I hadn’t had a chance to collect my thoughts on U of M’s commencement until yesterday, when I sat down and wrote something for the Michigan Review. It’s not really about Obama or what he said—rather, it’s a focus on the protesters, or lack thereof.
It wasn’t long after the announcement of President Obama’s Class of 2010 commencement appearance that rumors of planned protests started swirling. I’d heard that a few hundred Tea Partiers were planning to travel up to Ann Arbor from Ohio and air their grievances before the Obama-obsessed masses filing, zombie-like, into Michigan Stadium.
Their provocative signs would spark a heated debate over the failures of the current administration or, alternatively, definitively prove to the masses just how intolerant all those angry white folks were capable of being.
So after setting out early Saturday morning, fully expecting to be greeted with sights of Ann Arbor police in riot gear struggling to break up the skirmishes between the amassed pro- and anti-Obama factions, I was crestfallen to see an unimpressive dozen or so poncho-wearing malcontents lost in the sea of commencement attendees.
Yes, there were the well-traveled pro-life protesters with their graphic anti-abortion signs—signs that, probably because of their shocking nature, were simply ignored by the majority of those passing by. “Gross!” was the most frequent response I heard, and, as far as I could tell, no insightful pro-choice/pro-life discussions were initiated by any of their poster boards.
By the time the crowd shuffling towards the Big House gates ran the gauntlet of pro-lifers, they were even less interested in hearing what the few Tea Partiers who braved the inclement weather had to say. Or rather, what their signs had to say; they were a disappointingly quiet and respectful lot.
In fact, the megaphone-equipped band of Obama supporters across the street from the Tea Partiers was probably the only obnoxious group of protesters of the day—if only because they were loud (and a bit delusional: incessantly repeating “Obama will only raise taxes on the top one percent” does not make it true).
And they weren’t the only left-leaning activists there to counter the practically nonexistent right-wing threat. AnnArbor.com reports that “several hundred” individuals gathered nearby Frisinger Park in support of immigration reform and immigrant rights, but to the average commencement attendee like myself, they were all but invisible.
All of the demonstrations lacked real impact largely because their numbers were so miniscule compared to the crowd trying to get into the stadium—a group more concerned with making past the Secret Service security checkpoints and finding friends and relatives (all while keeping dry) than listening to what an activist, rational or not, had to say.
Even so, I was personally able to catch a few bits and pieces of forced outrage from various individuals while waiting in line. “Why are they trying to turn commencement into something political?” was a commonly overheard, if willfully naive question asked about the Tea Partiers standing sullenly and soggily across the street.
The notion that the day was free of politics was foolish, even if those of us who frequently disagree with Obama were able to largely put our differences aside for a few hours and bask in the prestige of having a standing President grace Ann Arbor with his presence. One cannot bring one of the most polarizing political figures of our time to an event as prominent as the University of Michigan’s commencement and expect there to be no visible dissent.
Perhaps the relative lack of conflict surrounding the commencement ceremony serves to indicate that the civility Obama called for in his address to the graduates is already present to a much greater degree than he is willing to admit. As a libertarian-leaning, self-described “old hippie” I met at a friend’s graduation party later that day put it, “my generation would have been shouting over the speaker” if he said anything untoward.
True, the crowd packing the Big House was fairly liberal, and frankly, Obama didn’t say much of anything that a malcontent like myself could have disagreed with. But citing the utter lack of disruption, I would venture to say that our political discourse is rather more civil than we have been led to believe.