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Harvard Commencement Walkout: A Powerful Statement for Palestinian Rights

Hundreds of Graduates Chant “Free, Free Palestine” in a Show of Solidarity

In a powerful display of solidarity, hundreds of Harvard graduates staged a walkout during their commencement ceremony on Thursday, chanting “Free, free Palestine.” This act of protest comes after weeks of on-campus demonstrations and a controversial decision by the university to bar 13 students from receiving their diplomas alongside their classmates due to their participation in a protest encampment. The graduating students, donning their robes, sent a clear message of support for Palestinian rights and freedom of speech, even as their own celebrations were overshadowed by the university’s response to the protests. This article will explore the events leading up to the walkout, the powerful statements made by graduates and commencement speakers, and the ongoing debate surrounding university responses to protests for Palestinian rights.

Part I: The Harvard Commencement Walkout – A Powerful Statement of Solidarity

“Free, Free Palestine”:

On a day meant to celebrate their academic achievements, hundreds of Harvard graduates chose to make a powerful political statement. As the commencement ceremony unfolded, these graduates rose from their seats and began a solemn procession out of the ceremony, chanting “Free, free Palestine.” This act of solidarity sent a clear message of support for the Palestinian cause and opposition to the university’s handling of recent protests.

A Response to University Sanctions:

The walkout was a direct response to Harvard’s decision to sanction 13 students who had participated in a protest encampment on campus. These students, all members of the graduating class, were barred from receiving their diplomas alongside their peers, sparking outrage and calls for their inclusion. The graduates’ chant, “Let them walk, let them walk,” reflected their demand for the university to reverse its decision and allow their fellow students to graduate with them.

Part II: Student Speaker Shruthi Kumar’s Powerful Address

Speaking Truth to Power:

Student speaker Shruthi Kumar used her platform to address the elephant in the room—the absence of the 13 sanctioned students. In her speech, she boldly stated, “I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus.” Her words resonated with the graduating class, who responded with enthusiastic cheers and applause.

Highlighting Campus-Wide Support:

Kumar drew attention to the widespread support for the sanctioned students, mentioning that over 1,500 students had petitioned, and nearly 500 staff and faculty members had spoken up against the sanctions. She framed the issue as one of civil rights and democratic principles, asking, “Harvard, do you hear us?” Her speech not only acknowledged the impact of the university’s decision but also served as a call to action for the administration to reconsider their stance.

Standing in Solidarity:

Kumar’s words carried a powerful message of solidarity with the 13 undergraduates who were unable to graduate with their class. By recognizing their absence and expressing disappointment in the university’s handling of the situation, she stood alongside them and amplified their voices. This act of solidarity sent a clear message of unity and support for their cause.

Part III: Understanding the Harvard Protest Encampment

Calls for Ceasefire and Divestment:

The 13 sanctioned students were part of a larger group of protesters who had set up an encampment on campus to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and for Harvard to divest from companies that support the war. Their demands reflected a growing movement on college campuses across the country, where students have advocated for universities to take a stand against human rights abuses and divest from companies complicit in the conflict.

A Peaceful End but Lingering Consequences:

The protest encampment at Harvard voluntarily dismantled their tents after university officials agreed to discuss questions about the endowment and divestment. While the protesters achieved a peaceful resolution, the consequences for the 13 students remained. Despite the agreement reached, the university maintained its stance on barring them from receiving their diplomas during the commencement ceremony.

Part IV: Commencement Speaker Maria Ressa’s Message

Maria Ressa on Freedom of Speech:

Commencement speaker Maria Ressa, a renowned journalist and advocate for freedom of the press, delivered a powerful message to the graduates. She acknowledged the ongoing campus protests and emphasized the importance of free speech and peaceful demonstrations. “Protests are healthy,” she said. “They shouldn’t be violent. They shouldn’t be silenced.” Her words carried weight, especially given her own experiences fighting for press freedom and facing political persecution in the Philippines.

Defining Moments and Fighting for Beliefs:

Ressa also encouraged the graduates to embrace challenges and stand up for their beliefs. “You don’t know who you are until you’re tested, until you fight for what you believe in,” she said. Her message resonated with the graduating class, many of whom had just faced their own test of courage and conviction by participating in the walkout.

Part V: Impact of the Sanctions on the 13 Students

Asmer Asrar Safi on Silencing Voices:

One of the 13 sanctioned students, Asmer Asrar Safi, issued a statement expressing his belief that the university’s decision showed how far it would go to silence voices that challenge their donor base. He highlighted the impact of the sanctions, stating that they would not be returning to the school but hoped that their actions would inspire others to continue the fight for divestment.

