Close to 100 protesters composed of students, faculty, and staff of the Claremont Colleges gathered outside fences that were set up around the perimeter of the gym for an “Unwelcoming Condoleezza Rice” demonstration as the 66th U.S. Secretary of State spoke inside Claremont McKenna College’s (CMC) Ducey Gym on Wednesday, Nov. 30. Spearheaded by a group of Pitzer College students, the peaceful demonstration protested Rice’s visit to the Claremont Colleges, which was part of her book tour to promote No Higher Honor, published Nov. 1. The demonstration featured teach-ins, a vigil, and a waterboarding simulation.
Sebastian Aguiar PZ ’12, a lead organizer of the protest, emphasized the importance of holding Rice accountable for her actions and international policy positions while Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, under the George W. Bush administration.
“The reason that we’re organizing this demonstration is to bring heat to the former Secretary of State, for her war crimes and also to stir public awareness,” he said. “We want to send the message that imperialism will not be tolerated.”
“We should all be aware that her actions before and after the Bush administration have made the world a less safe place,” protester Michael Landsman PZ ’12 added. “She is intellectually and morally unfit to be speaking in our community.”
Protestors particularly condemned Rice for her support of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and her role in the Bush administration’s policies towards the Middle East. They charged Rice with authorizing torture, misrepresenting the danger of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to the American public, and committing international war crimes. Picketers gathered along the perimeter of Ducey Gym held signs that read, “Shame on Condi,” “No Blood for Oil,” and “Waterboarding is Torture.”
Faculty and staff at Pomona and Pitzer Colleges, including Pomona Politics Professor Heather Williams, Pitzer Political Studies Professor Dana Ward, and Pitzer Anthropology and Historical Studies Professor Daniel Segal held teach-ins to educate demonstration attendees about the various alleged illegal actions taken by the Bush administration. The teach-ins were followed by a waterboarding simulation that was intended as a protest against U.S. interrogation tactics known to have been used by the Bush administration against some prisoners. One protestor volunteered to cover his face with a t-shirt and to be tied to a table while he was doused with water. The demonstrations also featured a candlelight vigil in honor of those who died as a result of the Bush administration’s policies, including U.S. soldiers and civilians in the Middle East.
Despite the large attendance at the demonstration, which was closely monitored by several Campus Safety officers, some students expressed opposition to the protest, claiming it was disrespectful and counterproductive.
“I find it really funny that this is the response, instead of engagement with the person you criticize, which seems more constructive than picketing,” Dante Toppo CM ’15 said.
“I think it would be better if they came in and asked questions,” Anastasia Lee CM ’12 added.
Other students criticized some of the claims of the protesters as exaggerated or inaccurate, though they affirmed their disapproval of some of Rice’s politics.
“I don’t agree with the decision to go to war with Iraq; I think it could have been handled differently. But I don’t think that makes her a war criminal,” Rachel Havranek PO ’14 said. “I think it’s important that people are expressing their opinions, but I think they’re taking too extreme of a position.”
Leah Soffer SC ’14 was more adamant about her opposition to the protesters.
“I think it’s ridiculous. If one of the most famous people in the U.S. wants to come speak here, we should feel fortunate to have her,” she said. “There are a lot of extreme speakers that come to the 5Cs, and nobody protests, but when Condoleezza Rice comes, people protest, and that’s probably more because she’s famous.”
The topic of Rice’s fame was explored in Williams’s teach-in, where she expressed concern that Rice’s public presence excused her from being held accountable for her stances and actions.
“It’s the culture of celebrity—we like them because we’ve seen them on TV, regardless of what they’ve done,” she said.
Director of the CMC Athenaeum Bonnie Snortum, who helped bring Rice to Claremont, admitted that celebrity status can make a candidate more attractive during the search process for speakers, but she said she was surprised by the protest.
“We pride ourselves in having interesting people come, who are high-profile and active in the limelight, so we knew there would be controversy,” she said. “We’ve had that in the past, but we never anticipated a protest.”
According to CMC Dean of Students Mary Spellman, safety concerns surrounding the protest were the main motivation for the last-minute venue change for the speech from the recently-remodeled Mariner Cook Athenaeum to Ducey Gym.
“We decided to move the speech from the Athenaeum to ensure [students’] safety, Dr. Rice’s safety, and the safety of our community members,” Spellman told protesters before Rice’s speech. “We weren’t sure that outside groups would not interfere and pose a danger; it wasn’t about what you intend to do. This decision lets you have a safer protest. We see this [protest] as countering speech with speech and we want to support that.”
Some protesters, however, including Pitzer Psychology Professor Mita Banerjee, were not convinced by Spellman’s explanation, calling the switch a deliberate attempt to stifle the demonstration.
“I think it’s really problematic, and it was designed to limit dissent and opposition,” she said. “I don’t believe their parting line, their claim that this puts us in closer contact with Dr. Rice. It’s another attempt to control things, just like their demonstration zone [outside Ducey Gym]. It’s a violation of the First Amendment.”
“Cowardly,” Ward said of the venue change.
Snortum affirmed the school’s commitment to peaceful exchange of differing opinions.
“That’s what an intellectual community should do—discuss ideas—and we can’t please everybody,” she said. “That’s part of the educational process; that’s what college campuses are for.”