to the Daily Beast, tried their best to shoot us down. They accused us of silencing Rice’s right to free speech, of disrespecting our university, and of misunderstanding the nature of commencement ceremonies. But truly it is they who do not understand.
What about the right of the audience to free speech? Where was our stage to address Rice’s lies to the American people about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Or her support for torture as a means of interrogation? And it is not just students who are denied the opportunity to engage in free speech with Rice and other members of the Bush administration. What about all of those who stand against war and violence and US imperialism, and who are routinely silenced and denied the right to speak?
To claim our actions were out of disrespect is to fail to see the full scope of the issue. What about all of the members of the Rutgers community who lost family and friends due to the policies Rice pushed forward? Whether they be citizens of Iraq or US soldiers, when do those whose loved ones have been lost get to speak to Rice? So many outlets claim that we were against her political views, but it is so much more than that. We are against her political actions which have negatively impacted the lives of millions. Commencement ceremonies are not a space for dialogue, but instead one-sided remarks to which the audience can not respond.
And so, we organized because if we had not, there would be no way of shifting the dialogue so that her actions are more widely recognized.
From the very beginning, the NoRice campaign at Rutgers University was motivated by two major principles. The first was that a war criminal should not be honored as our commencement speaker. The second was that the selection process for commencement speakers should be far more transparent and democratic.
At commencement, the Rutgers administration intended to bestow Rice with an honorary Doctorate of Laws. As someone who circumvented international law to enable torture tactics during the Iraq War, and as someone who lied to the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the bestowal of such an honor for Rice would be a disgrace to all students and members of the Rutgers community. It would send the wrong message to graduating students: that as long as you have power and prestige, you will never be reprimanded for you wrongdoings; you will instead be lauded.
When the selection of Condoleeza Rice as commencement speaker was announced in February, there was an immediate response of disgust from students and faculty. People tried to express their dissent through campus publications and to address concerns through proper administrative channels, but to no avail. The Rutgers Faculty Council passed a resolution in February calling on the administration to rescind Rice’s invitation. Students tried to do the same through the student government association without success.
In the midst of the controversy, President Robert Barchi issued a statement to the university in which he defended Rice’s selection. He basically claimed that the discourse occurring on campus was commendable, but that regardless of what was said, her invitation would not be considered for revocation. Despite our efforts to address our concerns through proper institutional channels, it became evident by April that the administration would only use these channels to stifle our progress. And so it was then that we decided to organize on our own terms.
In mid-April, several students met to discuss methods of spreading awareness. They developed literature to hand out on campus and decided on a social media campaign branded with the hashtag #NoRice. At Tent State, a week-long, student-run political arts and culture event, members of the NoRice campaign flyered from early in the day until late at night. We also aired documentaries and hosted a live painting of a Condoleezza Rice mural. All in all, we captured the attention of several hundred students in a few days.
After gaining so many more supporters in such a short period of time, we decided we had built enough momentum to escalate with our campaign and pressure the administration with direct action tactics. Thus far they had been unwilling to entertain any conversations with us, so we decided to take our demands to them directly. On Friday, April 25th we began plans for a sit-in on Monday, April 28th at Winants Hall, the building that houses the offices of President Robert Barchi and his close administration. Our primary demand was now that Rutgers rescind Condoleezza Rice’s invitation.
Over the weekend, we reached out to our peers to gather as many participants as possible. Just before noon on Monday, roughly 50 students gathered a block away from Winants Hall and marched towards the building holding up signs and chanting about Rice’s crimes. When we arrived, the first entrance was locked and blocked by security. Undeterred, we walked around the building to the other entrance, which was also blocked. Fortunately, a second security guard opened the door to assist the first guard that was already outside. When he did, we pushed through, all 50 of us, and marched up to the second floor where President Barchi’s offices were located.
With security blocking the doors to the offices on the second floor, we chanted relentlessly for almost an hour. Despite the request of administrators for us to leave or be quiet, we remained steady with our chants, unwilling to leave until our demands were met. Inside we had the presence of two local media sites, New Brunswick Today, and the Daily Targum, as well as a representative from the National Lawyer’s Guild. With their participation, it was much easier to pressure those inside.
While many of us occupied the office, roughly 100 others gathered outside throughout the day for additional support. They helped explain our demands to the media, and command the attention of people passing by. Multiple people, including Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Felicia McGinty, tried to negotiate with us and offer us lesser concessions. But we refused all offers and were only willing to accept the revocation of Rice’s invitation.
Although we were told that anyone who remained in the building after 5 pm would face severe consequences, we stayed until after 6 pm. Our demands had not yet been met, but we had made great progress considering the vast amount of support and attention we had gathered. Later that night, we met to discuss further steps. Everyone felt empowered by the sit-in; many more students, faculty, and community members were joining our cause. From that night onward, we met every day to strategize in the most democratic fashion. A new facilitator was chosen for each meeting, and no actions were taken without the consent of the whole body.
By the next day, we had planned for a banner drop on campus to advertise the campaign. We were publishing articles, dispersing literature, and accepting invitations to major media sites where we explained our cause. We were also meeting with administrators who were only willing to listen now that their reputations had been compromised.
Working off of the momentum from the sit-in, we planned another action at a Big Ten conference scheduled for May 2nd. We intended to express our demands during the open forum section, while the majority of us wore duct tape over our mouths to symbolize the voices silenced during the Iraq War. On May 1st, the Rutgers administration cancelled the conference for unclear reasons, but most likely because they discovered the public advertisement we had made for our protest earlier that morning. The night of May 1st we quickly shifted tactics to focus on the University Senate meeting which featured students, faculty, and staff from all three Rutgers campuses. President Robert Barchi would be attendance, and we could finally address him directly with our demands.
On May 2nd, at the Senate meeting, roughly 100 students gathered to express their dissent for Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker. We hosted a mic check, in which all 100 of us chanted our demands in unison to President Barchi. Afterwards, in the public sector portion, several dozen testimonies were delivered by students and faculty, calling attention for the administration’s lack of transparency, and lack of regard for the opinions of the university’s members. By this time, our campaign had gained a great deal of press attention, so although Barchi tried to claim he did not have the power to rescind the invitation, he was clearly intimidated. He agreed to meet with us to discuss the issue, and work on a more transparent process for selection.
The next day, on May 3rd, Condoleezza Rice backed out from her position as commencement speaker. We were all elated. We were confident in our abilities to achieve our demands, but I believe most of us were surprised to achieve them so quickly. It had taken less than a week since the sit-in to build enough power to pressure Rice out of commencement.
Kicking Condoleezza Rice out of Rutgers was a great victory, but there is still much more work to be done. And so even after Rice announced she was backing out, we continued to meet everyday, in the same fashion as before with full democratic participation. We intend to cultivate a movement that allows all who have been silenced by people like Condoleezza Rice to speak, and eventually brings their crimes into question before a large majority of the people.