Pro-Palestinian protests dwindle on campuses as some U.S. college graduations marked by defiant acts

Despite pro-Palestinian protests roiling some U.S. college campuses this spring, graduation ceremonies are going off largely peacefully so far

Published - May 13, 2024 01:02 pm IST

Commencement speaker Jerry Seinfeld speaks at Duke University’s graduation ceremony on May 12, 2024

Commencement speaker Jerry Seinfeld speaks at Duke University’s graduation ceremony on May 12, 2024 | Photo Credit: AP

A tiny contingent of Duke University graduates opposed pro-Israel comedian Jerry Seinfeld speaking at their commencement in North Carolina on May 12, with about 30 of the 7,000 students leaving their seats and chanting “free Palestine” amid a mix of boos and cheers.

Some waved the red, green, black and white Palestinian flag. Mr. Seinfeld, whose namesake sitcom was one of the most popular in U.S. television history, was there to receive an honorary doctorate from the university.

The stand-up comic turned actor, who stars in the new Netflix movie “Unfrosted,” has publicly supported Israel since it invaded Gaza to dismantle Hamas after the organization attacked the country and killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7. The ensuing war has killed nearly 35,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

The small student protest on May 12 at Duke’s graduation in Durham, North Carolina, was emblematic of campus events across the U.S. after weeks of student protests resulted in nearly 2,900 arrests at 57 colleges and universities.

Students at campuses across the U.S. responded this spring by setting up encampments and calling for their schools to cut ties with Israel and businesses that support it. Students and others on campuses whom law enforcement authorities have identified as outside agitators have taken part in the protests from Columbia University in New York City to UCLA.

Police escorted graduates' families past a few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to block access to May 12 evening's commencement for Southern California’s Pomona College.

After demonstrators set up an encampment last week on the campus’ ceremony stage, the small liberal arts school moved the event 48 kilometers from Claremont to the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets were required to attend the event, which the school said would include additional security measures.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators rally at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators rally at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. | Photo Credit: AP

In April, police wearing riot gear arrested 19 protesters who had occupied the president's office at the college with about 1,700 undergraduates.

Demonstrator Anwar Mohmed, a 21-year-old Pomona senior, said the school has repeatedly ignored calls to consider divesting its endowment funds from corporations tied to Israel in the war in Gaza. , “We’ve been time and time again ignored by the institution,” Mr. Mohmed said outside the Shrine on May 12. “So today we have to say, it's not business as usual.”

At the University of California, Berkeley, on May 11, a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators waved flags and chanted during commencement and were escorted to the back of the stadium, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. There were no major counterprotests, but some attendees voiced frustration.

“I feel like they’re ruining it for those of us who paid for tickets and came to show our pride for our graduates,” said Annie Ramos, whose daughter is a student. “There’s a time and a place, and this is not it.”

This weekend's commencement events remained largely peaceful.

At Emerson College in Boston, some students took off their graduation robes and left them on stage. Others emblazoned “free Palestine” on their mortar boards. One woman, staring at a camera broadcasting a livestream to the public, unzipped her robe to show a kaffiyeh, the black and white checkered scarf commonly worn by Palestinians, and flashed a watermelon painted on her hand. Both are symbols of solidarity with those living in the occupied territories.

Others displayed messages for a camera situated on stage, but the livestream quickly shifted to a different view, preventing them from being seen for long. Chants during some of the speeches were difficult to decipher.

Protests at Columbia University, where student uprisings inspired others at campuses across the country, led the school to cancel its main graduation ceremony in favor of smaller gatherings.

The University of Southern California told its valedictorian, who publicly backed Palestinians, that she could not deliver her keynote speech at its graduation ceremony because of security concerns. It later canceled its main graduation ceremony.

At DePaul University in Chicago, graduation is more than a month away. But as the academic year closes, school leaders said they had reached an “impasse” with the school's pro-Palestinian protesters, leaving the future of their encampment on the Chicago campus unclear.

The student-led DePaul Divestment Coalition, which is calling on the university to divest from economic interests tied to Israel, set up the encampment nearly two weeks ago. The group alleged university officials walked away from talks and tried to force students into signing an agreement, according to a student statement late on May 11.

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