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Home of free speech makes itself heard: Students rebel against university authorities

After weeks of tumult on college campuses over pro-Palestinian protests, many administrators prepared themselves for disruptions at graduations on Saturday

Shaila Dewan, Holly Secon, Leah Small, Robert Chiarito New York Published 13.05.24, 06:51 AM
Representational image

Representational image File image

At the University of California, Berkeley, hundreds of soon-to-be graduates rose from their seats in protest, chanting and disrupting their commencement. At Virginia Commonwealth University, about 60 graduates in caps and gowns walked out during governor Glenn Youngkin’s speech. At the University of Wisconsin, a handful of graduates stood with their backs to their chancellor as she spoke.

After weeks of tumult on college campuses over pro-Palestinian protests, many administrators prepared themselves for disruptions at graduations on Saturday. And while there were demonstrations — most noisily, perhaps, at UC Berkeley — ceremonies at several universities unfolded without major incident. Many students who protested did so silently.


Anticipating possible disruptions, university administrators had increased their security or taken various measures, including dismantling encampments, setting aside free speech zones, cancelling student speeches and issuing admission tickets.

Some administrators also tried to reach agreements with encampment organisers. The University of Wisconsin said it had reached a deal with protesters to clear the encampment in return for a meeting to discuss the university's investments.

Some students, too, were on edge about their big day — many missed their high school graduations four years ago because of the pandemic and did not want to repeat the experience.

At Berkeley, the home of the free-speech movement, the protesters made themselves heard. Greta Brown, 23, an environmental science graduate, wore cap, gown and a stole with the word "Palestine" emblazoned on it. She was among those who stood and chanted during the graduation speeches. "I felt like it was necessary," she said, because the university had not done enough. "I just heard a lot of, like, 'Oh, we hear you,' and a centrist point of view."

At the beginning of the ceremony, chancellor Carol Christ was met with boos when she began to speak, but there were louder cheers when she mentioned the pro-Palestinian encampment nearby. "Students have been camping around Sproul Hall for almost three weeks," Christ said. "They feel passionately about the brutality of the violence in Gaza." She added: "I, too, am deeply troubled by the terrible tragedy."

As the speeches continued, the disruptions escalated. Dozens of students in the crowd in the stands rose with signs reading "Divest", and at least 10 Palestinian flags. They began to chant, and then interrupted the speech by the student body president, Sydney Roberts, who said: "This wouldn't be Berkeley without a protest."

Despite warnings from a school official, a group of students staked out a section of empty stadium seats behind the main stage, chanting: "Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go" and "UC divest" and attracting other students until the crowd swelled to about 500. Most of them slowly made their way to the exit as the graduation drew to a close.

Not all of the protests were centred on West Asia. At Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, Micah White, 26, was one of roughly 60 students who walked out while the governor was speaking.

"The first thing that motivated me is the hypocrisy of VCU declaring themselves to be a minority-serving institution, declaring themselves to be for diversity, equity and inclusion, and bringing Youngkin in as commencement speaker," he said.

New York Times News Service

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