Universities prepare for disruption at graduation ceremonies by Gaza war protesters

WASHINGTON— The next chapter of campus protests could begin soon, with universities across the US preparing for possible disruptions to graduation ceremonies.

Four universities, rocked by pro-Palestinian protests, will hold graduation ceremonies this weekend.

Many others, including Columbia University, have planned ceremonies throughout the month and into June.

Universities are working to improve security as protesters consider strikes and other possible actions.

Protesters set up camps and organized campus demonstrations to call on their universities to cut ties with Israel over the war in Gaza.

Many colleges responded by calling the police, leading to thousands of arrests.

There have been demonstrations at nearly 140 institutions in 45 states and Washington DC since protests began at Columbia University last month, according to a BBC tally.

Student protesters have so far remained largely silent about plans for disruptions at graduation ceremonies, known in the U.S. as commencements.

At Indiana University, IU Divest and the Palestine Solidarity Committee — whose camp at Indiana University has been evacuated twice by police in recent weeks — have called for a walkout at graduation events.

“Instead, make your pro-Palestinian position clear in the ‘Liberated Zone,’” reads one post on Instagram, referring to a protest area on the university’s campus in Bloomington. “Join us and wear your keffiyeh along with your cap and gown.”

The walkout will occur when Pamela Whitten, the university president, begins to speak.

Whitten faced a vote of no confidence earlier in April from faculty members concerned about academic freedom after the cancellation of a Palestinian artist’s exhibition and the suspension of a faculty member who served as a sponsor for a pro-Palestinian student group.

Faculty members have also discussed holding “a silent protest” outside commencement to express their displeasure without interfering with the event, according to two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Connecticut – all of which have seen demonstrations in the past two weeks – will have graduation ceremonies on May 4 and 5.

University of Michigan officials have announced plans for designated protest areas, where banners and flags will be banned and demonstrators will be subject to security screenings.

Commencement will be monitored by volunteers who will “respond to disruptions, beginning with warnings,” according to the university’s website.

Alifa Chowdhury, from the protest group Tahrir Coalition, declined to comment on whether disruptions were planned. She said the university had “completely ignored” offers to negotiate.

“It makes sense that they have implemented strategies and trained staff to ensure that protests do not take place,” she said.

Nearly 200 miles to the south, Ohio State University President Ted Carter has pledged to protect students’ right to free speech while enforcing rules prohibiting “intentional disruptions of university events, classes, examinations or programs, including commencement activities.” ”.

Heba Latif, a Palestinian American student and co-chair of the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, would not say whether protests are planned for the May 5 commencement ceremony.

Graduation is scheduled for May 15 in Columbia. Police entered campus earlier this week to clear a student occupation and will remain on campus throughout commencement season.

Mahmoud Khalil, a Palestinian international student at Columbia, told the BBC that the protest movement would continue regardless.

“Students have been protesting since October,” says Khalil.

“They’ve received disciplinary notices from the university, suspensions and probation, and that hasn’t stopped anyone.

“I don’t see how involving the police will stop this movement.”

Protesters in Columbia did not respond when repeatedly asked if disruptions were planned. – BBC