INTERVIEW: #HURESIST SHUTS DOWN JAMES COMEY AT HOWARD
Written by Jared Ware
On September 22nd, former Director of the FBI James Comey attempted to deliver a speech at Howard University’s annual convocation for incoming students. Instead, he was met with the shouting and singing of a group of Howard students known collectively as #HUResist. Over a 40 minute period, until Comey finished his speech, protesters’ shouted a variety of chants, including “I love being Black!” “Black lives—they matter here!” and “Get out James Comey, you ain’t no homie,” and sang the protest song “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
In a year which has been filled with discussion about whether college students should welcome white supremacist speakers onto campuses so that they listen to their ideas and debate them, a collective of #HUResist students chose to drown out the former FBI Director’s speech with chants of resistance and Black self-love.
It wasn’t long ago that many members of the liberal #Resistance heralded Comey as a hero for exposing his interactions with Donald Trump, following the 45th President’s firing of Comey from his post as FBI Director. However, like many student organizers on college campuses who have embraced anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist politics, #HUResist’s analysis of power and oppression runs deeper than partisan punditry.
Organizer and writer Josh Briond and I recently interviewed two #HUResist organizers for the podcast Millennials Are Killing Capitalism. Junior sociology major Jason Ajiake and Senior political science major Alexis McKenney discussed their action during convocation and the role of #HUResist on Howard’s campus.
“Truth and Service” to whom?
Alexis McKenney explained the group’s original intent, stating “in the beginning we really didn’t see ourselves as an organization. We saw ourselves as a group of concerned students who wanted to have an active role in holding our administration accountable to truth and service, our motto, in the midst of the Trump administration.” In conversation with the activists, Howard’s motto of “Truth and Service,” comes up repeatedly, and it is clear they are conscious of whose interests they believe the campus serves, and whose interests #HUResist’s believes it should serve.
Initial demands they posed to and discussed with Howard President Wayne Frederick included banning Donald Trump from Howard buildings, declaring Howard a sanctuary campus, expanding campus resources for LBGTQIA, immigrant, and Muslim students, and building a Kwame Ture Community Center to bridge the gap between Howard and the Black working class in Washington DC. While President Frederick engaged the students in dialogue around their demands, and expressed empathy for some of their concerns, he seems unwilling to take stances which he believes could potentially jeopardize Howard’s ability, as a federally chartered university, to access its sizable congressional appropriation on an annual basis.
While some of #HUResist’s demands could potentially put them in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, like campus bans on Trump administration members or perhaps the request to make Howard a sanctuary campus, Frederick has not made meaningful steps to address any of #HUResist’s demands according to the collective of student activists. Expanded resources for marginalized students on campus, and the development of a community center are relatively easy for a willing school administration to accommodate, exposing some of the contradictions students see in the administration's commitment to the “Truth and Service” motto.
“After a few meetings with our administration and seeing where that was going, which was nowhere, I think we kind of re-shifted and this year we’re hoping to get a more community focus,” explained McKenney. #HUResist’s demands and actions include an analysis of whose interests they believe are being served by the status quo, and whose interests they’d like to see Howard to represent. For example, in their demand for a Kwame Ture Community Center, they noted, “Howard University has become increasingly disconnected from the Black community at large, furthering the divide between the Black bourgeoisie and the Black working class.”
Jason Ajiake clarified this perspective. “I think most people come into Howard expecting a large activism scene and yet when they come here what they find is a culture of elitism,” he stated. “The question then becomes, ‘why does this culture of elitism exist?’”
“Through our research and through our studies we found that the culture of elitism exists because that is what Howard is supposed to do. Howard is supposed to create this Black petty bourgeoisie class,” explained Ajiake. “This is why it was chartered by congress to create that intermediary between the Black masses and the white power structure.” #HUResist sees Howard’s mission as creating a class of leaders in their fields who will represent the interests of white supremacy within capitalism, mitigating rather than advocating for the demands of the over 27% of Black Americans living in poverty.
Howard has, in fact, produced more Black PhD’s, lawyers, and architects than any other university, according to a 2014 article from the New York Times. This fact has not made a dent in the racial wealth gap, which is widening. “We’re not saying Black people should be poor, we’re saying we shouldn’t get the wrong idea of what liberation looks like. Often times the petty Black bourgeoisie is seen as what it means to be free,” stated Ajiake.
“We see Black people in America as a neo-colonial situation, in that having these Black faces in high places sort of disguises and masks the power structures behind them and just puts a Black face on it. Neo-colonialism has never led to liberation,” Ajiake said.
Alexis McKenney sees the historical role of student activists at Howard, and the role of Howard administration as working toward diverging interests historically. “Look at how they treated Kwame Ture, who was known as Stokely Carmichael when he was a student here” said McKenney, referencing FBI records on Carmichael that include information obtained from Howard University.
When asked why she thought Howard University would consider bringing James Comey onto campus for convocation and to teach at the University for the 2017-2018 school year, McKenney stated, “Rarely do they consider the concerns of students, and even the motto of the university, which is ‘Truth and Service,’ when making these decisions.”
“I think it was a mutual benefit for both parties. Howard got this person, the former FBI Director who has distanced himself from the Trump administration, which Howard needs given the fact that our president has already met with Betsy DeVos, and hasn’t really taken a strong stance against Trump. I think the university had to kind of have a figure who would distance themselves from Trump, but not so much that it would alienate them financially,” McKenney said.
