WASHINGTON — James Comey (at right) was met with protests when he spoke at Howard University’s convocation Friday, a sign, perhaps, of the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director’s long road ahead at the historically black university.
Comey, who was appointed to the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard last month, was met with protests and chants of “No justice, no peace” and “I love being black,” as well as “We shall not be moved,” when he took the stage. After waiting about 15 minutes, he decided to speak over the chants — which did not subside throughout his speech — from a group of students attending the ceremony.
Interviews with students on campus the next day painted a picture of a student population where many are skeptical of or neutral about Comey at best. Amid a larger debate over campus speakers, many students at historically black colleges have objected to inviting speakers they view as not having been supportive of black people or black institutions. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced protesting students throughout a commencement address in May at Bethune Cookman University, another historically black university.
In interviews on Howard’s campus, students offered a range of views on what happened.
“I honestly give [Comey] props for that,” Alexis Barge, a marketing major who was seated near the protesters, said of Comey trying to wait for the protests to subside. “He was very calm; he wasn’t looking angry or anything like that.”
Though she took some issues with the way the protest was carried out, she said she agreed with the protesters’ cause. The 50 or so students who protested, who organized on social media under the name HUResist, gathered in opposition to Comey because of his tenure at the FBI.
“Convocation is an event designed to officially welcome freshmen and transfer students into the historically black university,” the group said in a statement posted to social media. “Comey, ironically, boasted many affronts to black communities and communities of color during his tenure with the FBI, including the dismissal of racist state-sanctioned violence, and efforts to dismantle the growing Black Lives Matter movement, similar to the FBI’s efforts to dismantling of [sic] the civil rights and Black Power movements just a few decades prior.”
One specific charge that the group brought up in its statement was the “Ferguson effect.” In 2015, following the protests in Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, Comey said that the scrutiny officers were receiving in the following months was hampering their ability to do their jobs effectively.
“Where we are stepping back a little bit is at the margins, where we might otherwise have gotten out of our cars and talked to a group,” Comey said police officers had told him. “We’re not doing that so much anymore because we don’t feel like being that guy in the video.”
Comey’s comments were controversial at the time and earned rebuke from the Obama White House.
“[The protesters] started off right, but then it got really rowdy. They were cursing, and there were children there. I’m not a fan of James Comey myself, for certain reasons,” Barge said. “I do believe they should have let him speak, a little bit.”
“If I would have known about the protest, I honestly would have been a part of it.”
Samara Archibald, who studies nursing, also said she has a skeptical outlook of Comey. And her criticism of the protest, as was Barge’s, was about the way it was organized rather than its message.
“There were rowdier people who started getting in the front, and they were a lot more angry. The way they were saying it wasn’t as well-spoken as the people who were starting at the beginning,” said Archibald, who watched the convocation ceremony via a video feed.
“It started getting a lot more disorganized,” she said, adding she would have preferred letting Comey speak. “I do stand with the protesters, I do stand with their message.” read more