Pro-Palestinian protests cause disruptions at college commencements

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This weekend at Pomona College in the eastern part of Los Angeles County, the schedule includes commencement events set to unfold on the central Marston Quad from Friday through Sunday.

However, a growing pro-Palestinian encampment on the quad poses a challenge as it occupies the precise location designated for the commencement ceremonies. The encampment now features tents, Palestinian flags, and barricades around the graduation stage, casting uncertainty over the college’s ability to proceed with the planned activities.

The protesters have made it clear that they will maintain the encampment until the college agrees to divest its endowment funds from entities supporting Israel and its activities in Gaza. 

“By seizing the commencement plaza, we are strategically disrupting the usual operations of the college to emphasize the necessity for divestment,” explained Kwame Nkrumah, a sophomore studying political sociology at the college. 

This elite liberal arts college, with an enrollment of roughly 1,700 students, stands among several California campuses gearing up for commencement events this weekend that might face disruptions due to protests. 

Notably, the University of Southern California has canceled its primary commencement ceremony, citing security concerns. Other events are still on the agenda, including a gathering for graduating students and families at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that took place on Thursday night. 

Meanwhile, at UC Berkeley, where the main ceremony is set for Saturday morning, authorities acknowledge the potential for protests but assert the proceedings will continue as planned.

These are some of the initial graduations slated after pro-Palestinian encampments and protests emerged across California and the nation in response to the arrest of over 100 activists at Columbia University on April 18. Calls for campuses to divest from Israel have been a central theme. At a California campus earlier this week, protesters celebrated a shift in Sacramento State’s investment policy, which now excludes investments that profit from genocidal, ethnic cleansing, or human rights violations.

Despite the encampment challenge, officials from Pomona College affirm their commitment to hosting the upcoming commencement events. The Phi Beta Kappa induction is first on Friday at 5 p.m., followed by a celebratory dinner Saturday evening for graduates and families before Sunday’s main ceremony.

According to a college statement to EdSource, preparations for the commencement honoring the Class of 2024, students, and their loved ones are ongoing, stressing safety and diversity of opinions while maintaining the educational mission. College officials did not disclose plans to address the encampment situation that may impact commencement activities.

Anwar Mohamed, a graduating senior at Pomona, explained his personal connection to the cause as an organizer of the encampment, driven by family discussions about Palestine from a young age. For him, college education transcends degree acquisition and aligns with understanding the global context.

At UC Berkeley, plans for the commencement proceed unaffected, with the ceremony set for Saturday morning at California Memorial Stadium. Potential protests notwithstanding, the traditional program remains unchanged.

Christopher Ying, a graduating senior at UC Berkeley and University Medal recipient, appreciated the normalcy surrounding this year’s commencement. He expressed gratitude for Berkeley’s perseverance and support during his college journey, highlighting his community engagement and advocacy efforts without specific mention of the Israel-Gaza conflict in his speech.

Contrastingly, at the University of Southern California, valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s commencement address was canceled due to external pressure. The university eventually called off the ceremony following security concerns. This contrasts with the open dialogue approach at Berkeley, known for its historical support of free speech.

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