“Then Comey gets to say ‘look, I’ve been accepted by the Black people and I’m a good person for coming to this HBCU to help Black and brown kids learn how to be a part of the FBI too,’” explained McKenney.
Although the protest was successful in overshadowing and generally drowning out Comey’s speech, about half of the protesters were denied access to the auditorium. Both organizers also decried the role of their armed campus police force during and after the protest. “They pushed women, they pushed guys, they pushed everybody,” said Kenney. “We were just chanting ‘who do you serve, who do you protect?’ because these police were protecting white supremacy in essence against the students who live here.”
The Role of the FBI and the Role of "Dialogue"
When asked about the reactions of professors on campus, including a statement published from the facebook page of Howard’s History Department Chairwoman, Jason Ajiake stated, “I think it’s a sad day when 18, 19, and 20 year olds understand history better than the chairs of history departments.”
“Most of the students that organized with us went to their classes on Monday and their professors just talked down on the protest that happened, said they didn’t understand why it happened, said ‘we need to hear both sides.’”
When asked whether organizers felt there was a role for dialogue with individuals like Comey, McKenney and Ajiake interrogated both the use of the term dialogue, and its utility in uncovering truth. “Convocation was not a dialogue. Convocation was a speech and a platform that Comey had to speak at Howard students,” stated McKenney. She suggested that the purpose of convocation should be to welcome new students, invite them into the Howard community, and introduce them to the school’s motto.
She also suggested that dialogue with certain viewpoints and certain individuals, can actually obscure the truth at times. “We’re so quick to want to be so objective in our observations and in our studies and in our comments that we don’t see that we’re actually obscuring the truth as people who are formally educated, who have that privilege,” explained McKenney. She noted that when #HUResist organizers met with administration about their invitation to James Comey, she asked them “what basis does Comey have to call me or any student at Howard to ‘Truth and Service,’ based on his history as an FBI Director?”
“[Comey’s] presence in this space is a threat to our humanity,” stated McKenney. “Because his presence in the FBI was that of dismantling #BlackLivesMatter, his presence in the FBI was that of calling people who record the deaths and the murders of their fellow Black family at the hands of police [the cause of] the phenomenon of de-policing, and the Ferguson Effect.”
In the interview and on social media, #HUResist also highlighted a quote from Comey from a speech at University of Chicago Law School, where Comey justified mass incarceration which has disproportionately impacted Black people and people of color by saying, “the pulling of those many weeds, as painful as that was, allowed churches, schools, community groups, and parents to plant seeds that have grown into healthy neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that are free and alive in 2014 in ways that were unimaginable 25 years ago.”
To underscore #HUResist’s analysis of the FBI’s position under Comey and currently, Foreign Policy released an exclusive article on October 6, 2017 stating that the “FBI’s counterterrorism division has declared that black identity extremists pose a growing threat of premeditated violence against law enforcement.”
In a declassified FBI report obtained by Foreign Policy, the bureau discusses the killing of Mike Brown, and the acquittal of his killer police officer Darren Wilson, two incidents which catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement. The report goes on to suggest that this acquittal and subsequent “incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans [...] have continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the [Black Identity Extremist] movement.”
The report goes on to assess that “it is very likely some Black Identity Extremists (BIE) are influenced by a mix of anti-authoritarian, Moorish sovereign citizen ideology, and BIE ideology.” Although the report does not mention Black Lives Matter by name, it details many of the incidents of police violence which gave rise to the movement, and many large protests against police violence by members of the movement.
The report ties the murders of police officers to a history of the “BIE,” including alleged “murders, bank robberies, kidnappings, racketeering, possession of explosives, and weapons smuggling” conducted by the Black Liberation Army. A notion that feels as dishonest about the state of Black liberation movements in America as it is toward the history of the Black Liberation Army.
It is worth recalling in reference to this report, that the Black Panther Party, which many Black Liberation Army members were originally a part of, was illegally targeted by the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program under J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI’s own vault of records states “COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons,” and contains thousands of pages of detailing illegal surveillance and the actions of agent provocateurs targeting the Panthers and other left-wing groups in the 1960’s.
Notably, COINTELPRO documents include evidence that FBI forged expulsion letters to Black Panther Party members in New York and areas away from the Bay Area. The FBI used agent provocateur’s to exploit rifts in the party and sought to create factions, a strategy that found a great deal of success in New York, causing several New York Panthers, like Assata Shakur, to go underground and take on more the more radical approach of the Black Liberation Army. Although many believe evidence that Black Liberation Army members were consistently framed and tried for charges officers and district attorneys knew were bogus, leading to false convictions, exorbitant accusations, and a greater “terrorism” profile than has been proven.
It is worth noting that although the memo is dated in August of 2017, after Comey’s tenure with the FBI, the intelligence gathered in it appears to have all been gathered during his tenure as the FBI’s Director. The idea that a “Black Identity Extremism” would be drummed up again, this time by Comey’s FBI suggests that the bureau may be seeking justification for, or already be engaged in, the types of targeting and counterintelligence operations Comey allegedly taught his agents were “shameful.”
When reached for comment on the report Jason Ajiake stated, “it just confirms everything we knew about the FBI. The FBI hasn’t changed, we know that the FBI is not some moral agency all of a sudden and this new document showcases that.”
Comey’s presence on campus is scheduled to continue with additional guest lectures throughout the school year. With the bureau manufacturing a terrorism threat from “Black Identity Extremism” during his tenure, compounding the initial reasons for their protest, it becomes increasingly hard to argue that Comey’s legacy as a Director is anything but a threat to their humanity.