Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has withdrawn as commencement speaker at Rutgers University following protests by faculty and students over her role in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rutgers faculty had circulated a petition decrying the role Rice played in “efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” Last week, Rutgers students occupied a campus building in a call for the invitation to be withdrawn. In a statement this weekend, Rice said her appearance “has become a distraction.” We discuss the “No Rice Campaign” with Rutgers University student protester Carmelo Cintrón Vivas and Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has withdrawn as commencement speaker at Rutgers University in New Jersey following protests by faculty and students over her role in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and U.S. interrogation policies. The Rutgers Board of Governors picked the former high-ranking Bush official in February. Rutgers faculty immediately circulated a petition decrying the role Rice played in, quote, “efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” In September of 2002, speaking to CNN, then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice uttered these famous words explaining the threat presented by Saddam Hussein.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire a nuclear weapon, but we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.
AMY GOODMAN: In a statement posted on her official Facebook page on Saturday, Condoleezza Rice said, quote, “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families. Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time,” she wrote. Rutgers President Robert Barchi had refused to disinvite Rice after the protests and organized sit-ins at the university.
Well, to talk more about the protest, how it came to be known as the No Rice Campaign, we’re joined now by Carmelo Cintrón Vivas, a senior at Rutgers University, one of the organizers of the protest, involved in every direct action that the university students staged. And still with us, Baher Azmy. He is legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Carmelo. So, your response to Condoleezza Rice withdrawing from the commencement address?
CARMELO CINTRÓN VIVAS: Well, first of all, thank you for having me and for covering us. I think that, speaking for the group, we are very happy. On Monday morning, we were—Saturday morning, we were very happy and very pleased when we heard the news that Condoleezza Rice herself decided to back out. We think that that might be even a more powerful statement than the university disinviting her, and we are proud that our direct actions and our pressure were felt and our voices were heard from the bottom up.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you oppose her speaking at commencement?
CARMELO CINTRÓN VIVAS: Well, as a group of students—and I’m referring to the group of students protesting—we felt that war criminals shouldn’t be honored by our university. Someone who has such a tainted record as a public servant in this country should not go to our university, speak for 15 minutes, get an honorary law degree for trying to circumvent the law, and receive $35,000. We believe that that is wrongful, and that’s not fair to any student graduating or not graduating at Rutgers University.
AMY GOODMAN: So what did you do? And how widespread was the opposition?
CARMELO CINTRÓN VIVAS: Well, first of all, it was very small. This started about two weeks ago, and it was maybe—the actions started about two weeks ago. It was maybe about three or four people flyering at public activities. And all of a sudden, we decided that it was our chance to start creating direct actions. So we called for a rally and a sit-in on Monday, if we had the numbers. And luckily enough and hopefully enough, we had the numbers on Monday. So we staged a sit-in at the president’s office. And after that, it just grew exponentially, and it continues to grow. And we haven’t stopped working. We’re still on educating and making sure everyone knows why we protested this.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the process for her being selected? Who chose her?
CARMELO CINTRÓN VIVAS: Well, that is something the Board of Governors and the president have not been clear about. The process is normally one where there’s a 20-person committee, and they make different suggestions, and they vet different candidates. And admittedly, that process was changed when President Barchi first came into office, and that 20-person committee came down to two people. And after that, it’s very blurry. We have—the most information that we have from the whole process is a 96-email exchange between different function persons in the Board of Governors and the president that we acquired through OPRA, the Open Public Records Act. So it hasn’t been clear, and they haven’t really said anything. We have just been undigging the mystery of how she was invited.
AMY GOODMAN: And let me bring Baher Azmy into this conversation. You’ve long been dealing with Bush administration officials around the issue of accountability. The significance of Condoleezza Rice in the war with Iraq in—both as national security adviser and secretary of state?
BAHER AZMY: Oh, she was critical in promotion of the lies that led up to the war and the selling of the war to the American people. And I just—I want to congratulate Carmelo and his colleagues. I mean, I think it’s so heartening that this generation is reminded and thinking about the crimes of the Bush administration officials and not letting them get away with these sort of gauzy histories about what happened from 2001 to 2008. And I get discouraged when the sort of younger generation thinks things like war is normal or Guantánamo is normal or indefinite detention is normal. And this is an important step by this group.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Carmelo, the argument of the university, the issue of free speech and other issues that they put forward?
CARMELO CINTRÓN VIVAS: We have always—we have been receiving since the beginning our main backlash, if we can say it’s that, is that, “Well, she’s a minority. It’s a woman. Why are you protesting this? This is supposed to be something that you’re always for. And she has free speech.” We think that those are a really valid question, but you have to go beyond that. You have to go beyond reducing a person to their race or to their gender and looking into their actions. Just because I am a minority—because I am, I’m Puerto Rican, I’ve only been here in the United States for two-and-a-half years—doesn’t mean that I’m not to be held to the same standards as everyone else and that I can break the law whenever I want to.
AMY GOODMAN: And your response to the arguments that her academic achievements outweigh her political positions?
CARMELO CINTRÓN VIVAS: That’s just ludicrous. If we look into a lot of criminals and we look into a lot of international criminals and just bad people in history, a lot of them had great academic careers or great medical careers or great—your career is one thing, and the way you act as a person, as a human being, is another one. And that’s why you make this an issue about human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, and I want to thank you very much for being with us, Carmelo Cintrón Vivas, media spokesperson for the No Rice Campaign, a senior at Rutgers University who will be graduating and won’t be hearing the commencement address of Condoleezza Rice because she has withdrawn from giving that address as a result of the protests. And, Baher Azmy, thanks so much for being with us, from the Center for Constitutional Rights.
And that does it for our show. I’ll be speaking in Stowe, Vermont, on May 17th. You can check our website at democracynow.org.