May 17th, 2024

USC won’t hold main commencement ceremony amid Gaza war protests on campus

By Steve Leblanc And Nick Perry, The Associated Press on April 25, 2024.

BOSTON (AP) – The University of Southern California has canceled its main stage graduation ceremony under new safety measures being taken as the campus is roiled by protests stemming from the Israel-Hamas war.

The university announced the move Thursday, the day after more than 90 protesters were arrested on campus. The ceremony was scheduled for May 10.

The university says it will still host dozens of commencement events, including all the traditional individual school commencement ceremonies where students cross a stage and receive their diplomas.

The university already canceled a planned commencement speech by the school’s pro-Palestinian valedictorian, citing safety concerns.

“We understand that this is disappointing; however, we are adding many new activities and celebrations to make this commencement academically meaningful, memorable, and uniquely USC, including places to gather with family, friends, faculty, and staff, the celebratory releasing of the doves, and performances by the Trojan Marching Band,” the university said in a statement Thursday.

The Los Angeles Police Department said more than 90 people were arrested Wednesday night during a protest on the campus for alleged trespassing. One person was arrested for alleged assault with a deadly weapon.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

BOSTON (AP) – Some U.S. universities called in police to break up demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war, resulting in ugly scuffles and dozens of arrests, while others appeared content to wait out student protests Thursday, as the final days of the semester ticked down and graduation ceremonies loomed.

At Emerson College in Boston, 108 people were arrested overnight at an alleyway encampment. Another 93 people were arrested during a Wednesday night protest at the University of Southern California. And new encampments and protests continued to pop up at campuses across the country.

Although many students will soon leave for the summer break, school officials worry that any ongoing protests could disrupt May commencement ceremonies. Students protesting the war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling the conflict. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

At Emerson, video shows police first warning students in the alleyway to leave. Students link arms to resist officers, who move forcefully through the crowd and throw some protesters to the ground.

“As the night progressed, it got tenser and tenser. There were just more cops on all sides. It felt like we were being slowly pushed in and crushed,” said Ocean Muir, a sophomore.

“For me, the scariest moment was holding these umbrellas out in case we were tear-gassed, and hearing them come, and hearing their boots on the ground, just pounding into the ground louder than we could chant, and not being able to see a single person,” she said.

Muir said police lifted her by her arms and legs and carried her away. Along with other students, Muir was charged Thursday with trespassing and disorderly conduct.

Emerson College leaders had earlier warned students that the alley has a public right-of-way and city authorities had threatened to take action if the protesters didn’t leave. Emerson canceled classes Thursday, and Boston police said four officers suffered injuries that were not life-threatening during the confrontation.

At USC, tensions were already high after the university canceled a planned commencement speech by the school’s pro-Palestinian valedictorian, citing safety concerns. After scuffles with police early Wednesday, a few dozen demonstrators standing in a circle with locked arms were detained one by one later in the evening.

Officers encircled the dwindling group sitting in defiance of an earlier warning to disperse or be arrested. Beyond the police line, hundreds of onlookers watched as helicopters buzzed overhead. The school closed the campus. One person was arrested on allegations of assault with a deadly weapon, the Los Angeles Police Department said, although it didn’t immediately provide details about the incident.

Earlier Wednesday, officers at the University of Texas at Austin aggressively detained dozens of protesters. Hundreds of local and state police – including some on horseback and holding batons – bulldozed into protesters, at one point sending some tumbling into the street. In all, 57 people were jailed and charged with criminal trespass, according to a spokeswoman for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

Dane Urquhart, a third-year Texas student, called the police presence and arrests an “overreaction,” adding that the protest would have remained peaceful if the officers hadn’t turned out in force. In a statement, the university’s president, Jay Hartzell, said: “Our rules matter, and they will be enforced. Our university will not be occupied.”

North of USC, protesters at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, remained barricaded inside a building for a third day. The school shut down campus through the weekend and made classes virtual.

At Emory University in Atlanta, local and state police swept in to dismantle a camp, although the university said the protesters weren’t students but rather outside activists. Some officers carried semiautomatic weapons, and video shows officers using a stun gun on one protester who they had pinned to the ground. At least 17 people were detained, handcuffed with zip ties and loaded into a police transport van.

Protesters at Emory chanted slogans supporting Palestinians and opposing a public safety training center being built in Atlanta. The two movements are closely entwined in Atlanta, where there has been years of “Stop Cop City” activism that has included attacks on property.

But many colleges, including Harvard University in Massachusetts, were choosing not to take immediate action against protesters who had set up tents, even though they were openly defying campus rules. And some colleges were making new rules, like Northwestern University, which hastily changed its student code of conduct Thursday morning to bar tents on its suburban Chicago campus.

The current wave of protests was inspired by events at Columbia University in New York, where police cleared an encampment and arrested more than 100 people last week, only for students to defiantly put up tents again, in an area where many are set to graduate in front of families in a few weeks. Columbia has said it plans to continue negotiations with protesters through early Friday.

___

Perry reported from Meredith, New Hampshire. Contributing to this report were Associated Press journalists in various locations including Kathy McCormack, Jim Vertuno, Acacia Coronado, Sudhin Thanawala, Mike Stewart and Sophia Tareen.

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