Alaha Nasari on Faculty Support:

Another graduate, Alaha Nasari, who received her degree in the history of science and global health, shared her perspective on the walkout. She explained that the decision to walk out was made when interim President Alan Garber took the stage, and she emphasized the disheartening lack of faculty support for the protesters. Nasari’s words shed light on the perceived disconnect between the administration and the student body, highlighting a growing divide on college campuses across the country.

Part VI: University Responses to Pro-Palestinian Protests

A National Debate:

Harvard’s response to the pro-Palestinian protests is part of a broader national debate surrounding university responses to similar demonstrations. On the same day as the Harvard walkout, the presidents of Northwestern and Rutgers universities defended their decisions to negotiate with protesters rather than use police force to end pro-Palestinian encampments on their campuses. This issue has sparked conversations about free speech, the right to protest, and the role of universities in addressing allegations of antisemitism.

Harvard’s Governing Board’s Decision:

Harvard’s top governing board maintained that the 13 students had violated university policies through their conduct during the encampment protest. They referenced the Harvard College Student Handbook, which states that students who are not in good standing are not eligible for degrees. However, the statement also left open the possibility of an appeals process, offering a glimmer of hope for the sanctioned students.

Part VII: Faculty and Student Reactions

Faculty Vote for Inclusion:

On Monday, Harvard faculty members voted in favor of allowing the 13 students to receive their degrees despite their participation in the protest. This vote reflected the widespread support for the students within the academic community and their belief that freedom of speech and the right to protest should be upheld.

Student Petitions and Advocacy:

Over 1,500 students signed a petition advocating for the inclusion of the 13 students in the commencement ceremony. Additionally, nearly 500 staff and faculty members added their voices to the call for the university to reconsider its decision. This campus-wide advocacy highlighted the strong sense of solidarity and the desire for Harvard to uphold democratic principles and freedom of expression.

Part VIII: The Impact of the Walkout and Ongoing Conversations

A Powerful Message:

The commencement walkout sent a powerful message not only to Harvard’s administration but also to universities across the country. It demonstrated the solidarity among graduates and their willingness to use their platform to advocate for a cause they believe in. This act of protest will undoubtedly spark further conversations about universities’ responses to student activism and the role of academic institutions in addressing social and political issues.

Ongoing Conversations about Palestine:

The walkout is part of a broader movement on college campuses to raise awareness and demand action for Palestinian rights. Students across the country have been advocating for universities to divest from companies complicit in human rights abuses and to take a stand against injustices. These conversations are crucial in fostering awareness, promoting dialogue, and encouraging universities to align their actions with their stated values.

The Intersection of Free Speech and Activism:

The Harvard commencement walkout also raises important questions about the intersection of free speech and activism on college campuses. While universities are meant to be bastions of free expression, the response to the pro-Palestinian protests has highlighted the complexities and challenges that arise when these principles are put to the test. The ongoing conversations and debates will shape how universities navigate the delicate balance between upholding free speech and maintaining a safe and inclusive environment for all students.

Part IX: Key Takeaways and Final Thoughts

As we reflect on the powerful statements made during the Harvard commencement walkout, here are some key takeaways:

  • Hundreds of Harvard graduates staged a walkout during their commencement ceremony, chanting “Free, free Palestine,” in a show of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and opposition to university sanctions on protesters.
  • Student speaker Shruthi Kumar’s address highlighted the widespread support for the sanctioned students and emphasized the importance of freedom of speech and civil disobedience on campus.
  • The sanctioned students had participated in a protest encampment calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and for Harvard to divest from companies supporting the war.
  • Commencement speaker Maria Ressa, a renowned journalist, advocated for freedom of speech and peaceful protests, stating that they are essential for a healthy campus environment.
  • The sanctioned students, like Asmer Asrar Safi, expressed their belief that the university’s decision reflected a willingness to silence dissenting voices.
  • Faculty and student advocacy for the inclusion of the 13 students highlighted a growing divide between the administration and the campus community.
  • The walkout is part of a broader national conversation about university responses to pro-Palestinian protests and the intersection of free speech and activism on college campuses.
  • The powerful message sent by the graduates will undoubtedly spark further conversations and shape how universities navigate similar situations in the future.

Afterword: The Ongoing Fight for Palestinian Rights and Freedom of Speech

The Harvard commencement walkout is a testament to the power of student activism and the enduring fight for Palestinian rights. It serves as a reminder that even in the face of sanctions and opposition, voices will not be silenced. As conversations about Palestine continue on college campuses and beyond, it is crucial to uphold the values of free speech, civil disobedience, and solidarity. The graduates’ actions send a clear message of unity and a call for universities to listen and take action.

Endnote:

The Harvard commencement walkout is a powerful reminder that the fight for justice and freedom is ongoing. As graduates embark on their next chapter, they carry with them the lessons learned from this experience—the importance of standing up for what they believe in and using their voices to create positive change. The impact of their actions will resonate beyond the campus, inspiring conversations and actions that uphold the values of freedom and equality for all.

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