Students protest for Gaz at Michigan University graduation

Students protest for Gaz at Michigan University graduation
There were strong expressions of solidarity with Palestinians at the University of Michigan's graduation ceremony on Saturday, urging divestment from Israel.
4 min read
Washington, DC
05 May, 2024
Students at University of Michigan wave Palestinian flags at commencement ceremony. [Getty]

During the University of Michigan's commencement ceremony on Saturday, a plane carrying a banner reading "Divest from Israel Now! Free Palestine!" flew over the crowded stadium, while hundreds of students in their caps and gowns waved Palestinian flags, foreshadowing potential disruptions anticipated throughout the 2024 graduation season across the country.

On a warm May day, US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro delivered remarks at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, stopping at least twice to acknowledge the protesters' right to speak out.

"It is indeed these young men and women who will protect the freedoms that we so cherish as Americans in our Constitution of the United States, which includes the right to protest peacefully," Del Toro said at the ceremony that saw both strong support of Palestinians as well as a small group of vocal detractors.

"It was a glorious day," Khalid Turaani, a Palestinian American from the Detroit area told The New Arab. He was attending his nephew's graduation in Ann Arbor and had recently attended another nephew's graduation at Wayne State.

"What I noticed in both ceremonies was that there were so many people, Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, who were wearing the keffiyeh in solidarity with Palestinians," he said, adding that he noticed very few Israeli flags.

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During the ceremony, a plane flew overhead towing a slogan in support of Israel. Shortly after, another plane flew by with a sign showing support for Palestinians, and the crowd erupted in loud cheers.

"This, along with everything else says we're in a different era," he said. "Just the fact that students are coming out in solidarity with Palestinians in their last minutes on campus indicates their commitment as students."

Southeastern Michigan, where the prestigious University of Michigan is located, is also home to the largest gathering of Arabs and Muslims in the US.

The university is a popular choice for residents of nearby Dearborn, including the city's Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, who earned his undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees at the University of Michigan. It also boasts a long list of activists as alumni, including Palestinian activist and former US congressional candidate Huwaida Arraf. 

Like many universities across the US, Michigan has seen regular student protests since October, when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing around 1,200, according to Israeli officials.

Israel has responded to an indiscriminate and relentless military campaign on Gaza, killing over 34,600 people - most of whom were women and children. Multiple rights groups have described Israel's actions as genocide. 

Last month, it joined universities across the country in creating an encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters, many of which have been dismantled in preparation for graduation season.

The University of Michigan said it was expecting protests for commencement day, noting on its website that it would conduct security screenings, prohibit banners and flags, and any disruptions would be met with warnings. 

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"U-M is committed to free speech and freedom of expression. Deans and directors will generally be patient with lawful disruptions. If protests significantly impede the program, leadership will take steps to de-escalate and address the interruption," reads the university's commencement website.

TAHRIR Coalition, a group of pro-Palestinian student organisations, urged for action on the day of the ceremony, according to a post on social media.

"No graduation as normal when our tuition dollars have funded the murder of over 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza and every university is now rubble," the post said.

"We are protesting not just a genocide, but a scholastic side as well while our university refuses to acknowledge our Palestinian peers," it added.

The weekend brought more action across US campuses where contrasting views over Israel's war in Gaza have erupted, sometimes violently, over the last couple of weeks.

Many of the schools, including Columbia University in New York City, have called in police to quell the protests.

Tensions briefly flared up once more on Saturday at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Police officers in riot gear can be seen in a video moving on an encampment of Pro-Palestinian protesters, cuffing some demonstrators with zip ties and dragging them across the lawn.

Police have so far arrested over 2,000 protesters at colleges around the country.