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Pro-Palestine US students celebrate the 'People's Graduation'

The 'People’s Graduation': Celebrating pro-Palestine activism at NYU and Columbia University
6 min read
20 June, 2024
At US universities where encampments sprang up in protest for Gaza, alternate graduations were held to honour the students who stood with Palestine.

The "People's Graduation" is the name students dubbed the alternative graduation ceremonies that took place at New York and Columbia universities recently to celebrate those active in the pro-Palestine student movement calling for an end to Israel's war on Gaza.

These alternate ceremonies were organised after universities banned students from holding banners and Palestinian flags or wearing keffiyehs at their official graduation ceremonies.

In some cases, students were even barred from participating in the celebrations or the ceremony was cancelled altogether.

This special ceremony has resembled the official university one, with speeches from students, professors and guests; the attendance of proud families; the distribution of certificates, and attendees donning traditional graduation gowns and mortarboards. However, they have differed from the official ceremonies due to their focus on Palestine.

Moreover, they celebrated those students punished by their universities, and those banned from their own university campuses due to their Palestine activism on campuses in the wake of Israel's war.

They also honoured those arrested after university administrations had called the police to target their students – those expressing mass student opposition to the war and demanding university divestment from arms companies and those involved in Israel's occupation.

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Nadine Fatala, a PhD student in Media and Communications at New York University (NYU), an activist in the NYU student movement and member of the Palestinian Solidarity Coalition, related to to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition, how the escalation against the students started, and described the atmosphere inside the university campus in the weeks before graduation.

On 22 April, "the university administration summoned the police to the university campus to confront the students just 18 hours after the first peaceful protest encampment was set up," she says.

"The police assaulted the students and the professors who formed a circle to protect their students, and arrested dozens of them."

She explained that following the arrests, the university erected a wooden wall round the space the students had been occupying. However, the students managed to commandeer another space and set up another encampment which lasted almost a week before the police stormed it, arresting them again.

The university couldn't "extinguish the flame of protest" she says, as days later the students managed to occupy the university's main library briefly, renaming it the Diana Tamari Sabbagh Library, "after the library destroyed by the occupation in Gaza, which was a part of the Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Centre."

Nadine adds: "All of this harassment against speech in support of the Palestinian people, and bringing the police into the university campus to arrest students have impacted the students' morale.

"Many of the active students have questioned the point of taking part in official graduation ceremonies put on by the university, and don't think they represent them. Worse in fact, they deny them their right to expression, and represent the owners of capital who want to impose their agendas on the students."

She says there was a desire for a "symbolic event that celebrates these students so we decided to organise an alternative graduation party."

Colombia University student Yasmine is Palestinian of origin and active in the student movement. She took part in preparing the alternative graduation celebrations at her university.

"The students work for years to obtain their graduation certificates, but [even] after all these years, they don't feel safe in the university, nor do they feel safe to participate in the official graduation ceremony."

She says it’s "disgraceful" that Palestinian students and those supportive of the Palestinian cause had to create their own space to feel safe.

"When it relates to us, Congress doesn't hold hearings, like those it held to defend Israel supporters. Not even the university initiated a dialogue with the students, or held meetings about the need to protect us."

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Yasmine points out a recent article in The Washington Post which revealed that a number of New York-based millionaires were in a WhatsApp group chat for sharing information on how to act against the student movement.

The group had discussed pressuring the city's mayor and Colombia University’s Board of Trustees and President to ask for police to be called on to break up the sit-in and arrest students.

Yasmine explains how disproportionate violence was used against the students, with the counter-terrorism unit brought in to target the protests.

"All this against peaceful university demonstrators sitting in an encampment to chant slogans and songs demanding the university divest from Israel."

However she says she is unsurprised at the violence, "because at the end of the day, this issue relates to protecting their financial interests — interests which support the war, and companies that support the occupation."

Police maintained a presence on Colombia's campus for nearly two weeks, even after the encampment was dismantled. Colombia University then decided to cancel the main graduation ceremony.

Yasmine puts this down to the discomfort at Colombia University that its "hypocrisy will be laid bare" if students at the ceremony chant for Palestine and raise placards condemning its investment in Israel's genocidal war: "It will dismantle the myth the Colombia University administration has created around itself as a human rights supporting institution."

Paula Chakravartty, a media professor at NYU who supported the student movement, describes the alternative graduation celebration for NYU students as "very moving."

"The alternative graduation party was a genuine celebration of students who are committed, not only to the intellect and learning, but to trying to apply the principles around fighting injustice and inequality through their actions," she explains.

She says the alternative ceremonies saw teachers presenting their students with certificates of recognition, "as many of them excel academically" as well as symbolic graduation certificates.

"I believe this is important, especially for students who the university has declared persona non grata on campus because of their activism."

Nadine Fatala hopes the alternative ceremonies will become an annual fixture in the future where important issues – as well as Palestine – can be focused on.

"I hope it will transform into a yearly tradition with which we can celebrate the student movement and initiatives that aren't valued by the university. Universities often honour students who support social and political initiatives in theory, but the reality is that many students given honours by the university aren't necessarily those active on the ground, who fight effectively for causes, or for marginalised communities in New York and elsewhere."

She highlights that the attacks on the students standing up for Palestine could negatively impact their professional futures, as well as their psychological, social and possibly financial wellbeing – and that the alternative graduation ceremony can play a role in giving "these young people the moral support they desperately need."

Ibtisam Azem is a novelist and senior correspondent. She has been covering the UN for a decade. Her latest novel is The Book of Disappearance. Follow her on Twitter: @IbtisamAzem

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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