UNC Students Protest Mayor Bloomberg as Commencement Speaker

A small group of activists want the mayor uninvited because of his eviction of Zuccotti Park.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBC New York

    A group of students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are protesting Mayor Bloomberg as their upcoming commencement speaker and are planning an alternative graduation ceremony with their own lineup of speakers.

    UNC announced their selection of the billionaire mayor in September, noting Bloomberg's "extraordinary career in business, philanthropy, and public service." He was chosen by a commencement committee made up of students and faculty, and will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree at the May 13 ceremony.
    The announcement didn't make much of a stir on campus at first; senior Kari Dahlgren -- who is now spearheading the movement to remove him -- admits she was ambivalent.
    "I wasn't overly excited either way," she said. "I was hoping we would have someone who would be a more inspiring figure."
    Dahlgren -- an anthropology major, with a minor in African studies -- traveled to New York City in October to take part in the Occupy Wall Street movement at Zuccotti Park. There, she says she found inspiration and was struck by the sense of community from the occupiers. 
    After the raid and evacuation of Zuccotti Park in November, Dahlgren felt she had to actively protest the graduation speaker.
    She attended a gathering of the Occupy movement in Chapel Hill, where she met sophomore Alanna Davis. Dahlgren suggested they start a petition to protest the school's selection, with the hopes of sparking a dialogue on campus.
    The petition was created on change.org two weeks ago and has close to 300 signatures so far. Davis said they plan to canvas the school Friday to gather physical signatures and spread the word about their movement.
    "I'm trying to explain how having a commencement speaker is different than having a regular speaker," said Dahlgren. "It's not a moment of dialogue -- it's someone speaking to you, and there's no change for you to answer what he's saying."
    Stu Loeser, the mayor's spokesman, said "the mayor believes strongly in the right to express your views, as long as they don't interfere with other people's right to do the same. That's one part of what he plans to talk about at UNC."
    Bloomberg told a reporters Thursday morning that he doesn't know what the issues are about him speaking, but he's still honored and excited for the opportunity to speak at "one of the great schools in this country."
    Dr. Ron Strauss, UNC's Executive Associate Provost and a member of the commencement committee, told NBC New York the university "prides itself in engaging all kinds of ideas and has a long history in respect to freedom of speech."
    He'd only heard "pleasure and excitement" over the committee's selection of Bloomberg -- and was thankful the mayor was willing to come speak to the class of 2012.
    "He is truly a friend of Carolina," he said.
    Both Davis and Dahlgren admit that they don't expect the university to revoke their invitation, but say their ultimate goal is to get people to think about why Bloomberg was selected, and to create their own graduation.
    Their idea is to have a different kind of ceremony, where many people -- from graduates to members of their family -- are given the opportunity to speak. 
    Dahlgren said she explained to her family why she wouldn't be taking part in the big graduation at Kenan Memorial Stadium, home of the Tar Heels football team.
    "I think they're going to be more proud of me because I'm standing up for something," she said, adding that she'll be happy to take part in a ceremony where she won't feel "unethical" for being there.
    Her wish list of big-name speakers includes Naomi Klein (who was arrested at the New York Occupy Wall Street protest) and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman.
    Davis, who will not be graduating but will still help in the planning, says she'd love to have social theorist David Harvey, a professor of anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, speak at the ceremony.
    Her other choice, she admits, is a bit of a surprise: potential mayoral hopeful Alec Baldwin.
    "He's a man of some money and some power but...he seems to have a pretty good perspective of what's going on," she said.