WASHINGTON — Protesters interrupted former FBI Director James Comey as he addressed Howard University students on Friday.
Comey delivered the Opening Convocation address, marking the start of fall classes at the historically black college in the nation’s capital.
After taking to the podium and thanking the university’s president, about 20 protesters stood and chanted while others in the audience applauded them. The chants included “We are here to reclaim this space,” “Get out James Comey,” and “No justice, no peace.”
Others in the audience responded with a call of “let him speak.” Those who wanted to hear Comey speak were asked to stand, and most of the auditorium did.
After standing silently at the podium for several minutes, Comey began his speech and pressed on as the protest continued. He aimed some of his remarks at the demonstrators.
“I love the enthusiasm of the young folks. I just wish they would understand what a conversation is,” Comey said.
In his speech, Comey contrasted college campuses with “the rest of the real world,” where “it’s hard sometimes to find people who will listen with an attitude that they might actually be convinced of something,” he said. “Instead, what happens in most of the real world, and about four rows in this auditorium, is that people don’t listen at all. They just try to figure out what rebuttal they’re going to offer when you’re done speaking,” he said, drawing applause from the audience.
Other parts of Comey’s speech, about his life in college and his views of the importance of higher education, were lost amid the commotion.
Protesters claimed that while at the FBI, Comey targeted the Black Lives Matter movement and downplayed racism among police. Students were also unhappy with his handling of the Hillary Clinton email server investigation during the 2016 presidential election.
“I support the demonstration 100 percent. Black voices need to be heard,” said freshman Sade Johnson. “They want to have a simple conversation — it’s beyond simple conversation.”
Alumna Cynthia Ward says she does not necessarily mind Comey coming to Howard, but she said that people voicing their opinion are part of the university’s tradition. “This is what Howard is, and this is what has to happen for us to move forward.”
Freshman Brittney Zapata did not support the protesters.
“I feel like everybody in there wasn’t listening,” she said. “I feel like that’s not fair at all.” She said she has no issue with Comey and does not understand why he is being considered a racially divisive figure.
“Anybody who comes here, even if I don’t agree with them, I want to hear their side and I want to hear them speak,” said freshman Darius Emmanuel. He said although he believes protests are “beautiful,” he also thinks this “fractures our reputation as a school.”
“Students spoke their minds, and we gave them the opportunity to do so,” said Barnard Mair, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We are a school that encourages discourse at difficult times.”
Still, he admitted he was not expecting such a response when Comey was invited to speak.
Comey is also expected to lead a series of lectures at Howard this academic year.
The university’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, said in a statement in August that he hopes Comey’s lectures will “go a long way in sparking rich discussion and advancing meaningful debates across campus.”
Comey’s tenure leading the FBI ended abruptly when he was fired by President Donald Trump in May. FBI directors typically serve 10-year terms; Comey was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013.
He previously served as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond Law School.
WTOP’s Amanda Iacone contributed to this report.
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