Protesters interrupt Obama rally

Student protesters from Yale and Harvard argue that Obama has not lived up to his campaign promise for increased funding for global AIDS relief.
Student protesters from Yale and Harvard argue that Obama has not lived up to his campaign promise for increased funding for global AIDS relief. Photo by Victor Kang.

Protesters from Yale and Harvard momentarily stole the spotlight from President Barack Obama at a rally in Bridgeport, Conn. Saturday.

Speaking in front of 10,000 attendees, Obama stumped for Connecticut’s Democratic candidates, who face tight races in Tuesday’s midterm elections. Within the first five minutes of his speech, about 30 students seated 50 feet from the stage interrupted the President, carrying a large white banner with red painted letters reading: “Keep the Promise: $50 billion for global AIDS.”

U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, gubernatorial candidate Dan Malloy, and Representative Jim Himes joined Obama in Bridgeport to gain Democrats’ support for Tuesday’s elections, with the Democratic party projected to lose seats in both chambers, according to a Quinnipiac poll last Tuesday. Russell Simmons, the celebrity hip-hop mogul who hosted the rally, and the candidates all encouraged Connecticut residents to rally Democratic votes for the election before Himes turned over the podium to Obama. But several minutes after the President took the stage, his speech was punctuated by demonstrators shouting, “Fund global AIDS!”

While Obama’s speech came to a halt for several minutes, he took it as an opportunity to address the protesters directly.

“These folks have been — you’ve been appearing at every rally we’ve been doing. And we’re funding global AIDS, and the other side is not. So I don’t know why you think this is a useful strategy,” Obama responded, after telling the group to “listen up.”

After the rally the group of student demonstrators, which was comprised of students from Yale College, the Yale School of Public Health, and about 20 Harvard students, insisted that their intention was not to cast aspersions on the President, but to hold him accountable for the promises he made in his 2008 campaign about increased funding for AIDS.

“Hey Obama, we love you, but AIDS patients need you too,” the students chanted outside the arena after the rally.

David Carel ’13, a member of the protest group, said that Obama originally promised a $1 billion increase each year for global AIDS funds, but in his two years as president, has only increased funding by about $150 million.

“So many of us are huge Obama supporters, and part of that is why we’ve been so disappointed,” Carel said. “It’s something that we really believed he would show leadership on, but he’s fallen short.”

As police escorted the protesters out of the arena, Obama told the audience that certain problems like global AIDS must take a backseat to the more pressing issue of the economy. “We’re not going to be able to do anything unless we can take people back to work, unless people feel confident about the future,” he said.

Audience members also expressed displeasure with the students’ protest tactics.

“We didn’t like how the Yale students were disrespectful. It was totally uncalled for. It was not the forum,” said Anna Montalvo, a Bridgeport resident.

Marina Keegan ’12, the elections coordinator for Yale College Democrats who organized a group of 40 Yale students to attend the rally, disapproved of the protests. “I thought it was rude…to go to rallies and interrupt. I support anyone who has a message to get out, but that wasn’t the way to go about it,” she said.

After the protesters had exited the arena, Obama returned to the primary focus of his message: convincing voters to elect Democrats and move forward in rebuilding the economy and providing support for the working class by rejecting Republican policies that contributed to the recession.

“The other side wants to go back to the same policies — to cut taxes for millionaires, cut regulations for special interest groups, cut out the middle class,” Obama said. “We tried it for eight years and it did not work. We are not going back to that. That is the choice in this election.”

Obama compared the economy to a car that the Republicans have driven into a “deep ditch.”

“Somehow they managed to walk away from the scene of the crime,” he said. “[The Republicans] can’t have the keys back. [They] don’t know how to drive.”

But Cyprien Sarteau ’12, vice president of activism for Yale College Republicans, said that he believes that Democrats currently in Congress have been incompetent and Obama’s administration is to blame.

“In the past four years, Nancy Pelosi has driven our country into a ditch, with Congressmen … voting in lockstep with her agenda to push the car even further into the ditch,” Sarteau said.

Malloy and Blumenthal both stressed Democratic policies that would help small businesses, ensure health care, and create tax breaks for America’s middle class.

Although these two candidates face tight races against their Republican contenders, for Jim Himes, the Democrat seeking reelection as the state’s fourth district representative, Obama’s visit to Bridgeport was particularly important.

Before Himes took office in 2009, his seat in the House of Representatives had been occupied by the Republican Party since 1969.

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