In February 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger held a “town meeting” at Ohio State University to rally public support for a new round of bombing of Iraq. Despite the administration’s careful orchestration of the event, the officials were repeatedly embarrassed by sharp questions from the audience about the devastating impact of economic sanctions on the Iraqi people, and the double standards inherent in US foreign policy in the Middle East. The Ohio State “town meeting” was a symbol that the anti-sanctions movement, long tiny and isolated, had come of age.

This May, protesters at the commencement ceremonies of George Washington University and UC-Berkeley took the movement to a new level of militancy. In Washington Sunday, dozens of activists handed out “Unofficial Commencement Ceremony Supplements,” prepared by George Washington university professor Thomas Nagy, listing “the top ten reasons to cheer” commencement speaker Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Among them: “Albright’s sanctions have killed half a million Iraqi kids under the age of five” and “Albright’s sanctions have destroyed the educational system of Iraq.” Secret Service personnel prohibited protesters with posters and banners from entering the seating area for the commencement, held at the Ellipse, a large outdoor venue on the Mall. Albright entered the Ellipse in her car, hiding her head in the lap of a Secret Service agent and covering it with her hands, according to an eyewitness.

Albright was likely haunted by her raucous reception at Berkeley on May 10, where protesters targeted her as a symbol of murderous US policies toward Iraq, Colombia and the former Yugoslavia. The protest brought together members organizations like the International Action Center, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Muslim Student Association, Muslims for Global Peace and Justice and the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, in addition to graduates who felt insulted that they were expected to celebrate their achievements with a woman so gravely compromised by her role in perpetuating sanctions.

Heavy Security Dampens Free Speech

The protest began at noon with a rally at UC-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, where activists from various ideological backgrounds gave speeches aimed at educating the public about sanctions which have severely damaged Iraq’s social and economic infrastructure, caused food, water and medicine shortages and killed more than 500,000 Iraqi children according to UNICEF studies. Some highlighted the use of depleted uranium munitions by US and British forces which has been linked to increases in leukemia and other cancers. Others drew attention to the ongoing US bombings of Iraq that are largely ignored by the US media.

After the rally, protesters marched to the Greek Theater where the commencement was to take place at 4:00 PM. By the time the theater doors opened at 2:00, picketing protesters were chanting slogans such as, “Albright, Albright, You Can’t Hide, We Charge You with Genocide,” and “1-2-3-4, We Don’t Want Your Dirty War, 5-6-7-8, End the Sanctions, End the Hate.” Gradually, area filled with reporters. When Albright’s car entered the vicinity, she could not exit the car without a group of security guards to help her scurry behind stage.

While many protesters made it into the ceremony, others remained outside awaiting Albright’s exit. Security guards posted at entry points searched bags and bodies, confiscating fliers and leaflets, and also newspapers and literature unrelated to the protest. Even the orange armbands that protesters and their allies wore were confiscated. Some wearing orange armbands were not allowed to enter the theater at all. As guests took their seats, security guards began tearing down signs and banners that made their way into the theater. They even tore down a banner that said, “We Love You Fadia,” which a group of students made as a gesture of friendship and congratulations to the Palestinian-American university medalist who was to sit on stage. An airplane flew overhead, pulling a sign that read, “End Sanctions on Iraq,” but disappeared within minutes.

Raising a Ruckus

When the ceremony began, every person on stage stood up to greet Madeleine Albright, but Fadia Rafeedie remained in her seat. She held her hands to herself as Albright passed by shaking hands.

At the beginning of the ceremony, the university pulled a fast one on Fadia and the protesters. At least a month beforehand, the university had told Fadia that she would speak before Albright. Fadia had spent nights on end preparing a speech that would only make sense if she presented it before Albright spoke. The commencement program listed Albright’s name after Rafeedie’s. But abruptly, university officials announced that Albright would speak first. Chancellor Robert Berdahl introduced Albright as “the greatest woman of our time.”

One by one, protesters began yelling slogans: “End the sanctions now!” “You’re a murderer!” “You have blood on your hands!” Security began removing protesters from the theater seconds after they opened their mouths. Some were taken by force (one Egyptian-American woman is still suffering from a twisted arm).

Albright tried to maintain her composure, although she could not say two words without interruption. She delivered a conventional speech, speaking of the US government’s concern for peace, human rights and democracy. Albright declared, “Our initiatives on women are part of a larger strategy for bringing the world closer together around basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. It’s why we support debt relief for the world’s poorest countries, and speak out against violations of human rights whether they occur in China or Chechnya, Serbia or Afghanistan,” protesters screamed “Liar!” The University of California reported that 59 individuals were forcibly evicted from the theater that afternoon. That number could easily have doubled had her speech lasted longer.

