Former FBI director James B. Comey was heckled and jeered throughout a speech Friday at Howard University by a group of protesters chanting “No justice, no peace” in a loud, contentious standoff that didn’t end until he finished his remarks.
The scene made for a difficult reappearance for the man fired by President Trump in May. It was Comey’s first public speech since he testified before Congress in June about his firing, and few in the crowd of over 1,000 could hear much of what he said.
“Get out James Comey! You’re not our homie!” the group of about 20 protesters chanted.
Comey repeatedly asked to be permitted to speak, but the protesters continued chanting.
“No justice, no peace, no f---ing police!” they shouted.
Eventually, the larger audience began cheering “Let him speak!” But the protesters were not deterred or quieted.
University officials also repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought to persuade the protesters to let Comey speak, telling them to “be better than this’’ and allow for an open debate of ideas. In response, the protesters chanted, “White supremacy is not a debate!”
Comey, wearing black academic robes, sought to get the attention of the crowd, to no avail.
“I’m only going to speak for 12 minutes,” he said of his convocation address, joking that if the protesters kept it up they were all going to be late for lunch.
“I love the enthusiasm of the young folks. I just wish they would understand what a conversation is,’’ said Comey, trying to speak above the interruptions of the protesters.
At one point, university professor Bernard Richardson sought to quell the protest, saying, “That’s not the Howard University way.”
Comey remained quiet for about 10 minutes but then decided to deliver his speech over the shouting. Delivering his prepared remarks, Comey spoke of the importance of young people finding and expressing their voice but urged them to also seek understanding of their parents and the generations that came before them. Much of his remarks were drowned out by the protesters’ shouting.
“Our country is going through one of those periods where we’re trying to figure out who are we really and what do we stand for. It’s painful,” Comey said.
The former FBI director has agreed to take part in a lecture series at Howard this year. He ended his remarks to the crowd by saying: “Welcome to Howard. I’m honored to be here with you, and I look forward to adult conversation about what is right and what is true.’’
The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“That was really crazy,” said Howard freshmen Taylor Davis. “Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like that before. I grew up in the suburbs.”
Davis said that she agreed with the protesters’ message but added: “I do think Comey deserved to speak. There was a lot of people, the majority in there, did want to hear him out and were ready to have a serious conversation.”
After the ceremony, a larger crowd of protesters outside the hall yelled more anti-Comey chants.
The protesting students issued a statement saying Comey “represents an institution diametrically opposed to the interests of black people domestically and abroad. While his tenure at the FBI has finished, his impact on our community remains.”
In particular, they faulted him with propagating what some officials have called “the Ferguson effect” — a theory that the rise in violent crime is due to police being fearful of facing public criticism for being too violent, and therefore avoiding confrontations with criminals.
One student, 17-year-old Dave Cassell, said he agreed with the message of the protesters.
“It makes sense due to the racial history between the FBI and black people,” Cassell said.