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Columbia University axes graduation ceremony as US colleges counter Gaza protests

By AFP

May 7, 2024 10:12 AM


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Columbia University, the epicenter of US student protests against the war in Gaza, on Monday canceled its main graduation ceremony, as colleges seek to contain the demonstrations that have rocked campuses for weeks.

But the move has failed to stem anger over US support of Israel amid the mounting Palestinian death toll: fresh protests sprung up in the city Monday evening, including at the university gates, amid a heavy police presence.

Protesters then made their way to demonstrate at the city's annual Met Gala, a glitzy, high-profile fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. Several were arrested, AFP journalists confirmed.

Columbia, where at least 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested last week, cited security concerns as it canceled the graduation ceremony scheduled for May 15, with smaller events planned instead.

But some angry at the decision signed an online petition to overturn it, which had more than 2,300 signatures on Monday evening.

"They have plenty of money... But instead they chose the laziest option possible," politics student Ally Woodward, 24, told AFP, referring to university leaders.

- New target -

Graduation ceremonies -- a key event in American university life -- have become a new target for pro-Palestinian demonstrators after heavy-handed policing removed many of their on-campus encampments.

On Saturday, dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters wearing graduation gowns and keffiyehs briefly interrupted a commencement ceremony at the University of Michigan.

Some unfurled Palestinian flags and marched toward the stage chanting "You are funding genocide," before being stopped by police.

Others in the audience held Israeli flags, and a plane was seen flying overhead carrying a banner that said: "We stand with Israel. Jewish Lives Matter."

At Northeastern University in Boston, a man wearing a shirt splattered with fake blood approached the stage before being detained by police on Sunday.

The University of Southern California in April canceled its main graduation ceremony set for May 10 following pro-Palestinian protests on campus, citing a need for additional safety measures at the event that normally hosts 65,000 people.

- Widespread protests -

Police have taken tougher measures on pro-Palestinian protests in the past week, with some university presidents explicitly requesting law enforcement support.

Columbia's president Minouche Shafik faced criticism for calling in police to clear protesters who had barricaded themselves inside a university building.

Dramatic scenes followed, with helmet-clad officers marching handcuffed demonstrators out of the university grounds onto police buses.

Columbia, one of America's most elite universities, was among the first to mobilize against Israel's war in Gaza in protests that spread across the United States, with police arresting more than 2,000 people nationwide.

On Saturday, riot police were filmed breaking up a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where at least 25 people were arrested.

Police arrested dozens of people on Monday at the University of California, San Diego, as they began dismantling tents set up by pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

Its sister institution in Los Angeles, on Monday reinstated in-person classes which had been moved online after demonstrators took over the campus with tents and banners, before being cleared by police in confrontations during the weekend.

- 'Order must prevail' -

For many US students who graduated from high school during the Covid pandemic, it will be the second such ceremony that is canceled due to external disruption.

"I mean, it started online with Covid for this generation, now attending online and not even having a commencement. It's really sad," Nikolina Lee, a fourth-year economics student at Columbia, told AFP.

President Joe Biden said on Thursday that "order must prevail" on US campuses, adding that protests should not be allowed to disrupt classes and graduations.

The protests have strained relations between the United States and its key ally Israel, which has been at war in Gaza since October.

Israel's President Isaac Herzog condemned the protests, saying on Thursday that US campuses were "contaminated by hatred and anti-Semitism."

Demonstrators have accused their detractors of conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump -- Biden's competitor in November's presidential election -- has accused him of being soft by failing to condemn the pro-Palestinian supporters.

Trump referred to protesters at Columbia as "raging lunatics and Hamas sympathizers" and called on college presidents to "take back our campuses."


AFP


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