Hundreds of Harvard students walk out of graduation ceremony in Gaza protest

Students walked out of Harvard yard chanting ‘Free, free Palestine’

Amelia Neath
Friday 24 May 2024 12:38 BST
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Pro-Palestinian protesters agree to end encampment at Harvard

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Hundreds of Harvard students in graduation robes walked out of their commencement on Thursday in solidarity with Palestine, and the 13 students who had been barred from the ceremony over protest encampments.

Graduating students from the top Ivy League school stood up during the commencement ceremony on Thursday and walked out chanting “Free, free Palestine” while others shouted, “Let them walk, let them walk,” during the ceremony in reference to the 13 graduates who were not allowed to receive their diplomas alongside their classmates.

During a student address, senior Shruthi Kumar used the moment to declare that “this semester, our freedom of speech and our expressions of solidarity became punishable,” according to the Associated Press.

She also said she was recognising “the 13 undergraduates in the class of 2024 who will not graduate today,” that received cheers and clapping from other graduates.

Graduating students chant as they walk out in protest over the 13 students who have been exempt from graduating
Graduating students chant as they walk out in protest over the 13 students who have been exempt from graduating (AP)

“I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus.”

She explained that over 1,500 students had petitioned, and nearly 500 staff and faculty members had spoken up about the sanctions placed on them.

“This is about civil rights and upholding democratic principles,” she said. “The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken. Harvard, do you hear us?”

The ceremony also heard from Maria Ressa, a journalist, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a long-standing advocate of freedom of speech, who spoke as the commencement speaker.

“Harvard, you are being tested,” she said. “The campus protests are testing everyone in America… Protests give voice; they shouldn’t be silenced.”

Graduating students with messages supporting Gaza on their mortarboards during commencement in Harvard Yard
Graduating students with messages supporting Gaza on their mortarboards during commencement in Harvard Yard (AP)

The graduation ceremony took place in the historic Harvard Yard, where pro-Gaza protests and an encampment was established last month.

The camp was disbanded on 14 May after the university announced that protestors had agreed to end the encampment.

At the start of the week, the faculty announced it had restored the 13 students to a list of those eligible to graduate. However, Harvard’s governing board later overruled this after the students were found to have violated the university’s policies by their conduct during the encampment protest.

Students graduating hold up a Palestinian flag duirng the graduation ceremony in Harvard Yard, at Harvard University on Thursday
Students graduating hold up a Palestinian flag duirng the graduation ceremony in Harvard Yard, at Harvard University on Thursday (AP)

The board said in a statement on Wednesday that the students were “not in good standing” so they could not “responsibly vote to award them degrees at this time.”

“In coming to this determination, we note that the express provisions of the Harvard College Student Handbook state that students who are not in good standing are not eligible for degrees,” the Harvard Corporation said, but added there was a possibility of appeal.

Ms Kumar announced that she would be walking out as she could not “in good conscience celebrate when their families are in pain.”

A swarm of students also walked out and reconvened at a Methodist church near Harvard Square for a “people’s commencement,” and spoke about those who had lost their lives in Gaza, the New York Times reported.

Harvard University students pass protestors while making their way into Harvard Yard for commencement on Thursday
Harvard University students pass protestors while making their way into Harvard Yard for commencement on Thursday (AP)

At the ceremony an audience member also held up an Israeli flag while half a dozen or so people waved Palestinian flags.

A small plane also circled above the graduates, trailing an Israeli and US flag and a truck was parked outside the campus with a billboard bearing some pro-Palestinian protestors’ names and images under a banner that said “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”

Protests have swept US college campuses since the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israel, which killed 1,200 people. The ensuing Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to the latest figures.

Demonstrations and encampments on campuses have seen other institutions like USC cancelling their main commencement stage ceremony last month.

The protests and encampments have led to 3,000 arrests at universities in the US.

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