Student activists set to attend ‘people’s ceremony’ after Columbia cancels graduation

An unofficial graduation ceremony for student activists at Columbia University on Thursday will celebrate the protests that roiled campus for months, culminating in mass arrests and the main commencement’s cancellation.

The “People’s Ceremony” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will feature remarks from prominent Palestinian writers and activists, according to materials promoting the event. Student activists arrested during pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia, CUNY and NYU — many of whom were suspended or expelled — are also invited to the Episcopal church, which has historically supported progressive causes, including humanitarian work during the AIDS crisis. Church officials insisted they had plans in place if the event became a political rally and said they are merely serving as hosts.

“Campuses have become more restricted spaces for students because of the action of administrations. This is a way of ensuring a graduation ceremony for all graduating students,” said Barnard faculty organizer Shayoni Mitra.

One of the speakers is Palestinian writer, artist and professor Randa Jarrar, who told Gothamist she sees the students’ activism as part of a centuries-long struggle for justice.

“They’re part of something so big and they’re aware of that and I applaud them for their bravery and their strength,” Jarrar said. “Hopefully this is the beginning of a long road of resistance.”

The student encampments at Columbia were imitated on campuses around the country.

Ramsey Khalifeh / Gothamist

Officials from Columbia declined to comment on the alternative ceremony.

The unorthodox graduation that will take place only blocks from Columbia’s campus is billed as “a gathering for justice and peace.” It follows student protests that centered around demands that Columbia cut all financial ties with Israel and called attention to Israeli conduct in its war in Gaza. Students pitched tents and formed “solidarity encampments” that were imitated at universities around the five boroughs — including NYU, CCNY and FIT — and the country. The demonstrations were met with mass arrests by the NYPD.

After students briefly occupied Columbia’s Hamilton Hall, university President Minouche Shafik canceled the school’s main commencement ceremony, citing “security concerns.” She said the protesters were routinely violating school rules restricting protests to authorized locations, attracting outsiders unaffiliated with the university and creating an “intolerable” atmosphere for many Jewish students, some of whom endured antisemitic insults. In an op-ed published in the university newspaper on Wednesday – the day graduation was supposed to take place – Shafik wrote that canceling the ceremony “was one of the toughest calls in a year of many tough calls.”

Columbia U. President Minouche Shafik surveyed the damage at Hamilton Hall on May 1, after the NYPD cleared out student activists.

Indy Scholtens/Getty Images

“The conflict between the rights of pro-Palestinian protesters and the impact that their protests have had on some members of our Jewish community is what makes this moment singularly fraught. It has been difficult for all of us to see these divisions play out on our campus. And it has been difficult for those whose interests are focused elsewhere to go about their work and their passions with the freedom they deserve,” Shafik wrote.

Faculty organizers first approached the cathedral about hosting the event on April 20, before Shafik canceled graduation. A faculty organizer said they were able to pay for the event through “small-scale, grassroots fundraising.”

Other speakers include Palestinian-American activist and legal scholar Noura Erakat. Officials at St. John the Divine asked attendees to adhere to rules banning flags and signs from inside the cathedral. Attendees are prohibited from chanting political slogans.

“We wanted to make space available to all students at Columbia and Barnard who needed space to have a good completion to their university career who otherwise would not have the opportunity,” said Patrick Malloy, the head priest and CEO of St. John the Divine. “There’s nothing partisan. There’s no exclusion. In fact, our aim is to provide a place where all kinds of people of goodwill can come together.”

Jarrar said her address will “invoke the spirit of one of my ancestors,” who she said wrote a poem urging Palestinian tribes to resist Napoleon Bonaparte during the Siege of Acre in 1799. The French army’s defeat remains a source of pride among Palestinians.

“We’re capable of fighting so much injustice with these simple acts of resistance that are connected to our rich cultural history as poets, as thinkers, as speakers, as fighters,” Jarrar said, drawing a connection to the student movement.

Police arrested pro-Palestinian student activists who had occupied Hamilton Hall on April 30.

Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images

Jarrar said she’s still thinking through ideas for her speech, which will center on the seven months that have elapsed since Hamas militants’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, which killed 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government. Israel responded with an ongoing ground invasion and bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 34,000, many of them women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

St. John the Divine is one of the world’s largest churches and has a capacity of 3,000. In the 1960s, the church was a hub for activists who opposed the Vietnam War. According to a Newsday report from August 1969, the church hosted a 19-year-old soldier who read a list of 161 local U.S. soldiers who were killed in the war. Malloy said the cathedral has a history of being on the “cutting edge” of social progress, but emphasized that it takes moral and ethical positions from the Episcopal Church, not independently.

The church also has ties to Columbia. The Episcopal Church founded Columbia University, which was initially named King’s College, and the campus and cathedral in Morningside Heights were built around the same time. The university celebrated its bicentennial at the church in 1954, where Queen Elizabeth II was awarded an honorary degree.

Malloy said hosting the alternative ceremony is not the only support the church has given Columbia and Barnard students in the last few months. The cathedral opened its doors to students distributing food to classmates who lost access to dining halls after they were suspended. Those students, many of whom were barred from campus, were also allowed to rest in the church.

Jarrar said the event at the historic church will be special.

“Any regular commencement is going to be awful anyway. Most commencements are really boring, they take forever and they’re not really about the students … commencement generally could be so much better and so much more interesting and more liberating,” Jarrar said.

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