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Revolt on Campus: Protests over Gaza Disrupt Graduation Ceremonies as Police Crack Down on Encampments

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Image Credit: Instagram @saic_spl and Palestinian Youth Movement

Police have now arrested more than 2,500 students at pro-Palestine protests across the U.S., yet students continue to call for an end to the war on Gaza and universities’ investment in companies that support Israel’s occupation of Palestine. We speak to three student organizers from around the country: Salma Hamamy of the University of Michigan, president of the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, about the commencement ceremony protest she helped organize, and Cady de la Cruz of the University of Virginia and Rae Ferrara of the State University of New York at New Paltz about police crackdowns on their schools’ encampments. De la Cruz was arrested in the UVA raid and banned from campus without an opportunity to collect any of her belongings. She says repression has strengthened the resolve of many protesters, who are willing to risk their academic futures to push for divestment. “All of us there felt like we have more time on our hands … than the people of Gaza,” she explains, “We would hold it down for anything.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

Graduation ceremonies have begun on college campuses across the United States as students continue their protests in solidarity with Palestine and calling on their schools to divest from Israel. On Friday, the student speaker at the University of Toledo’s graduate school commencement ceremony wore a keffiyeh hijab and a Palestinian flag over her graduation robe. This is part of the address by Maha Zeidan, a Palestinian American graduating law student, president of the Graduate Student Association.

MAHA ZEIDAN: I apologize that this is not a typical graduation speech, but there is nothing typical about the times that we are living in. There is nothing typical about 15,000 children live-streamed deaths being watched. And there is nothing acceptable about our institutional complicity, silence or the gross misuse of police force nationwide.

AMY GOODMAN: Maha Zeidan. Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan, students holding Palestinian flags briefly disrupted graduation ceremonies Saturday as a plane flew overhead holding a banner that read “Divest from Israel now! Free Palestine!” Also on Saturday, at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where in 2017 neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us,” police in riot gear stormed a Gaza solidarity encampment and arrested at least 25 student protesters.

PROTESTER 1: Do not touch her!

POLICE OFFICER: Turn around and walk that way.

PROTESTER 2: Do not touch her Hey!

PROTESTER 1: Do not touch her!

AMY GOODMAN: The raid came after The Intercept’s Prem Thakker reported UVA, quote, “appears to have unilaterally changed policy on tents to help justify calling upon the police to arrest protesters.”

Police have now arrested more than 2,500 students at pro-Palestine protests across the U.S. in the past three weeks, which includes 133 arrests on Thursday at SUNY New Paltz alone, where police violently raided a student encampment with batons and dogs.

Well, we’re joined by three guests from these schools. We’re beginning in Southfield, Michigan, with Salma Hamamy, a student at the University of Michigan who just graduated this past weekend. Salma is president of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at the University of Michigan.

Salma, can you describe the graduation ceremony on Saturday?

SALMA HAMAMY: Hi. Yes. Thank you for having me.

So, the graduation ceremony on Saturday took place in the early morning with nearly hundreds and hundreds of students prepared to enjoy a celebratory moment. However, likewise, there are hundreds of students who are in the process of immense grief, given the ongoing genocide in Gaza and given the fact that the University of Michigan is funding a genocide. So, students took it upon themselves to engage in protest at the ceremony, with nearly a hundred students walking up and down the aisle trying to rally for the university to heed our demands, considering that they have entirely ignored us for the last seven months. As soon as the plane flew over with the banner, “Divest from Israel now! Free Palestine!” students jumped out of their seats carrying the Palestinian flag, walked throughout the aisles. And eventually, the police pushed us towards the back and prevented further protesters from being able to join us in the graduation.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of the overall crowd? I mean, there were tens of thousands of people there at University of Michigan graduation, Salma.

SALMA HAMAMY: Yeah, there were certainly tens of thousands of people there. The stadium is one of the largest in the world. And as soon the plane flew by with the banner calling for the university to divest, cheers erupted through the crowd. As students stood up and held their Palestinian flags, you could likewise hear a mix of cheers and some fellow students nearby calling for the police to immediately arrest us, cursing us out, throwing racial slurs. However, students continued on and held the Palestinian flag very high up and joined very quickly with one another and only got louder as both the cheers and boos continued.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Salma, I’m curious. At the same time, you have a Gaza solidarity encampment on campus. Police have not been called in to raid that?

