Activists from across the political spectrum came to hear Jennifer Gratz, executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, speak last night in Palmer Commons about the group’s ballot initiative.
MCRI is a ballot proposal that, if approved by voters in November, would ban some affirmative action programs in Michigan.
The attendees’ demeanors were as diverse as their political views.
Members of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, which sponsored the event, sat in the front row of the auditorium, listening to Gratz’s speech without uttering a word.
A group of students from Students Supporting Affirmative Action sat in the rear, just as quiet.
Members of the pro-affirmative action group BAMN were less reserved.
About a dozen members rallied outside Palmer Commons before the event, marching in circles around a light post and chanting anti-MCRI slogans.
“We want to keep letting Jennifer Gratz and MCRI know that they can’t get away with Jim Crow tactics,” BAMN member Liana Mulholland said.
Inside the auditorium, they peppered the speech with shouts of “fraud,” “liar” and “racist” until an event organizer warned them three times that if they continued they would be kicked out of the room by one of three Department of Public Safety officers in attendance.
Though Gratz glanced at the group throughout her speech, she only directly addressed the group’s accusations once.
Gratz centered her speech on what she called the myths surrounding MCRI.
Among these she said were allegations that, if passed, the initiative will end all affirmative action programs and decrease racial diversity on campus.
BAMN’s most fervant complaint against MCRI has been the allegedly fraudulent tactics used to gather signatures for the petition that placed the measure on the ballot.
BAMN maintains that signature gatherers for MCRI lied to voters so they would sign the petition, allegedly telling them it was a pro-affirmative action measure.
“Hundreds of thousands of people who signed this petition thought it was for affirmative action,” said Donna Stern, a national coordinator for BAMN.
Gratz flatly denied that any fraud took place.
“This initiative was signed by over 800,000 Michigan residents,” she said. “There was no fraud committed to get this on the ballot.”
Gratz also disputed BAMN’s argument that the language of the initiative itself is deceptive.
“The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative language is very clear,” she said.
No sooner were these words out of her mouth than BAMN members erupted in laughter.
After the meeting, Gratz told reporters that BAMN activists often trailed signature gatherers, telling people not to sign the petitions.
“In many, many instances, BAMN was right behind our circulators,” she said. “To now come and say that people were misrepresenting the issue is completely untrue.”
Gratz, who is white, was denied admission to the University in 1995. She held that the University had violated her 14th Amendment rights to equal protection by giving preference to blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in admissions decisions.
She was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the University’s undergraduate admission programs, Gratz v. Bollinger. The Supreme Court ruled on the case in 2003, deciding that the University’s point-based affirmative action program was unconstitutional.
But the court did not entirely reject the use of race in college admissions. It struck down the University’s point-based system only because it was “not narrowly tailored,” according to Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s ruling. Addtionally, in the case Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court upheld that it was constitutional for the Law School to use race in its admissions policy.
Gratz launched MCRI in 2003 with the support of Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent who was a key proponent of a similar measure approved by California voters in 1995.
– Layla Aslani contributed to this report.