As students and members of the Williamsburg community lined up to attend a talk titled “Crucibles of Leadership: U.S. Foreign Policy Past, Present and Future” the evening of Thursday, Feb. 6, a group of students assembled in the Sadler Center to protest College of William and Mary Chancellor Robert Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98. The protesters opposed Gates for his role during the conflicts in the Middle East and in Latin America while acting as CIA Director and as U.S. Secretary of Defense under former Presidents George W. Bush and former President Barack Obama. Gates, who was also on campus for Feb. 7’s Charter Day festivities, spoke at the talk along with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.
Not affiliated with any student organizations, the students spoke out about Gates’s part in the Iraq War. Some students referred to Gates as a war criminal and handed out flyers to individuals in line that started “Robert Gates has Blood on his Hands.” The flyers listed out war crime charges against Gates that included “prosecuting a war of aggression,” “bombing civilian populations” and “directed illegal kidnapping and torture.”
Sidney Miralao ’22 said that the students wanted to protest the event to engage with other students who attended the talk and to make them aware of Gates’s history. Miralao said they also wanted to make the statement that they did not see Gates as fit to discuss foreign policy to college-aged students.
“Some students don’t even know who he is,” Miralao said. “Bottom line, we wanted students to know that he has been involved in a lot of terrible things this country has done and that’s all you need to know and you should recognize that as you’re going to see him speak, especially about something about leadership, right, and foreign policy. You need to understand his background and what his beliefs really are about that.”
Miralao added that plans to protest began Feb. 3 and that their shared goal was to hold a low-risk protest to get the message out there without providing any justification for the College with a reason to hold them in violation of conduct.
“The intention was always to disrupt it in a way that was low-risk for us because there has been occurrences in the past where the administration has taken action against students who have taken it further than that,” Miralao said. “And so our intention was never to go into the venue or sort of speak at him directly or anything. It was always a targeting of the people going and the audience and making sure they were aware of who Robert Gates is, what he’s done and how we feel about him. And you know, having them understand that he is our chancellor, they are giving him this platform even though he’s done all of these other things that are not so great. That was always our intention to target the audience that was going, specifically students making them understand that this man is your chancellor. You have power to go or not go and this is why you shouldn’t.”
Kelsey Wright ’22 explained that the protest came together quickly with a variety of different students who had different ideas over what the protest would look like. However, she said that each student agreed that the protest should be compliant with university policy as the students did not want to receive any backlash from the College’s administration.
At the event, students who were protesting yelled “Hey, ho, Robert Gates has got to go,” repeated the word “shame” and “W and M: war and murder” to communicate their message, along with statements made by some of the protestors and flyers and signs.
“There was little engagement of the people in line with us,” Wright said in an email. “Some older community members harassed us, but some students who were just passing joined us and staff members gestured in solidarity which was inspiring.”
Although the protest was not led by any student organization, W&M Students United posted the protest on their Facebook page via livestream. The organization also made a post a day later Feb. 7, which stated that protesters were harassed either by the College’s administration or by individuals as the administration did not do anything to remedy the situation.
“Even though all of the administration’s instructions were complied with and no rules broken, students were filmed without consent and harassed, either by the administration itself or by some outsiders as the administration watched on,” the Facebook post said. “One man who refused to identify himself even went so far as to follow students out (after we were asked not to disrupt and chose to leave as soon as the event started while chanting) and aggressively push against students with his phone in hand in order to film their faces. It was grossly inappropriate and made students who were there peacefully feel unsafe and violated. This person also made snarky and targeted comments at students.”
In the same post, W&M Students United asked that the administration work with them or to identify the man and hold him accountable for his actions.
“That a compliant protest was treated this way indicates that it really is not about the rules or respect for the administration,” the Facebook post said. “They will propagate fascism at every opportunity. Administrators claim to want to protect the rights of students. Even though there is nothing that warrants faith in this sentiment, we still extend a hand to the administration and even the police and say that they can take a step toward making things right and responding to the injustice by identifying the unknown man and holding him accountable.”
In response to the protest, the College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet said that students are welcome to protest as long as they remain respectful. She did not comment on the post made by W&M Students United.
“The university encourages all forms of peaceful expression, which is everyone’s right under the First Amendment,” Clavet said in an email. “We have an engaged student body that often expresses their views about a number of issues on and off campus. What cannot occur is the disruption of events or the regular course of business. When Thursday’s protest outside the auditorium became a disruption, the individuals demonstrating were told they could not disrupt the event and if they wanted to continue they would need to relocate. The group relocated.”
Miralao explained that throughout the protest there was high security, but they were never engaged by the police.
She added that an administrator informed them that they were permitted to protest, but asked them to not speak over the event, to which the students decided to leave, making noise as they exited. Miralao said that although she did not notice the individual, some students were uncomfortable by his presence and forceful nature of taking videos of the students without their consent.
Wright also added that a man she believed to not be affiliated with the College made derogatory remarks to students and attempted to get students’ faces.