Throughout her speech, Albright tried to deflect the protests with humor, claiming, “I’m so glad to be at Berkeley!” Albright referred to Berkeley’s history of political activism and free speech, trying to reduce the protesters to a decoration on the landscape. At George Washington Sunday, she made a similarly dismissive reference to the protest, saying “I know there are some who are unhappy I was chosen, and I can understand why. If I were a graduate, I would have asked for Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise.”

Though Albright received a standing ovation, at the end of her Berkeley speech, security hustled her offstage immediately and escorted her lying face down on the back seat of her car off campus.

Special security attention was directed at the Arab and Muslim protesters. The security personnel standing near the practicing Muslim protesters clearly outnumbered the guards in any other area of the theatre. Some guests shouted, “Shut up!” and “Go back to Iraq!” at a group of Arab protesters sitting in front of them.

A Protester on Stage

University medalist Fadia Rafeedie, chosen for her 4.0 GPA and 14 grades of A+, waited almost an hour after Albright spoke for her turn to speak. Most of the media had already left. Fadia’s speech received little media attention: one reporter who was contacted later that evening stated that he didn’t know anything about it. Rafeedie later donated the $1000 prize that accompanies the university medal to the protest organizers’ advertising campaign for lifting the sanctions.

At the podium, Rafeedie calmly discarded her painstakingly prepared speech, saying that she would “talk from my heart.” A partial transcript of her remarks follows:

“I was hoping to speak before Secretary Albright, but that was a reflection of the power structure, I think, to sort of change things around and make it difficult for people who are ready to articulate their voice in ways they don’t usually get a chance to.

So I’m going to improvise, and I’m going to mention some things that she didn’t mention at all in her speech but which most of the protesters were actually talking about. You know, I think it’s really easy for us to feel sorry for her, and I was looking at my grandmothers who are actually in the audience – my grandmother and her sister – who weren’t really happy with all the protesters, and I think they thought that wasn’t really respectful of them, and a lot of you didn’t, I don’t think, because you came to hear her speak.

But I think what the protesters did was not embarrass our university. I think they dignified it.

Because Secretary Albright didn’t even mention Iraq, and that’s what they were here to listen to. And I think sometimes NOT saying things- not mentioning things-is actually lying about them. [Applause]

I was going to remind her…that four years ago from this Friday when we were freshmen, I heard her on “60 Minutes” talking to a reporter who had just returned from Iraq.

The reporter was describing that half a million children were dying due to the sanctions that this country was imposing on the people of Iraq. And she told her, listen, “That’s more… children than have died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do you think the price is worth it?” [Albright] looked into the camera and she said, “the price is worth it.”

And I was going to tell her, “Do you really think the price is worth it??!” Since that time, 3 times that number of…people have died in Iraq.

I mean, we’re about 5,000 here today. Next month by the time we graduate, that’s as many people who are going to die in Iraq because of the sanctions. This is what House Minority Whip David Bonior calls “infanticide masquerading as policy.”

Now, I don’t want to make the mood somber here because this is our commencement, but commencement means beginning, and I think it’s important for us to begin where civilization itself began, and where it’s now being destroyed. [Applause]

…And when the protesters are protesting, it’s not because they, you know, want to pick a fight with the…with the woman who you guys all happen-well, many of you-happen to love.

In fact, she was introduced as the ‘greatest woman of our times.’ Now see, to me that’s an insult. [Applause] This woman is doing HORRIBLE things. She’s allowing innocent people to suffer and to die.

…But in general, I mean, I’m speaking to a crowd that gave a standing ovation to the woman who typifies everything against which I stand, and I’m still telling you this because I think it’s important to understand.

And I think, that if I achieve nothing else, if this makes you think a little bit about Iraq, think a little bit about U.S. foreign policy, I’ve succeeded.

I don’t want to take too much of your time, but I want to end my speech with a slogan that hangs over my bed in Arabic. It says, “La tastawhishu tariq al-haqq min qillat al-sa’ireen fihi” and that translates into, “Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it.” I think our future is going to be the future of truth, and we’re going to walk on that path, and we’re going to fill it with travelers.”

How to cite this article:

Fadia Rafeedie, Nadine Naber "“They Dignified Our University”," Middle East Report Online, May 24, 2000.

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