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janet napolitano

Natalie Rodriguez

Special to El Observador

 There were tense moments during the Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 as undocumented students and supporters demanded the removal of Janet Napolitano as keynote speaker at the Laney College Graduation in Oakland, Calif. There was a full house at the Peralta Community College District. The students and organizers of BAMN—the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary; claim that the process to elect Napolitano as the guest speaker was an undemocratic one and that “the Laney College student government passed a resolution demanding that the college uninvited Napolitano as its commencement speaker.”

Napolitano is the former Secretary of Homeland Security and current president of the University of California system. As the Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano “has been a pioneer in coordinating federal, state, local and bi-national homeland security efforts,” according to the Department of Homeland Security website. Marisol Zavala Suarez, a student at Laney College, said, “I’m a student that has been directly affected by Janet Napolitano. I have family members that have been deported to Mexico, they were tax payers, they were not being supported by the system.” Oscar Sorto is an AB540 student who will be graduating from Laney College this month. For two months he has been working against having Napolitano speak at his graduation. Sorto accused Elñora Tena Webb, the President of Laney College, of ignoring the student government resolution to remove Napolitano as keynote speaker.

Sorto is undocumented and has crossed the border twice. Coming from El Salvador, he claims that his country was at war because its people were fighting for their dignity. He continues “I have nothing but my dignity. If I have to fight, I’m not gonna be sitting at my graduation while someone that has been persecuting my community is speaking to me about my future.” Sorto is ready to face deportation even if “I have to cross the border a third time,” in order to make his voice heard.  The supporting members that opposed Napolitano’s presence at the graduation were students, community members, union representatives and members of the Laney College staff. Kyle McCoy, a UC Berkeley student and former student of a Peralta Community College said, “If she is there at the graduation, there will be a mass demonstration.” David Douglass, a senior at UC Berkeley and a national immigrant rights and civil rights organizer with BAMN presented the board with hundreds of signatures of Laney and Merritt College students on a petition demanding that Napolitano be uninvited.

Several speakers, including Douglas, reference the Black Panther movement and its birth in the Peralta District Colleges in connection to the history of civil rights.

Tensions grew when Dr. Carole Ward Allen, Adjunct Professor at Laney College said that what disturbed her the most is that “half of the people that come to you in honor of representing Peralta District of Laney College don’t go to Laney. They’re not even members of the Oakland community.” Sorto was quick to ask if she would like to see his student identification. Others, such as Yvette Felarca of BAMN, joined Sorto in clarifying that they are Oakland residents.

No comment was made on behalf of the Board of Trustees at the meeting.

The members of BAMN and supporters against having Napolitano as the keynote speaker were escorted out of the meeting by authorities as they chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Napolitano’s got to go.” Abel Guillen, President of the Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees, and officials of the Board of Trustees could not be reached for comment.

Guillen has put out a Commencement Message through the Peralta Community College District website dated May 16, 2014.

Through his message he states that “an internal committee process driven by the input of students, faculty, staff and administration” organizes the planning of the commencement ceremony He further asks “that all of those attending commencement exercises respect the students and their families and friends, as well as the faculty and staff assembling in celebration of our graduates by honoring students as the reason and focus of commencement.”

The graduation is scheduled to take place on May 24, 2014.


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