Monday, Dec. 12 — An MSU graduation ceremony turned into a political platform when Occupy Lansing participants spoke out against commencement speaker Roy Roberts during his speech in the Jack Breslin Student Events Center Saturday afternoon.
A video of the protest was posted on YouTube Saturday. To see the video, click here.
Roberts, the emergency financial manger for Detroit Public Schools, was one of three guest speakers brought in to lead commencement ceremonies, according to MSU’s commencement website. He spoke to undergraduates from the colleges of Agriculture and Natural Science, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Nursing and Lyman Briggs College during the university’s 2 p.m. ceremony. He was also presented with an honorary doctorate of business.
“When we found out that he was going to be speaking at MSU and being honored with a doctorate in business we were pretty disgusted,” said Roman Collins, one of about 20 participants in the protest. “It’s ridiculous that a school is honoring a destroyer of schools.”
Calls to the university’s communications manager seeking comment were not returned.
Ashley Wildeman, 25, a graduating forestry major present at the ceremony, said graduates were confused by the protest and did not know what group was protesting or what they were saying.
“Initially we just heard yelling and the graduates didn’t know what was going on,” Wildeman said. “We just heard yelling and we thought someone was cheering for Detroit Public Schools.”
All she heard was “Detroit Public Schools,” she said. Then she saw a spectator in the stands stand up and rip a piece of paper out of one of the protestor’s hands, to which the protester responded, “You fucking bitch.”
Ushers asked the group to leave after the confrontation, Wildeman said. She said the crowd began clapping as they walked out. The whole thing took about 10 minutes, she added.
Collins repeated what the protestors said:
“Mic check. Emergency Manager Roy Roberts, you have plundered Detroit's education fund. On your watch, you have crammed up to 72 high schoolers in one classroom. You closed 11 schools. You cut nearly 800 jobs in Detroit schools. You cut workers wages by 10 percent. Some workers now require public assistance. All while you take $250,000 a year from taxpayers.”
Commenters responded both for and against the action on the movement’s Facebook page and YouTube video.
Jay Fellows, a Facebook commenter, wrote “good job on this "direct action" assholes. i've supported Occupy in general and Lansing specifically with donations, i helped set up the kitchen in the beginning, have participated in demonstrations, cleaned the park and typically agree with your message... then you show up yelling and disrupting my girlfriend's graduation. bravo. couldn't you catch this guy outside or some other place? tact. you're doing it wrong. go occupy a bank or foreclosed home. do something useful. don't interrupt a graduation ceremony or other engagements such as funerals, weddings, etc. think about what DIRECT action means before tactlessly intruding on events that aren't really political or bank related.”
Commenter Julie Heath Roy posted in favor of the action in response. “Actually... it was a great Direct Action,” Roy wrote. “There was no "doing it wrong". They made the right choice to do it where everybody could see. There needs to be more DA like this.”
Wildeman said she felt disrespected by the protest, but the positive mood of the day did not change because of it.
“I just lost respect for them,” she said. “People were outraged and they just thought it was a ridiculous place to have something like that.”
Collins admitted the action was controversial, but he did not apologize for participating. He said the group specifically planned the mic check for when Roberts took the podium so that it would not disrupt other parts of the ceremony.
“I apologize that we had to do this during their graduation ceremony but we never interrupted any of the student’s speeches — we interrupted Roy Roberts who doesn’t really deserve to be honored by anyone,” Collins said in response to the negative comments. “That graduation ceremony became political once Roy Roberts took the podium.”
Wildeman said she didn’t think the protest was effective since it was hard to understand what was being said. She said Roberts appeared “unfazed” and continued speaking uninterrupted.
Collins said he hoped the protest would draw more attention to the emergency financial manger law.
“What I hope people to do is to realize that they are losing local democratic representation,” he said. “With the emergency manger law, Rick Snyder can basically overthrow any decisions that are made by a City Council, a school board or a mayor.”
Wildeman said the fact that the speaker was an emergency financial manger made no difference to her because she was focused on obtaining her degree.
“It was more about graduating, not even his speech or who he was,” she said. “Anybody could have spoke and it would have been about graduating.”