“At 8, the time the event was scheduled to start, a person who did not identify himself told us that we were welcome to continue to protest silently, but continued noise would constitute disruption; we decided to leave,” Wright said. “As we were leaving, another person who did not seem to be an official for the university started following students, filming us, laughing at us and seemed to make derogatory remarks to people that I couldn’t hear. Students categorically stated they did not consent, but he continued filming. The administration hasn’t made any attempts to contact anyone about the protest as far as I know.”
During the talk, no mention of the protest was made. College President Katherine Rowe introduced both Gates and Kaine, as well the talk’s host, AidData Policy Analysis Director Samantha Custer.
Gates opened his talk by stating that the country has moved from a polarized nation to a paralyzed nation. He stated that the greatest challenge facing the country today lies within the state’s capitol building and the White House.
“The truth is if we can’t get passed the current paralysis to tackle some of the big problems facing our country whether its immigration or education, enormous deficits, infrastructure and so on,” Gates said. “There’s really no foreign threat that poses as great a danger to our future mind you. We’ve always been polarized from the very beginning; I like to say… but what has happened particularly since the early ‘90s has been that polarization has moved towards paralysis and if we can’t get passed that paralysis then I think we are in trouble.”
Kaine discussed the role that young people will have in fixing the paralysis of the country. He discussed how it will be a difficult battle to take on but emphasized the importance of communicating with elected officials and asking those officials what they are doing to work with the party on the other end of the aisle.
Both Kaine and Gates went on to discuss how the current issues facing the United States domestically are allowing countries like China to use those issues to their advantage. They both explained that China’s economic ties to the United States complicate geopolitical discussions and make China a different threat then the Soviet Union posed during the Cold War.
Kaine also went on to discuss his War Powers Resolution set to be discussed in Congress this week. The goal of the Resolution is to reaffirm Congress’ power to declare war and to prevent presidents from abusing their powers and conducting armed conflict throughout the world. The resolution seeks to prevent unnecessary war, particularly in the Middle East. For years, Kaine has tried to pass a similar resolution, including when Obama was in office. Currently, the bill hopes to force debate to prevent further escalation in Iran.
“I’ve been a big battler since I’ve came in under the administration of a friend and I’m close friends with President Obama, and I really think he’s a great president,” Kaine said. “But when he tried to do things in the foreign policy or war-making space that I thought, ‘hey, that’s not an executive power that’s a congressional power,’ I very much stood up against him. Not that you’re doing wrong, but because Congress has a role that we should not abdicate. The next big bill we’re going to take up in the Senate is a War Power’s Resolution that is a bipartisan one that basically says that ‘President Trump, you can’t go to war against Iran except to defend the United States against eminent attack. You cannot do that unless you go to Congress.’”
Gates added that a difficulty between preventing presidents from overusing their war making powers lies in Congress’ reluctance to cut off funding for troops in action, as they do not wish to put troop’s lives at risk.
Custer went on to ask Kaine what he thinks the impeachment trial will mean for U.S. foreign policy moving forward.
“President Trump made that clearly that this hurts our standing in the world, and that’s a point you have to grapple with,” Kaine said. “You also have to grapple with if you don’t challenge bad behavior than it spreads like a virus. You can’t call wrong right.”
Later, Kaine discussed Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s decision to vote for convicting Trump in his impeachment trial, stating that throughout his year’s working with Romney one thing he has found consistent about the Senator is that he does not like to acquit wrong.
Kaine also added that although the impeachment trial affects public opinion of the United States around the world, the democratic trial of an impeachment is something that many citizens in other countries must fight to have.
“It’s interesting when you’ve got street protesters in Hong Kong, who are pleading for a rule of law, people around the world for all our flaws they still see us doing some things and think we wish we were more like that,” Kaine said. “We still are a real example even in our own challenges and dysfunction, we are still an example to the young people protesting in Iran, the young people protesting in Iraq and the young people protesting in Hong Kong. They are asking for something that we take for granted, that we have and they are motivated by things that we have.”
Cluster asked Kaine what his experience was like running for the vice presidency with then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Kaine explained that he learned three things from his time on the campaign trail, particularly an issue pertaining to the treatment of women.
“A painful one was that I know that women are not treated the same as men,” Kaine said. “I’m not a woman, but I have observed this in my life. But that was the sharpest experience of watching what I consider just vicious misogyny. Hilary Clinton is not a perfect person, not a perfect candidate, but the double standard applied to her in so many different ways was very painful to see and to be up close and personal and hearing the kind of things that were being said about her that weren’t being said, and the different standard that her foibles were being held to her opponents foibles.”
Gates ended the talk by describing the type of president that the United States needs in the future.
“We need somebody, and both parties I think are practicing division, and what we need is somebody who say, ‘you know we’re all in this together,’” Gates said. “Either we all make it or none of us are going to make it. And we have to come together, and we have a lot of differences, but we figured it out before and we can figure it out again. I will be president of all the people.”