Less than 15 minutes after CIA Director John Brennan was introduced, protesters interrupted the event, chanting “drones kill kids” and “U.S. out of the Middle East.”
Friday’s moderated discussion with Brennan at the Penn Museum was shut down early following repeated interruptions by protesters inside the building — at least one of whom was Penn affiliated — who spoke out against the United States government’s use of drones. Several were escorted out of the building.
After the first instance of protest, Penn Law Dean Theodore Ruger returned to the stage to explain Penn’s freedom of expression policy. However, his voice was quickly drowned out as protesters continued to yell over him.
Ruger and Penn professor and moderator Marjorie Margolies both asked if the protesters would like to hear the director’s response to their chanting.
“Are you trying to silence him?” Ruger asked.
Margolies asked her question again with no response, and members of the audience began to boo at the protesters.
One protester yelled “drones kill kids” and “black lives matter.” Another protester chanted “murderers.”
They continued to chant as they were escorted out of the auditorium. One woman yelled at security officials to take their hands off of her as she was pushed towards the door.
Brennan addressed the use of drones, explaining “this administration has made the criteria very rigorous as far as what are the conditions where such actions would be taken.”
He said the effect of drone strikes on civilians is often exaggerated.
“I know there are a lot of reports about hundreds upon thousands of innocents who have been killed as a result of these strikes,” he said. “I can tell you with great confidence that those are exceptionally exaggerated reports... the number of civilians killed relative to the number of terrorists killed is a very small portion.”
Soon after, two more protesters — including Engineering junior and member of Students for a Democratic Society Lucas Lipatti — stood up to chant. They were quickly escorted out of the auditorium.
The event was organized by the Fels Institute of Government in partnership with Penn Law, The Christopher Browne Center for International Politics, Perry World House and Fox Leadership. Attendees were required to register in advance and show identification at the door.
In between the interruptions, Brennan shared his views on Edward Snowden, cultural changes in the Middle East and how the media distorts the efforts of the CIA. He also cracked jokes.
“What do you say when you go to a cocktail party?” Margolies asked at one point.
“Well, usually by the time I’m at the party, they know me — or I know them,” Brennan said as the audience laughed.
Brennan was interrupted for a third time during the question and answer session when two more protesters began chanting, “the CIA is a terrorist group; human torture is a crime.”
“We’ve heard your views, we respect your views,” Ruger responded. “What you’re doing now is silencing speech.”
After the third interruption, the moderator decided to end the event. Members of the audience gave Brennan a standing ovation at Margolies’ request.
Although the protesters inside the building were not all Penn-affiliated, several Penn students and members of SDS protested outside on the Museum’s steps.
Members of the group handed out flyers, reading: “This event is being disrupted because John Brennan is the head of the most destructive terrorist organization in the world today, the CIA.”
Lipatti said the protesters referenced the Black Lives Matter movement because “we connect the struggle against imperialism and neocolonialism at home and abroad.”
College freshman and SDS member Daniel Pitt responded to the accusation that the protesters were silencing speech, saying, “I don’t think there’s any reason to allow speech that supports apartheid, that supports literal genocide...”
The Statesman, a conservative-leaning publication at Penn, created an online petition following the event, urging SDS to apologize for disrupting Brennan's talk.
“We definitely recognize that people have different opinions, but the way they went about displaying their concerns wasn’t the right approach,” Editor-in-Chief of the Statesman Maria Biery told the Daily Pennsylvanian on Sunday. “By shutting down the conversation, nobody learned anything from that.”
Penn SDS posted a response on their Facebook page, criticizing what they said were inaccuracies in The Statesman’s account of the event and refusing to apologize.
“We encourage dialogue about the role of campus activism in shaping intellectual discourse” they wrote.
College sophomore Jed Dale, who attended the event, expressed criticism of the protesters’ actions.
“Even if they just stood up once, said it, and then left, that would have been enough,” he said. “It went on far too long and was not nearly articulate enough to really do much of anything.”
Wharton freshman Midhun Salim also expressed criticism.
“It was quite disappointing,” he said. “I assumed that if they had a valid point of view they would engage them intellectually.”
College freshman Justin Bean noted the lack of dialogue between the protesters and the moderators and speaker.
“The moderator offered them an opportunity to hear their concerns voiced and answered by the Director of the CIA, and she did it very respectfully and was patient — and waited — when she didn’t really have to be,” he said.
“And yet instead of trying to open up a dialogue, they tried to shut it down,” he added.
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