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For the 3,200 graduates inside BC’s Alumni Stadium yesterday, little could be heard of the protest outside. About 50 graduates turned away as Rice was honored.
For the 3,200 graduates inside BC’s Alumni Stadium yesterday, little could be heard of the protest outside. About 50 graduates turned away as Rice was honored. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)

At BC, protests of Rice muted

War critics' views aired, but honoree avoids talk of Iraq

NEWTON -- Outside Boston College's graduation ceremonies yesterday, some 200 protesters chanted, ``Shame, shame!" and ``Give her a subpoena, not a degree, for crimes against humanity!" But inside the school's football stadium, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the focus of the protest, took the podium, most students and parents listened with rapt attention.

After a high-profile ramp-up to the ceremony, including an impassioned outcry from some faculty and students, the graduation passed uneventfully, with no arrests and no evictions from Alumni Stadium. There was applause as Rice's name was called, and more clapping in response to her remarks about triumphing over segregation's restrictions in her native South. Her speech was pointedly noncontroversial -- devoid of policy statements, with only a tangential mention of Iraq as she spoke of the need for graduates to remain optimistic.

``I know how hard it can be these days, when we see images of genocide in Darfur or violence in Iraq or destruction along our own Gulf Coast, to believe that such a thing of human progress is possible. . . ." she said. ``But in moments like these, draw solace from education and also from historical perspective."

Protests inside the stadium took a gentle form: About 50 of the 3,200 students seated on the stadium floor turned their backs and held up placards denouncing the war as Rice received an honorary doctorate of law. Some 200 faculty did the same, according to a count by faculty members. Approximately 30,000 people attended the commencement, according to BC police.

The protest under cloudless skies on the Catholic campus, which has been riven by debate over abortion and gay and lesbian rights this year, was quiet out of respect for the secretary of state rather than from any lack of passionate opposition to the war, some students said.

``I'm not happy about her speaking and I don't support her policies," said William Kozaites, 21, an English major from Los Angeles. ``But it's important to hear what she has to say."

Other students said protest had no place at the ceremony, and they lamented that Rice's presence required BC to use security guards and metal detectors, saying that marred the event regardless of the demonstrators .

``It shouldn't be about protesting," said Maggie Hurley, 22, a graduate of the school of education. ``It should be about celebrating our accomplishments."

Her friend Tiana Baker , 21, also a school of education graduate, nodded in agreement. ``She's a successful woman and we should leave the other matters aside for now because as a school, we are honoring her."

In her speech, Rice exhorted students to find a passion and pursue it. She advised them to use reason and compassion in navigating life and to work to advance human progress. The crowd responded enthusiastically when Rice described her upbringing as an emblem of triumph over pessimism.

``I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., the Birmingham of Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan, a place that was once quite properly described as the most segregated city in America. I know how it feels to hold aspirations when half your neighbors think that you're incapable or uninterested in anything higher," said Rice, the first African-American woman to hold her office.

Some afterward said Rice's speech was uplifting.

``I may not believe 100 percent of the things she endorses, but I have to respect her position," said Vesta Rand , a parent of a graduate from Yarmouth, Maine.

Carol Hurd Green , an adjunct English professor, who stood with her back to Rice during the conferral of the honorary degree, disagreed, saying the speech was fatally flawed.

``It was missing the words peace and justice," she said.

Sasha Westerman , 22, of Swampscott, who wore an armband protesting Rice's degree, said the speech was not offensive, but ``I would have rather not heard from her at all."

Outside the stadium, the scene was raucous, but much of those protests went unnoticed and unheard in the wind-whipped stadium. Peace activists, soldiers' mothers, war veterans, Catholic groups, and Boston College alumni waved banners and chanted as they stood behind metal barricades guarded by police. Some protesters dressed in orange prison suits, with black hoods, to symbolize the abuse of detainees. They carried posters, crosses, and American flags. At one point, a plane flew overhead trailing a banner that read: ``Your war brings dishonor."

Most of the protesters had marched to the stadium from Cleveland Circle roughly an hour before the ceremony began. Carlos Arredondo of Roslindale pulled behind him as he walked a model coffin draped in an American flag. Above his head was hoisted a poster with a photo of his son, in uniform, in a coffin.

His son, Alexander, was killed in Iraq on Aug. 25, 2004, and when the Marines came to tell him the news, Arredondo set their van on fire, stepped inside the vehicle, and was burned over a quarter of his body. The Marines extinguished the fire.

``Her coming here to accept her diploma when she has told the American people such lies shows a lack of respect to our community and the families who have lost our children in the war," Arredondo said.

Some protesters said that inviting Rice might have enhanced the college's profile, but at a cost to its mission. ``There is a balance needed between being recognized nationally and upholding Christian values," said Jim Engler, a 1971 graduate. ``Having Rice speak crosses the line."

Jack Dunn , BC's spokesman, defended Rice's appearance. ``We honored her as an individual in light of her life's accomplishments. That gentleman is entitled to his opinions, but we certainly didn't do it for the sake of national prestige. We are already a nationally prestigious university."

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