The event proceeded peacefully, with Comey answering pointed questions about race and policing from audience members after his speech.
It’s the latest round in an ongoing dispute, with some student protesters saying Comey should not have been invited to lead a lecture series at the historically black university in Washington because of his role at the FBI and because of concerns some students have about the agency’s treatment of black people.
Last month, a group of protesters heckled Comey throughout his address at the school’s convocation, shouting chants that included: “No justice, no peace, no f—ing police!”
In his Wednesday evening speech, which was delivered calmly and greeted with applause when he finished, Comey spoke about the troubling rise in murder rates in some cities, and the chasm between law enforcement and the communities they serve. He said both sides need to open their hearts and minds and get to know one another, because it’s hard to hate up close.
“Too many people are dying right now,” he said, and increases in crime are happening in neighborhoods that may be effectively segregated from the rest of the city, allowing some people to ignore the problem.
Comey spoke of his efforts to recruit a more diverse staff at the FBI, and called for greater transparency and accountability in law enforcement.
It’s ridiculous and frightening, he said, “that in the United States of America in 2017 we do not know how many people were shot by police last week, last month, last year.”
And he said everyone needs to join together to further civil rights.
The university had previously announced that Comey would speak at Howard’s opening convocation, and also take part in the lecture series at the school. He was named to a lecturer position known as the Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy.
Members of HU Resist had met with university administrators in early September to express their concerns about the choice of Comey for the convocation speech, and created a petition that garnered hundreds of signatures from students opposed to his lecture series, according to a statement the group released Wednesday.
When their concerns were dismissed, they wrote, they protested and honored the black people “murdered by the FBI and other state agencies.”
Comey was jeered during his September convocation speech, as a group of demonstrators chanted from the audience. Others in the crowd began to cheer, “Let him speak!” but the protest continued throughout his remarks.
On Wednesday, Ethan Rodriguez-Shah of HU Resist said: “He is in no way entitled to speak on race and law enforcement as a white man and former FBI director.
“We think that the FBI has a clear history of subverting black liberation movements from about the 1940s onward.”
Rodriguez-Shah said the structure of the event was not conducive to dialogue for several reasons. He said members of his group don’t believe the administration’s claim that RSVPs were handled on a first-come, first-served basis; they said they believe the administration is choosing whom to approve for entry.
He also objected to the requirement that questions be submitted beforehand. “They’re trying to avoid the harder, more inflammatory questions,” he said.
Comey’s lecture, the first in the King series, was scheduled to be followed by a question-and-answer session led by the school’s student newspaper, the Hilltop, said university spokeswoman Crystal Brown.
“They’re managing the Q&A,” she said.
Some people sent pointed questions through Twitter.
“The King Lecture Series is always a highly anticipated lecture on Howard’s campus,” Brown said in a written statement. “Tonight’s lecture featuring former FBI director James B. Comey is no exception.”
The university was expecting a “full house” for the event, according to the statement.
“Due to the popularity of Mr. Comey on campus, and space limitations, the lecture was organized to include an RSVP requirement from attendees,” the statement read. “Seat confirmations were issued on a first-come, first-served basis. We are live-streaming the event for those that cannot attend in person.”
The statement also noted that the editor of the student newspaper was soliciting questions from the campus community for Comey to answer.
Jazmin Goodwin, Hilltop editor-in-chief, said questions for the session were pulled from Twitter and a Google form. The Q&A was also opened up to the audience. Goodwin, a Howard senior, said the Q&A was the university’s idea, and the student newspaper facilitated it.
During the session, Comey was asked if he would seek out classroom settings to learn more about race. He said he welcomed suggestions, and did plan to visit classes at Howard.
“It’s a lifelong journey for me, and if you can find ways, classes I should go to, things I should read, throw ’em at me on the email,” he said.
Another attendee asked Comey, a white man, what gave him credibility to lecture black students on race. He said he hoped the crowd heard him offering his perspective, and if he said something that seemed illogical or wasn’t based in fact, that they would push back.
“I’m a long way from perfect, and would benefit from the experience and perspectives of others,” he said.
Here is HU Resist’s full statement: