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Anti-war protest ruffles University of Michigan as demonstrations collide with graduation season

About 75 people, many wearing traditional Arabic kaffiyeh, marched up the main aisle chanting and holding signs.
Protesters at the University of Michigan's Spring 2024 Commencement Ceremony
Posted at 5:41 PM, May 04, 2024

Protesters chanted anti-war messages and waved Palestinian flags during the University of Michigan's commencement Saturday, as student demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war collided with the annual pomp-and-circumstance of graduation season at American universities.

The protest happened at the beginning of the event at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. About 75 people, many wearing traditional Arabic kaffiyeh along with their graduation caps, marched up the main aisle toward the graduation stage.

They chanted "Regents, regents, you can't hide! You are funding genocide!” while holding signs, including one that read: “No universities left in Gaza.”

Overhead, planes flew competing messages. One read: "Divest from Israel now! Free Palestine!” The other read: “We stand with Israel. Jewish lives matter.”

Officials said no one was arrested, and the protest didn’t seriously interrupt the nearly two-hour event, which was attended by tens of thousands of people, some of them waving Israeli flags.

State police prevented the demonstrators from reaching the stage and university spokesperson Colleen Mastony said public safety personnel escorted the protesters to the rear of the stadium, where they remained through the conclusion of the event.

“Peaceful protests like this have taken place at U-M commencement ceremonies for decades,” she added.

U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro paused a few times during his remarks, saying at one point, “Ladies and gentlemen, if you can please draw your attention back to the podium."

Before he administered an oath to graduates in the armed forces, Del Toro said they would “protect the freedoms that we so cherish,” including the “right to protest peacefully.”

The university has allowed protesters to set up an encampment on campus but police assisted in breaking up a large gathering at a graduation-related event Friday night, and one person was arrested.

Michigan was among the schools bracing for protests during its commencement ceremonies this weekend, including Indiana University, Ohio State University and Northeastern University in Boston. Many more are slated in the coming weeks.

At Indiana University, protesters were urging supporters to wear their keffiyehs and walk out during remarks by President Pamela Whitten on Saturday evening. The campus in Bloomington, Indiana, has designated a protest zone outside Memorial Stadium, where the ceremony is set to take place.

Tent encampments of protesters calling on universities to stop doing business with Israel or companies they say support the war in Gaza have spread across campuses nationwide in recent weeks in a student movement unlike any other this century. Some schools have reached agreements with the protesters to end the demonstrations and reduce the possibility of disrupting final exams and commencements.

Many encampments have been dismantled and protesters arrested in police crackdowns.

The Associated Press has recorded at least 61 incidents since April 18 where arrests were made at campus protests across the U.S. More than 2,400 people have been arrested on 47 college and university campuses. The figures are based on AP reporting and statements from universities and law enforcement agencies.

At Princeton, in New Jersey, 18 students launched a hunger strike in an effort to push the university to divest from companies tied to Israel.

Senior David Chmielewski, a hunger striker, said in an email Saturday that the latest protest started Friday morning with participants consuming water only.

He said the hunger strike will continue until university administrators meet with students about their demands, which include amnesty from criminal and disciplinary charges for protesters.

Other demonstrators are participating in “solidarity fasts” lasting 24 hours, he said.

Princeton students set up a protest encampment and some held a sit-in at an administrative building this week, leading to about 15 arrests.

Students at other colleges, including Brown and Yale, launched similar hunger strikes earlier this year before the more recent wave of protest encampments.

In other developments Saturday, police broke up a demonstration at the University of Virginia. Campus police called it an “unlawful assembly” in a post on the social platform X.

Footage from WVAW-TV showed police wearing tactical gear removing protesters from an encampment on the Charlottesville campus. Authorities have not said how many people were arrested.

Meanwhile near Boston, students at Tufts University peacefully took down their protest encampment without police intervention Friday night.

Officials with the school in Medford, Massachusetts, said they were pleased with the development, which wasn’t the result of any agreement with protesters. Protest organizers said in a statement that they were “deeply angered and disappointed” that negotiations with the university had failed.

The protests stem from the Israel-Hamas conflict that started on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 hostages.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel launched an offensive in Gaza that has killed more than 34,500 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. Israeli strikes have devastated the enclave and displaced most of Gaza’s inhabitants.