Hundreds of protesters descended on the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College on Monday night where former Bush administration Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove held a scheduled dinner and talk for the student body. By the end of the night Rove found himself boxed into the Athenaeum unable to leave until a security detail whisked him away amid charges and countercharges of excessive force, kidnapping and even a bomb scare.
No arrests were made at the protest, but one man—Ramon Martinez of Pitzer College—was treated and released by LA County Paramedics after being hit in the eyes with pepper spray. Another protester, Ileana Morales of CMC, complained that she had been shoved, grabbed and then thrown to the ground by Claremont police.
The demonstration started peacefully enough as exuberant protesters met at neighboring Pitzer College and marched to the Athenaeum, carrying signs and drums and chanting “War criminal!” When the throng arrived, one of the protestors immediately streamed red dye into the water fountain outside the Athenaeum, signifying the blood on Rove’s hands for his support of the war in Iraq.
This act did not sit well with some CMC students, who watched the procession with equal parts amusement and scorn. No retaliatory measures were taken, however there was a heated discussion between protest organizers and a CMC student named Shamil, who called the fountain incident “a complete destruction of school property.”
The protest began with a festive atmosphere despite the steamy rhetoric. One protester dressed as a bear danced to a steady drumbeat and another group of students grilled cheese sandwiches on a nearby barbecue. When the time came for Rove to speak inside the Athenaeum, those who were shut out gathered inside McKenna Auditorium where they watched him speak on a live video feed.
Rove proved to be an affable speaker, joshing with CMC professor and nationally known political expert John Pitney, and found time for a Bill Clinton impression. Rove also talked about the upcoming election, what a day in the life of President Bush is like at the White House, and how it was to campaign against McCain in 2000. He even plugged his upcoming book several times. While joking about some dinner attendees, Rove expressed his amazement that three students from the same county in Wisconsin all made it here “to Pomona.” Realizing his mistake, Rove quickly corrected himself saying “Claremont McKenna” and then followed that remark up by saying “they got their second choice.” These statements were met with groans and jeers inside McKenna Auditorium.
In the end, Rove defended Bush and the Bush legacy by saying this: “There were times when I was steaming mad about a New York Times editorial and Bush would say ‘Get over it! History will get it right and we’ll all be dead!’”
After the Rove’s talk, protesters surrounded all of the exits of the Athenaeum and blocked cars and police vehicles while they and CMC staff played a game of subterfuge to see if they could get Rove out of the building. At one point a para-transit taxi pulled up and many thought it was for Rove. “It’s just a handicapped guy,” lamented one protester. “Not Karl Rove!”
Meanwhile, Claremont PD lined up, geared for battle with helmets, batons and pepper spray. Henry Watkins, who identified himself a CMC consultant, repeatedly told protesters that the police would use force to clear the area if need be.
After creating a diversion, Rove finally emerged from a facilities doorway, with a security detail shoving away a dozen protesters sitting in front. There was a mad dash to a waiting car, Rove got in and sped off. Shortly after, upset protesters argued with Watkins and demanded badge numbers of Claremont PD. Some went to attend to Martinez and paramedics were called. Watkins told the students that they could have been charged with kidnapping for not allowing Rove to leave the building.
Later, when asked who hit him with the pepper spray, Martinez said, “it was the guy in the suit,” indicating Watkins. Watkins denied he sprayed Martinez although he admitted that he and the police sprayed the doorway to fend off possible protesters. In the midst of this, a bomb threat in Collins Dining Hall was called in, though some thought it was another diversionary tactic.
When asked what Rove’s mood was like as he left the Athenaeum, Watkins laughed and said, “He wasn’t afraid, but he was a little concerned.”