Are US graduation ceremonies the latest battleground for Gaza protests?

Here’s how pro-Palestine campus protests and encampments are affecting graduation ceremonies at US universities.

College graduates all over the United States this year are walking on stage to collect their degrees after donning Palestinian flags and keffiyehs with their caps and gowns.

Graduation ceremonies are taking place in May during protests and encampments in solidarity with the nearly 35,000 Palestinians killed since Israel’s war on Gaza began more than seven months ago.

Protesters who have set up encampments on campuses for the past several weeks are calling on their universities to cut academic and financial ties with Israel. Counterprotesters are making themselves heard as well with some carrying Israeli flags and displaying pro-Israel messages during commencement ceremonies.

While students at some institutions are using graduation to further their protests, some universities – including Columbia University in New York, where the first encampment appeared in April – have cancelled ceremonies. Other universities have changed venues and put security measures in place.

Which US universities have seen protests at graduations?

These demonstrations include those at:

  • University of Michigan: During the May 4 ceremony, some students held Palestinian flags and banners in protest. Police officers were present during the two-hour ceremony, which did not stop as a result of the protests. The protesters demanded that the university divest from companies associated with Israel. The institution has allowed students to set up an encampment on campus. However, during a dinner held for honorary degree recipients on the night of May 3, police assisted in breaking up a large gathering outside the dinner venue, and at least one person was arrested.

  • Northeastern University: The Boston college held its commencement on May 5 at Fenway Park. The ceremony was peaceful, and some students held Palestinian and Israeli flags. Undergraduate student speaker Rebecca Bamidele also called for peace in Gaza. Last month, police arrested about 100 protesters at Northeastern after breaking up an encampment on campus.
  • University of Illinois Chicago: Graduation speaker Aysha Affaneh used the occasion to speak about the killing of civilians, especially children and students, in Gaza. “I urge you all to acknowledge the class of 2024 of Gaza that no longer exists,” she said.

  • Indiana University: Hours before the institute in Bloomington held its commencement on May 4, an alternate ceremony was organised by protesters in Dunn Meadow, where the university’s encampment had reached its 10th day. Students and faculty, including political science Professor Abdulkader Sinno spoke at the alternate ceremony. Sinno was temporarily suspended in December after he was found to have misrepresented an event organised by the Palestine Solidarity Committee as an “academic event” on an official university form. Protesters also gathered outside the venue for the official ceremony. The Indiana Daily Student newspaper reported that two planes circled in the sky above the venue with banners reading “Let Gaza Live” and “Divest Now – Whitten Resign”, referring to Pamela Whitten, the university’s president.

Which universities have cancelled graduation?

While most US universities are pressing ahead with their ceremonies as scheduled or tightening security, some have cancelled commencements altogether:

  • Columbia University: On Monday, Columbia announced it had cancelled its main university-wide graduation, which had been scheduled for May 15. Instead, there will be smaller ceremonies for each school within the wider institution. Columbia became the epicentre for the pro-Palestine encampments after students pitched tents on April 17, faced a crackdown by police and reported events stage by stage from the ground via the student-run radio station.
  • University of Southern California (USC): Like Columbia, USC cancelled its main ceremony in favour of smaller events for different schools. More than 100 commencement events started on Wednesday and will continue until Saturday.
  • California State Polytechnic University: The campus in Humboldt, North Carolina, will host smaller ceremonies off campus. The institute called police onto the campus last week to arrest student protesters who were demanding divestment from Israel. The campus has been closed since then.

How else have protests affected graduations?

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, had been scheduled to speak at the University of Vermont’s commencement on May 19. However, the institute has announced that Thomas-Greenfield will no longer be speaking.

This followed a week of protesters at a student encampment demanding that she be removed as the speaker on the basis that she has, on behalf of the US, vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Are US universities taking action against graduation protests?

While some universities have chosen not to try to clear the encampments during graduation, including Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, some universities have tightened security and put rules in place that prevent protests.

At the University of Pennsylvania, signs, posters, flags and artificial noisemakers will be prohibited at the May 20 graduation, the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper reported.

At USC, students are allowed to carry only clear bags at ceremonies. Umbrellas, banners, selfie sticks and machines that make noise such as whistles or air horns have been forbidden.

On Monday, the president of Emory University announced that its commencement a week later will take place off campus at an indoor complex called the Gas South District in Duluth, Georgia, due to “concerns about safety and security”.

A student wears a graduation cap with the Flag of Israel during a Pro-Palestinian protest during the University of Michigan's spring commencement ceremony
A student wears a graduation cap with the flag of Israel on top during the University of Michigan’s spring commencement [Nic Antaya/Getty Images/AFP]

How has the US government responded to the graduation protests?

US President Joe Biden said he welcomed peaceful protests at commencements, according to White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre.

“We have been very clear. We believe all Americans should have the right to peacefully protest,” she said on Tuesday. “What we don’t want to see is hate speech, violence.”

Biden is scheduled to deliver a graduation speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta on May 19.

Source: Al Jazeera