Jessica Pedroza rose to her feet as Vice President Mike Pence began his address Sunday at University of Notre Dame’s commencement. Her heart pounding fast, she strode away from the stage as, all around her, fellow graduates rose and joined her. She saw one of her best friends, a rainbow flag draped over her shoulders like a cape.
Pedroza was one of about 100 students who walked out of Pence’s commencement address at the Catholic university in Pence’s home state of Indiana. Organizers said they acted in solidarity with immigrants, refugees, and LGBTQ people impacted by Pence’s hardline policies. Video shows a stream of graduates in black robes walking purposefully and silently, as some in the audience boo them.
“I think that it would have been really easy to stay in the stadium and listen and not be booed at your own graduation,” Pedroza told Rewire. “It would have been easy for the next couple of days to not get a lot of hate messages and comments .… It would have been easy to do a lot of other things, but I think that it wouldn’t have been the right choice. I think that now is the time for us to stand up for what’s right.”
As the daughter of Mexican immigrants and part of the first generation in her family to go to college, Pedroza knew how important her graduation was to her parents. About a dozen family members attended her commencement on Sunday. They all walked out with her.
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Pence is the latest member of the Trump administration to face protests over the administration’s policies. Bethune-Cookman University graduates this month booed and turned their backs on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Pence on Saturday sparked protests outside Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
Perhaps with these protests in mind, Pence used his speech at the nation’s leading Catholic university to condemn what he called “the increasing intolerance and suppression of the time-honored tradition of free expression on our campuses.”
But Pedroza said the walkout was a prime example of free speech.
“That is our way of exercising our free speech,” Pedroza said. “He was given a platform as our commencement speaker and we gave ourselves a platform to challenge his views by walking out.”
Notre Dame’s valedictorian, Caleb Joshua Pine, also criticized the Trump administration’s policies, drawing a standing ovation for a speech that included the line, “If we are going to build walls against American students and international students, then I am skewered on the fence.”
Notre Dame is no stranger to protests against commencement speakers. Anti-choice protesters in 2009 heckled President Obama during his address at the university.
About 400 people gathered outside the stadium Sunday to show support for the student walkout. Many Notre Dame professors were among them, including Sarah McKibben, associate professor and department chair of Irish Language and Literature.
“I wanted to support our graduating class and those who chose to walk out who oppose Mike Pence and his agenda—both Mike Pence as someone we’re very familiar with in Indiana and whom we wanted to unwelcome back to Indiana, but also of course now that he’s vice president, Mike Pence as a representative of President Trump’s administration with whom we have profound disagreements,” McKibben told Rewire in an interview.
April Lidinsky, an Indiana University South Bend professor who volunteers with Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, said people of all ages gathered on the sidewalk for the peaceful protest.
“Nobody knows Mike Pence like Hoosiers do,” Lidinsky told Rewire in an interview. “If you don’t know Mike Pence, he looks like sort of a sane alternative to a rapidly insane-seeming White House and we want to say that we know his policies are actively dangerous.”
Lidinsky ticked off a list of examples from Pence’s stint as governor: the worst HIV outbreak in Indiana’s history, and a wave of laws eroding access to legal abortion care, including a law that prohibited abortions based on fetal disability and required burial or cremation for miscarried or aborted fetuses. Pence funneled $3.5 million in funds intended for low-income Hoosiers to crisis pregnancy centers—fake clinics that traffic in misinformation to deter people from abortion care. Pence in 2015 signed a religious imposition law that would have allowed businesses and people to deny service or otherwise discriminate against LGBTQ people. A national outcry pressured businesses to oppose the law, prompting Pence to sign a “fix.”
In Sunday’s address, Pence touted the Trump administration’s progress in bringing his anti-reproductive health agenda to the national stage.
“I’m proud that this president just took steps to ensure that this university and the Little Sisters of the Poor could not be forced to violate their consciences to fully participate in American civic life,” he said, referencing a May 4 executive order signed by Trump. Pence’s claims about the order are misleading, as Rewire’s Jessica Mason Pieklo explained.
But students chose to honor Notre Dame’s religious affiliation in a different way—by peacefully protesting Pence. Their organization, We StaND For, highlighted Pence’s anti-LGTBQ record and attempt to block Syrian refugees from settling in the state when he was governor, as well as the Trump administration’s Muslim ban and attack on sanctuary cities. The group did not take a public position on abortion rights.
Luis Miranda, who graduated with a master’s in peace studies, evoked the memory of the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who led Notre Dame for 35 years.
“Father Hesburgh, if you go to our student center, you will find a picture of him locking arms with Martin Luther King [Jr.], fighting for civil rights, side by side,” Miranda told Rewire. “This is who we are, this is who we are as the Fighting Irish, and this is how we honor, and how we stand on the shoulders of giants that preceded us.”