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UC Berkeley Commencement Ceremony Disrupted by Student Protests

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Students hold up homemade signs and shirts to protest against UC Berkeley's links to companies in Israel or those that they say profit from Israel's war in Gaza during the 2024 commencement ceremony at the California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on May 11, 2024. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

Protesters calling for UC Berkeley to divest from companies in Israel — or those they say profit from Israel’s war in Gaza — disrupted the university’s undergraduate commencement ceremony on Saturday.

Minutes after the ceremony began, a few small groups of students stood up holding Palestinian flags, keffiyehs and signs reading “DIVEST.”

“UC Regents, what do you say? How many kids have you killed today?” Shouted students in one section.

Pro-Palestinian protesters march down the stadium steps during UC Berkeley’s undergraduate commencement ceremony at the California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on May 11, 2024. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

Security officials walked around and confiscated most of the flags, but the students continued undeterred and soon gathered into a larger group at a section of bleachers near the main stage.

The demonstration mirrored a similar event during Friday’s law school graduation at Berkeley, where students turned their back on the speakers, revealed shirts that read “DIVEST,” and chanted.

Student Fiona Collantes said that when they heard about a plan to chant and walk out of the ceremony, they immediately decided to join.

A protester holds up a homemade sign that reads ‘Antizionist Jews for a Free Palestine’ during the UC Berkeley commencement ceremony. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

“Disruption is extremely important, especially in a university institution that gets funding and funds Israel and funds the weapons that they send to bomb children in Gaza,” Collantes said.

The plan seems to have spread through word of mouth, and even those who didn’t hear the rumors said they were unsurprised, given Berkeley’s decades-long history of student activism.

Nolan Kim, an undergraduate excited to receive his degree, did not have prior knowledge of a protest happening but told KQED at the start of the event that he would not be surprised if a protest broke out.

UC Berkeley students raise Palestinian flags to begin a protest during the 2024 commencement ceremony. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

“I was saying if there was a way to bet 50 bucks that something was going to happen, I actually would,” Kim said.

Kim missed his high school graduation due to the pandemic and lamented the prospect of missing a proper college commencement due to demonstrations, but he also said he understood the motivations of those seeking to disrupt the event.

“Obviously, what Hamas did was not right,” Kim said. “But I think what Israel is doing in retaliation to hurt the innocent Palestinian people, which is different, is crazy.”

A young man wearing a graduation gown holds a keffiyeh over his head with a crowd of other students in academic regalia behind him.
An anonymous protester chants along with the crowd during UC Berkeley’s commencement ceremony. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

When the first wave of protesters gathered together, they numbered in the dozens. But a steady stream of students rose from their seats to join the group until they numbered in the hundreds.

Several students said they felt embarrassed trying to focus on the ceremony, while others stood up for what they considered to be a worthy cause.

The ceremony continued, but the mass of students chanting and stomping their feet served as an effective distraction and even drowned out the speakers for those sitting nearest to the protests.

A small crowd of pro-Palestinian protesters grew into the hundreds within 30 minutes, eventually filling an entire column of bleachers during the UC Berkeley commencement ceremony at the California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

“UC Berkeley strives to celebrate the achievements of our graduates in a safe and respectful environment,” a university spokesperson said in an email. “While today’s commencement was, at times, unfortunately, disrupted, it did not prevent us from honoring the hard work and accomplishments of our students.”

Prior to the start of the protest, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ began her address by discussing the recent protests on the campus, including an ongoing encampment that has been up for nearly three weeks and grown continuously, now spanning dozens of tents.

Christopher Ying, recipient of UC Berkeley’s 2024 University Medal, gives his commencement ceremony speech while a pro-Palestinian protest goes on in the bleachers behind him at the California Memorial Stadium. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

“They feel passionately about the brutality of the violence in Gaza. Tens of thousands of Palestinians killed, and the destruction of educational institutions and vital infrastructure. I, too, am deeply troubled by the terrible tragedy unfolding in Gaza,” Christ said to cheers from the crowd.

Christ went on to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian harassment and called on attendees to “find a way to recognize our shared humanity.”

As the chancellor moved on to other remarks, the chants began.

Chancellor Carol Christ welcomes students and faculty to the UC Berkeley commencement ceremony at the California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on May 11, 2024. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

While some said they appreciated that Christ named Gaza, something they felt she had not done enough, others said she should have gone further.

The UC Berkeley Divest Coalition, the banner name for the groups operating the on-campus encampment, posted to social media on Saturday afternoon, calling for an emergency rally while referring to the chancellor as “Carol Anti-Christ.”

Students celebrate the start of the UC Berkeley commencement ceremony at the California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on May 11, 2024. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

In the post, the group alleges that they have tried to negotiate for their terms — primarily a disclosure of university investments and a commitment from the university to divest from the aforementioned companies — but that the university has destroyed any attempt to negotiate.

“They tried to sedate us, but we cannot be quelled. They tried to silence us, but our screams will not be held … Join us in making our demands as loud as the bombs that are raining down on Rafah.”

The UC Berkeley pro-Palestinian encampment outside of Sproul Hall continues to grow in size in Berkeley on May 11, 2024. (Aryk Copley/KQED)


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