Protesting John Kerry at UMass

August 5, 2009

Chanelle John explains why activists decided to protest a commencement speaker.

EARLIER THIS year, a group of student activists, including members of Students Against Occupation and the International Socialist Organization, gathered at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Boston graduation ceremony to voice their opposition to the university's choice of commencement speaker, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

The students aimed to generate dialogue and to educate the university community about our senator's shameful record of supporting war and occupation--and to raise questions about the UMass administration's undemocratic and questionable priorities.

The students did not intend to have a disruptive protest. They came to campus with fact sheets about Sen. Kerry and signs that said "Fund Education, Not Occupation" for graduating students to wear or hold during the ceremony. The activists were using the event to further their ongoing transparency campaign embodied in a petition that called for the university to make information about its investments available to the public. The student activists were immediately surrounded by police, silenced and kicked out, under threat of arrest.

Kerry, a Massachusetts senator who is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has supported and continues to support the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. These policies have not only destroyed those areas, but also continually drain critical tax revenue away from much needed domestic programs including the funding of public education, educational aid grants, veterans services and job programs.

The occupation of Iraq alone has created over 5 million refugees, murdered 1.5 million Iraqis, taken the lives of over 5,000 U.S. soldiers, and wounded tens of thousands more. In Afghanistan, escalating troop levels are escalating casualties and misery for the Afghan people. US and NATO airstrikes routinely target civilian gatherings, such as wedding parties, murdering scores of Afghanis at a time.

In addition to championing these ongoing war crimes, Kerry supports Israeli apartheid and recently spoke at the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee conference, where he stated that America's support "for Israel's dream and for Israel's security" will never change and that support for Israel is "a matter of gut and heart."

He is committed to ensuring that Israel's ongoing war on the Palestinian people will continue to be enabled by a steady flow of tax dollars and weapons from the U.S.

THE MAJORITY of students, faculty and staff on campus do not support U.S.-led or U.S.-funded wars of aggression and occupation. The position of the UMass administration, however, is not so clear.

The administration invited Daniel Taub, the top legal advisor to the Israeli Defense Forces, to speak on campus about what "really" happened in Gaza. They also invited Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard professor and globally notorious Zionist apologist for apartheid, who supports the destruction of Palestinian villages, inhumane torture that violates the Geneva Accords, and the execution of family members of suicide bombers.

When students organized to have a vocal and visible presence challenging these speakers who were given a pulpit to provide cover for massacre and atrocities, school administrators harassed and villainized them at every turn.

Administrators claimed that their problem with anti-occupation activists was not what they were saying, but only how they were saying it, portraying activists as rude, obnoxious, violating Dershowitz's free-speech rights, violating decorum and picket codes, and creating hazardous situations.

However, when community and student activists decided to organize an educational conference on campus about the occupation of Palestine, the administration tried to prevent and undermine the event up until the day it occurred by subjecting the students involved in organizing it to fabricated and non-standard usage fees. The Dean of Student Affairs, Marita Labedz Poll, openly admitted to members of Students Against Occupation that they would be charged, even though Taub and Deshowitz were invited free of charge.

Despite the fact that the wars Kerry favors ravages the lives of American soldiers, the university administration claims he was invited because of his "life-long fight for his fellow veterans."

What is damaging to the lives, minds and bodies of veterans is carrying out unjust war. The Department of Veterans Affairs is constantly underfunded and veterans are routinely denied medical care while the Pentagon budget is never threatened. Our government uses veterans up and throws them away

At UMass Boston, one can clearly see how the war mentally and physically damages veterans. There was an incident where a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was censored at a campus-sponsored event for criticizing the university's lack of support and resources for veterans. One student-veteran with PTSD reported they got suspended from school after having a PTSD episode in class.

When student activists, including veterans, have visibly and vocally opposed the presence of military recruiters on campus, the UMass administration has repeatedly supported UMass police taking action against them.

Several years ago, campus police, at the behest of recruiters, beat up Tony Van Der Meer, a well-known anti-racist Africana Studies professor who had challenged the racist comments of a recruiter and defended students' right to hand out antiwar and anti-racist literature on campus.

After the professor was pinned to the ground, he was arrested, cuffed to a wall for several hours and then slapped with criminal bogus charges. While top Umass officials could have intervened to correct the miscarriage of justice, they did not, and charges were only dropped after an intensive and broad campaign that received international support.

Inviting John Kerry, a proud war supporter who continues to send poor and working-class kids to risk life, limb and sanity for chance at education, shows a blatant disregard for the veteran community on campus.

BY CONSISTENTLY supporting funding for America's project of controlling the Middle East and its oil resources no matter the human or environmental toll, Kerry is also responsible for stealing money from communities to finance America's imperial war crimes.

According to the National Priorities Project, the amount of money that Massachusetts taxpayers have paid for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan could have provided Pell Grants of $5350 to 4,791,978 students. This is a deeply felt loss for students at UMass Boston and for the diverse, urban Massachusetts population that UMass Boston prides itself on serving, given that 36 percent of UMass Boston students report stress due to lack of money for personal and family essentials and 56 percent report that the advancement of their education is a major cause of life stress.

Instead of challenging politicians like Kerry and Gov. Deval Patrick to reverse systematic de-funding of public education, the university has proposed a $1,500 fee hike, to be instituted next year.

When over 100 students from the four UMass campuses went to protest the trustees' meeting where the decision was being made, they faced threats and intimidation by the administration. Later, they even attempted to have the progressive student trustee--the only trustee that is elected--removed from his position on the board.

While the university cried poverty in order to push through fee hikes and salary freezes, they were quietly building a 18,000 square foot "Venture Development Center" (VDC)--which aims to focus on "industry partnerships" and developing lucrative research and commercialization contracts. At the VDC gala opening, Sen. Kerry was thanked profusely. Officials explained that they could not have done it without the work he did on their behalf.

John Kerry and the UMass administration seem to be on board with a project of the privatization of public higher education in Massachusetts. While they pit students, faculty, and other campus workers against each other, we all need to be pointing the finger at the people at the top making out like bandits.

The reality of what John Kerry's actions show him to stand for is in stark contradiction to the stated values of the University and the values of the campus community. The students' and graduates' opinions were never consulted when Kerry was chosen to speak. Many were outraged not only that Kerry was invited to speak, but at the lack of democracy in the whole process.

Students Against Occupation sent a letter to the Chancellor explaining their frustration with the lack of community inclusion in the process and their dissatisfaction with John Kerry's pro-war politics before graduation, and still their concerns were ignored. One student even attempted to set up a meeting for the whole group with the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Patrick Day, and never received a response.

The actions of the administration make bold statements about their priorities. The University is not interested in transparency or involving the students when it comes to making decisions. They support the privatization of the school on the students' backs. They stand on the side of funding occupation and war instead of funding education.

Students, faculty and staff need to come together to make it clear to the UMass administration that we will not stand for this injustice, and that we demand our university stand upon the values of peace and democracy.

Further Reading

From the archives