Graduation ceremonies, the new focus of US university protests over Gaza

Police have continued to make arrests and clear encampments throughout the weekend. Student rallies are now at the heart of the presidential campaign

University of Michigan students at a rally against the war in Gaza on April 25.
University of Michigan students at a rally against the war in Gaza on April 25.Rebecca Cook (REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

At least 25 arrests were made at the University of Virginia. Police again cleared the encampment at the University of Southern California on Sunday morning. And in Michigan, the graduation ceremony was interrupted on several occasions by shouts, flags and even a plane with banners that flew over the campus. Pro-Palestinian protests continue to inflame universities across the United States, despite warnings from administrators and police action. Now, the protesters have a new focus: the graduation ceremonies, the most solemn moment of the school year, scheduled to take place throughout May. Some centers have chosen to cancel their commencements altogether, while others are bringing in security measures more typical of an international summit, including a strong police presence and searches at the entrance. Yet others are negotiating with students over a key demand: divestment from companies that profit from the war in Gaza.

So far, more than 2,300 people have been detained at more than 45 universities throughout the country. On Sunday, around 50 officers entered the campus at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for the second time in a week to clear the area, although they did not make any arrests, according to the student newspaper The Daily Trojan. The campus remained closed three days before the start of its graduation ceremonies scheduled for Wednesday. A day earlier, riot officers had used pepper spray to break up a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the University of Virginia and arrested 25 protesters. Dozens were also arrested at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Other universities have scaled back on their graduation celebrations due to the protests, which have mostly taken place peacefully. Vermont has announced that the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, will no longer deliver the keynote address. Columbia, the university that has become a symbol of the protests after the police violently cleared the encampment and an occupied building, plans to keep officers on campus until May 17, when its calendar of ceremonies concludes.

A feeling of discontent persists at Columbia despite the calm imposed by the police presence and the fact that classes have been moved online. The sight of officers deploying on campus was especially traumatic. It is well remembered that two years ago, the city of New York had to pay $13 million in compensation for police brutality in connection with Black Lives Matter street protests.

“We know that the NYPD has a history of violent brutality against protesters, and it is horrifying that Columbia turned them on our own students not once, but twice. The [University] administration has chosen to escalate the confrontation each time with disproportionate responses, turning what at first was a peaceful protest by students doing their homework in an encampment, into a police occupation of our campus for the next two weeks,” said Bassam Khalidi, a law professor at the New York institution, in an email.

Other universities have opted for dialogue with their students in a bid to end or at least temper the protests. The universities of Minnesota and Michigan, two of the states with the largest Arab populations, as well as Brown’s, have promised to consider or submit to a vote the idea of divesting from companies that benefit from the war. Rutgers University has announced plans to create a department of Middle Eastern studies.

Political considerations

The protests are being followed very closely by the two major political parties. In a presidential race as close as the one being fought between the Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump and the Democrat Joe Biden, these protests are now at the heart of the campaign.

Republicans have prepared to demand harsh measures against pro-Palestinian protesters and against what they denounce as acts of antisemitism. House Speaker Mike Johnson recently held a press conference at Columbia and called for an investigation. His party has promoted controversial legislation against antisemitism, approved in the lower house and now moving to the Senate. And it painted a picture of Biden as an ineffective leader who allowed scenes of chaos and incivility to take place under his watch.

“Biden’s campus chaos,” Trump wrote in a message on Instagram accompanied by a video with the president’s recent remarks in which he defended the students’ right to demonstrate.

In that speech on Thursday, Biden defended that “there’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos.” The president’s delay in responding to the protests was due, in part, to a desire to avoid alienating the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and its younger voters, who favor an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. It was also partly due to the belief that the demonstrations would end up dissolving on their own and would not have a great impact on their electoral prospects. Especially if, as Washington intends, by November the war had already ended.

There is some data to corroborate the White House’s opinion. The vote of the under-30s, who mostly supported Biden in 2020, is less clear four years later, but among those who declare that they definitely will be voting in November, those who lean towards the Democratic candidate are ahead of Trump supporters, according to a March poll by the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. The same survey suggests that there is a minority interest in Gaza among this younger segment of the population: on the list of issues that concern young people, war was listed in 15th place, below employment, the defense of democracy, the environment or even immigration. Only 8% of those surveyed declared themselves very concerned about foreign policy.

But with a handful of pivotal states where he won by the bare minimum in 2020, every vote counts for Biden. And the war in Gaza is already threatening to cost him the Arab-American vote, essential in Michigan and Minnesota. The Harvard survey indicates that 51% of young people support a ceasefire in the Strip.

Biden already has other events planned to condemn antisemitism. His Tuesday agenda includes a speech at the annual commemoration ceremony at the Holocaust Museum, an event that had already been planned some time ago. A few days later he will travel to Atlanta to participate in the graduation ceremony at Morehouse College, one of the historic universities for Black students. But students at this institution have already asked administrators to cancel Biden’s invitation, as a gesture of protest against the president’s pro-Israel policy in the war. Last Wednesday, the federation of Democratic university students sent a warning about the electoral risk for the president if he maintains his current course in the Middle East.

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