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High security, protesters expected at Commencement

Jenn Metz | Saturday, May 16, 2009

Almost two months after the announcement of President Barack Obama’s commencement schedule, Notre Dame’s campus will be flooded with visitors, graduates and Secret Service agents and South Bend’s streets will be lined with protesters Sunday when Obama visits campus.

When the president addresses the over 2,900 graduates in the Class of 2009, commentators predict the packed Joyce Center will be the calm at the center of a protest storm.

Bishops, student groups and anti-abortion activists have spoken out against University President Fr. John Jenkins’ decision to invite Obama to speak at Commencement and award him an honorary degree.

Hundreds of protesters plan to stand or walk along Angela Blvd. and Indiana 933 Sunday; busloads of protestors are expected to arrive in South Bend – at least three buses are expected from Chicago – to join those who have already descended on South Bend.

Anti-abortion activists Randall Terry and Alan Keyes have led dozens of protesters on to campus the past few weeks, pushing baby carriages with bloody baby dolls and bearing graphic images; over 20 of these protesters have been arrested for trespass on University property.

A plane sponsored by the Center for Bioethical Reform has circled the campus since April 28, alternating images of an aborted fetus with messages to Jenkins to change his mind, and trucks from the group are driving the streets in South Bend bearing graphic images protesting the decision.

As local police are coordinating with Secret Service to prepare for the president’s visit, those living around campus are preparing for an estimated 20,000 protesters to come to their neighborhood.

Reports by WNDU and WSBT indicate residents of the neighborhoods around the campus’ main gates, who are used to crowds from football weekends, have growing concerns related to damage to personal property if the protests are not peaceful.

The Pro-Life Action League and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society are joining in protest Sunday, according to the Web site notredameprotest.com; their day’s activities will include two parts: walking in the neighborhood leading up to the ceremony and joining the scheduled prayer services on campus during Commencement.

Another group – ND Affirm Life – will be protesting around campus today until Sunday, according to its Web site. The events will include prayer rallies, speakers and acting in solidarity with ND Response on Sunday.

Captain Phil Trent of the South Bend Police Department (SBPD) told The Observer the police are prepared for any disturbance before Commencement day.

“We have numerous officers on call should we need them on Friday or Saturday,” he said. And when Sunday arrives, law enforcement will be monitoring the situation closely.

“All the local enforcement will have fairly large [presence], with man power in the area,” Trent said, stating that various state units and local law enforcement agencies will be assisting SBPD.

He said the police haven’t made exact estimates as to the numbers that will flock to Notre Dame in protest.

“It’s hard to put a number to that. We’ve heard multiple thousands, which we’re kind of skeptical of,” Trent said. “We’re prepared for whoever comes.”

Trent said he knows that at least one group has filed for a permit for a protest walk, and that the city approved that request.

“If past behavior is a predictor, we see what’s happened in the last week on campus, and we’re just preparing for a magnified [situation],” he said.

This weekend’s events will be different from past protests because the groups have made media and law enforcement aware of their plans, he said.

“We’ve received word from protest groups themselves that suggest that they’re going to be very vocal and some of the groups that we’re expecting can be problematic when they come together,” Trent said.

SBPD will also be assisting with the presidential visit itself, both on and off campus, Trent said.

“If everybody does this peacefully, then it will be just a day of complete standing, monitoring the situation,” he said of police activity during Commencement. “We’re there just as much to protect everyone’s 1st Amendment rights just as much as everyone’s right to private property is enforced.”

University spokesperson Dennis Brown said the University is not commenting on specific actions Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) is taking in preparation for Commencement.

Construction on local roads, specifically on Indiana 933, will cause traffic blocks, police said, and officers will be on hand for traffic and crowd control Sunday.