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SMC Graduation a Lesson in Politics

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

June 15 -- As the bleachers at Corsair Field filled Tuesday evening and the graduates in their robes marched around the track, it looked like the Santa Monica College graduation would be the cheerful, upbeat ceremony that many of the graduates had hoped for.

But the pomp and circumstance quickly turned into a political maelstrom with the first mention of the speaker about to deliver the commencement speech, sparking the vocal demonstration against Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that protestors had been preparing for more than a month.

The boos and cheers started as soon as Board of Trustees President Carole Currey mentioned Schwarzenegger's name. And they didn’t end until the governor completed a 20 minute speech often drowned out by the noise of the crowd.

Throughout it all, the governor had a broad confident smile and appeared at ease as the boos and derisive whistles grew in intensity, smiling as though he were being cheered. It was a perfect illustration of his message to persevere against all odds.

"The most important thing is for you to go deep down inside and to ask yourself, 'What do I want to accomplish,'" Schwarzenegger, who graduated from SMC in the early 1970s, told the crowd of more than 3,000.

"I knew that one day I would achieve that because I saw myself as the champion,” he said. “I saw myself as the guy with the trophies in my hand.”

Schwarzenegger’s address came one day after he announced a special November election to put his policies before the people after failing to make headway with the Democrat-controlled State legislature.

His policies have angered students, educators and public employees, who used the graduation ceremony as a public forum to express their opposition.

During Schwarzenegger’s speech, one faculty member held up a sign denouncing the governor’s failure to keep his promise to return education funds, while three other faculty members stood up and turned their backs on him.

But the gesture, like the sign, was lost on the governor, who was facing the other way. All he heard were the cheers.

As though inspired by the faculty members, two young women in the bleachers turned around displaying the backs of their t-shirts which read: "We deserve better."

Other protesters in the crowd held up their own banners, and when the police took them away, the boos grew even louder, augmented by ululations.

By this time, the sign behind the governor had been changed to "Honor Children Respect Teachers."

While some in the crowd came prepared to protest the governor’s visit with signs and slogans, others, like Benjamin Meskin, were in favor of the governor's visit.

"I'm really happy he's here,” Meskin said. “I think it's an honor."

But many expressed reservations about the governor's appearance.

"I'm just excited to see my friend graduate from nursing school,” said Stephanie Horka, a registered nurse who works at a hospital with her friend. “I wouldn't be here if it was just him,” she said, referring to the governor.

Jose Burgos felt even more strongly. "He's against the students, the college, our people,” Burgos said. “We don't need him here at all."

But then Burgos went on to tell the story of his friend, Ivett Arcia, and it bore a striking resemblance to the governor's life. Like him, she was an immigrant. She came from El Salvador and had a hard time getting into college.

"The college asked questions like you have to be one year living in the United States,” Burgos said with animation. “Finally she got in. I'm so happy, so proud of her.

"What it means to me is, not knowing English at all, so much hard work, is to me so wonderful," he said.

The governor had come to give a very similar message. But it was hard to hear. His audience was mixed between supporters and opponents, and they weren't afraid of letting their feelings be heard.

But Schwarzenegger was up for it. He wasn't going to back down. The more strident the protesters got, the more forceful he got. He stuck to his script in an impressive show of will, and the conflict actually seemed to illustrate his point.

He exhorted those students who could actually hear him to set their own goals and persevere.

"The first thing they said to me when I went to an agent... they said to me, 'You will never make it in the movie business, Arnold,'” he said. "But I did not listen, because I had again a clear vision."

He made a reference to "Conan the Barbarian" and got the only unmixed cheer of the evening. Even his foes were not going to boo that movie.

When he got to the line "the greatest state, the greatest country in the world," the pandemonium became complete. The faculty and administrators, most of whom were facing the right way, gave him a standing, cheering ovation.

Most of the graduates were standing by this time, booing, cheering, laughing, facing the bleachers, talking to each other animatedly, calling their friends with the exciting news on their cell phones, acting like they were at a fun party.

The protesters in the bleachers were also standing, and the crowds surrounding them were shouting as though they were at a rock concert. It became difficult to tell whether they were shouting for or against the governor, or just shouting for the joy of it.

By the time the governor finished his speech, urging the students to, "Work, work, work! Study, study, study! Win, win, win! Give back to the community," the graduates were stamping rhythmically on the risers.

But Schwarzenegger had done what he'd come to do. He had shared his story of overcoming adversity and given his audience an illustration of his message.

After he left, the party atmosphere continued, though it was toned down a little. The boos stopped, and were replaced by cheers as the graduates filed up to the stage where they received their diplomas.

Most of the graduates were sitting down now, and their families were content with shouting out their names and taking pictures.

The focus of celebration had returned to the students, though it wasn't ever as decorous as some had hoped.

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