Hundreds walk out of U. of C. convocation in support of Palestine

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian students and faculty walked out of the University of Chicago’s convocation Saturday morning, marching around campus before a tense confrontation with police, which led to an arrest.

The demonstration came after U. of C. withheld the degrees of four seniors involved with the university’s pro-Palestinian encampment last month. It’s the latest in a wave of protests against the Israel-Hamas war, which have swept institutions across the nation.

“It’s so energizing,” said Youssef Hasweh, 22, a senior whose degree was withheld, as he led a cheering crowd through Cobb Gate. “The fire in the student body is insane.”

The person who was arrested tried to break through a barrier erected by police, and is unaffiliated with U. of C., according to a statement from the university. Charges are being sought for battery.

Several demonstrators were also pepper sprayed by officers. The university said “a small number of protesters acted violently.”

“The university is fundamentally committed to upholding the rights of students to express a wide range of views,” the statement said.

The demonstration began in the main quad, where thousands had gathered for the university’s 538th convocation. After U. of C. President Paul Alivisatos addressed the graduates, the crowd erupted in chants, shouting “Let them graduate.” The ceremony had only begun about 10 minutes before.

Several seniors waved Palestinian flags before marching towards Cobb Gate. Hundreds of students and some faculty followed.

Convocation speaker John A. List, a distinguished service professor, seemed to address the walkout as he took the stage. He unfurled a white t-shirt reading “I (heart) UChicago 2024” and displayed it on the podium.

“There’s my sign,” List said.

As rain poured down, demonstrators gathered on East 57th Street. Many held cardboard signs with messages in support of Palestine. Others wore keffiyehs over their academic regalia.

Hasweh, who is Palestinian, addressed the crowd through a megaphone as his voice broke. He and the other four students have yet to hear any updates on their degrees, he said.

“The university is complicit in the genocide of my family,” he said. “Our diplomas don’t matter if theirs don’t.”

Flanked by police, the demonstrators marched down South Woodlawn Avenue, weaving through cars stalled in the road. They turned on East 59th Street and stopped at the intersection with South University Avenue, where dozens of officers had formed a barricade.

Protesters continued to chant and face officers before both sides began to push against the barrier. Officers then pepper sprayed several students, and a woman was tackled to the ground.

Kelly Hui, 22, another senior who did not receive her degree, said students would not rest until U. of C. divests from funds with ties to Israel and weapons manufacturers. She was set to graduate with honors and three majors — it doesn’t matter now, she added.

“I’m so proud and honored to stand with all of you today. This is my education,” Hui told the crowd. “The university is trying to repress and scare us.”

The demonstrators later marched to another graduation ceremony for students from the Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons, about a block away. Protesters stood near the stage, waving Palestinian flags and chanting.

One student nearby in academic regalia waved an Israeli flag. Other students and family members expressed frustration that the graduation ceremony was disrupted.

“I didn’t come here to see this,” said Bill Ballanger, who had come from Ohio for his grandson’s graduation. “This is to celebrate those kids. Get them out.”

Brianna Suslovic, a 29-year-old PhD student, looked over the sea of umbrellas as the rain beat down. She had been pepper sprayed earlier and wiped her eyes.

“Graduation should be disrupted, given the fact that there are no graduations possible in Gaza,” Suslovic said. “We’ll be out here as long as it takes for the university to acknowledge graduation shouldn’t go on without the recognition of genocide.”

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