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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Dozens arrested at U.Va. as other protests disrupt graduations

City University Public Safety officers are pushed back by the crowd after trying to remove a person during a pro-Palestinian protest at the City College of New York, on Thursday, April 25, 2024. (Adam Gray/The New York Times)

By Emily Cochrane, Ryan Patrick Hooper, Kevin Williams and Jackson Landers

At least 25 people were arrested Saturday at the University of Virginia, as protests over the war in the Gaza Strip continued to disrupt university campuses and puncture the celebratory atmosphere around graduation ceremonies across the country.

The arrests and aggressive efforts to clamp down on protests underscored just how tumultuous the end of the spring semester has been for universities, many of which are holding commencements this weekend against the backdrop of tense protests on their campuses.

The turmoil has added another complicated layer to graduation for students, many of whom had their high school senior-year celebrations abruptly cut short by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Pro-Palestinian students and their allies, for their part, have signaled that they will continue to challenge their universities over their financial ties to Israel and military companies, to express outrage over the violence in Gaza and to condemn aggressive treatment of protesters on campus.

“We aren’t going anywhere,” said Bryce Greene, 26, an Indiana University doctoral student and one of the protest organizers at the school’s campus in Bloomington. Greene said he believed there would be enough students around campus to sustain the protest over the summer, or until the school agreed to their demands to divest.

The arrests at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, were among the most prominent Saturday, after weeks of unrest across the country. In a news release, the university said the protesters had violated school policy Friday by setting up tents on the lawn and by using megaphones.

But the encampment was not forcibly removed then, the statement read, “given continued peaceful behavior and the presence of young children at the demonstration site, and due to heavy rain Friday night.”

By Saturday afternoon, protesters were met with police officers in riot gear, who took down the encampment. At one point, police used chemical irritants against the crowd to get people to disperse.

The university said it was not immediately clear how many of those arrested were affiliated with the school. All were charged with trespassing, according to a police official.

Dozens of protesters were also arrested at the Art Institute of Chicago, after the school asked police Saturday to remove demonstrators from school property.

Elsewhere, the protests extended from campus demonstrations to commencement ceremonies. Over the last academic year, schools across the country have met the protests of thousands of students in different ways: Some administrations have negotiated with demonstrators over their demands, while others have called in police.

But both Jewish and Palestinian students across the country have expressed fear and discomfort in the remaining days of the spring semester, describing experiences of bigotry and discrimination. And some saw the graduation ceremonies as an opportunity to continue their protests and interject reminders of the ongoing war.

Universities have tried to ensure against major disruptions. Some schools plan to set up designated areas for protests, in a bid to allow the ceremonies to go forward without quashing free speech.

At the University of Michigan’s ceremony, pro-Palestinian supporters briefly disrupted the event and were met by state police. Dozens of pro-Palestinian supporters in kaffiyehs and graduation caps unfurled and held up Palestinian flags in the aisles of the ceremony at Michigan Stadium, as a speaker invoked the school’s “Go Blue” slogan.

Protesters marched down the center aisle toward the stage, chanting: “Regents, regents, you can’t hide! You are funding genocide!”

One person in the audience could be heard yelling back, “You’re ruining our graduation!”

Overhead, a plane flying the message “Divest from Israel now! Free Palestine!” circled the stadium. Another plane with a banner offered a different message: “We stand with Israel. Jewish lives matter.”

University police blocked the protesters from moving closer to the stage and pushed them toward a section in the back of the venue. The ceremony did not stop. Neither did the chanting, though how audible or distracting it was might have depended on where people sat in the stadium.

At Indiana University on Saturday, protesting students walked out of the ceremony during commencement remarks by the school president, Pamela Whitten. Some shouted “free, free Palestine” as they left.

Whitten made no mention of the protests but instead told the assembled students, “We have been looking forward to celebrating this moment with you.”

Another group walked out, their chants drowned out by boos, when Scott Dorsey, a tech entrepreneur, began to speak. Protesters said they were headed for the encampment on the university’s Dunn Meadow, where earlier they had held their own version of commencement.

“They only acted when things reached a boiling point,” said Gary Taylor, 22, of Indianapolis, and an informatics graduate, defending the protesters before the ceremony.

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