SALMA HAMAMY: Yes. Surprisingly, police officers have not been called in to raid our encampment yet. We have faced quite a bit in regards to police brutality throughout the last seven months. And as of right now, our best guess is due to the fact that every single time police suppression continues on the rise, students’ power only grows in response. And so, considering that the university would probably be very fearful of what would happen on campus if they were to engage in police violence again, witnessing what has happened in the past, students would only exemplify and amplify their solidarity. So, it’s more so a preventative cause. They’re saying that they’re trying to allow students to peacefully protest; however, every single time we have tried peacefully protesting in the past demanding a meeting, they’ve arrested us several times, brutally beaten us to the floor, even ripping off students’ hijabs in the process. So, as of right now, the university, I think, is trying to wait it out and to wait for the students’ energy to die down. However, it’s only going to continue to grow.

AMY GOODMAN: Salma is joining us from Michigan. We’re going now to Cady de la Cruz, an undergraduate student at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, arrested Saturday for participating in the pro-Palestine encampment, a senior scheduled to graduate in two weeks. Now, let’s place this again. This is Charlottesville, where in 2017 scores of white men, mainly men, marched, saying, “Jews will not replace us.” This is during the Trump administration. If you can describe the arrests that took place, Cady, police arresting 25 protesters? What happened?

CADY DE LA CRUZ: Hi. Good morning.

Yeah. So, as you noted, the tent policy changed without notice at 11 a.m. on Saturday. And at noon, they deployed state troopers in riot gear. We immediately linked arms. We knew why we were there. We knew we weren’t going to leave until they met our demands, and we felt strong. They stalled for two hours. The state police, the city police, the county police, the university police were all there, at least a hundred cops. And we danced. And a huge crowd gathered around the encampment, supporting us, as police tried to keep them from getting in, but people kept running actually past the cops to join us. There was so much solidarity. The crowd outside was almost louder than us.

Eventually, the state troopers in riot gear did close in on us, a line of at least 40 of them, just a little bit longer than us, with shields. We were able to hold our ground until they started to spray huge clouds of chemicals at close range. When we ran back into the encampment to flush out our eyes and our throats, it was when we were separated and on the ground that they started to beat me down with their shields, drag my body by my clothes, and they sprayed us at close range with the chemicals. I saw the can close to my face. I had a friend who they ripped her goggles off and sprayed her. They took us somewhere where they had no medics and no water, while we screamed in pain. They detained 26 of us for almost nine hours with the chemicals still burning on our skins.

I’m now banned from campus. They’ve given us no chance to get our belongings. I have no phone, no laptop, no wallet. I’m purely getting by on the generosity of my friends. And like you said, this is the same campus that knew that men with rifles, Nazis, white supremacists were coming, and did not stop them. And none of those white supremacists are banned from campus.

AMY GOODMAN: Cady, you’re supposed to graduate in two weeks?


AMY GOODMAN: You’re risking so much to have protested right before, spending years getting your degree. Why did you do it?

CADY DE LA CRUZ: We had spent so many months pushing for divestment. We had had walkouts, like Salma was saying. Like, we had had walkouts. We had done so, so much. We had passed a referendum that got more votes in favor than even our entire student council election. And our administration refused to even comment on divestment.

And even though I only have two weeks before I’m supposed to graduate, I actually started the encampment on my last day of classes, and I ended up missing my classes. But even with two weeks left, I still — all of us there felt like we have more time on our hands left on our timeline than the people in Gaza, as we’re watching them bomb Rafah. We had a vigil the night before they raided our encampment. And again, we felt so much strength —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

CADY DE LA CRUZ: — in our escalation. We knew why we were there. We linked arms. We felt strong. We danced in front of that riot gear. We would hold it down for anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining us, Cady. And I want to now go to New York to Rae Ferrara, who is with SUNY New Paltz — that’s State University of New York at New Paltz — at the Gaza solidarity encampment. Rae Ferrara, can you describe — I mean, you had a large number of students arrested. Over 130?

RAE FERRARA: The closest thing to an accurate number we have is 133, but it is most definitely more than that. That’s the number that the DA is giving. But just our jail support resources have made it even more than that. We had about that many people at the encampment.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, since we only have about 40 seconds, can you describe what happened? You had just put the encampment up, when police moved in?

RAE FERRARA: No, we set up our encampment at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, and it wasn’t until about 10:40 p.m. on Thursday that the police raided us. This was after several failed attempts to negotiate with the university. Police raided us for over three hours. They knocked my friend unconscious. He had a concussion. They knocked an 82-year-old woman unconscious. All of my friends have bruises. They have red marks on their hands from the zip ties. And then, afterwards, they bulldozed all of our things.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Rae Ferrara, SUNY New Paltz Gaza solidarity camp participant and student at SUNY New Paltz; Cady de la Cruz, speaking to us from the University of Virginia; and Salma Hamamy at the University of Michigan, graduate, just graduated, president of SJP. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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