Pro-Palestinian protests dwindle on campuses as US college graduations are marked by defiant acts

Despite pro-Palestinian protests roiling some U.S. college campuses this spring, graduation ceremonies are going off largely peacefully so far
Pro-Palestinian students hold white t-shirts stating the message, "DIVEST," as they protest during the UC Berkeley graduation at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday, May 11, 2024. (Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

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Pro-Palestinian students hold white t-shirts stating the message, "DIVEST," as they protest during the UC Berkeley graduation at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday, May 11, 2024. (Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

A tiny contingent of Duke University graduates opposed pro-Israel comedian Jerry Seinfeld speaking at their commencement in North Carolina Sunday, with about 30 of the 7,000 students leaving their seats and chanting “free Palestine” amid a mix of boos and cheers.

Some waved the red, green, black and white Palestinian flag. Seinfeld, whose namesake sitcom was one of the most popular in U.S. television history, was there to receive an honorary doctorate from the university.

The stand-up comic turned actor, who stars in the new Netflix movie "Unfrosted," has publicly supported Israel since it invaded Gaza to dismantle Hamas after the organization attacked the country and killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7. The ensuing war has killed nearly 35,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, which doesn't distinguish between civilians and combatants.

The small student protest Sunday at Duke's graduation in Durham, North Carolina, was emblematic of campus events across the U.S. Sunday after weeks of student protests resulted in nearly 2,900 arrests at 57 colleges and universities.

Students at campuses across the U.S. responded this spring by setting up encampments and calling for their schools to cut ties with Israel and businesses that support it. Students and others on campuses whom law enforcement authorities have identified as outside agitators have taken part in the protests from Columbia University in New York City to UCLA.

Police escorted graduates' families past a few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to block access to Sunday evening's commencement for Southern California’s Pomona College. After demonstrators set up an encampment last week on the campus’ ceremony stage, the small liberal arts school moved the event 30 miles (48 km) from Claremont to the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets were required to attend the event, which the school said would include additional security measures.

In April, police wearing riot gear arrested 19 protesters who had occupied the president's office at the college with about 1,700 undergraduates.

Demonstrator Anwar Mohmed, a 21-year-old Pomona senior, said the school has repeatedly ignored calls to consider divesting its endowment funds from corporations tied to Israel in the war in Gaza.

“We’ve been time and time again ignored by the institution,” Mohmed said outside the Shrine on Sunday. “So today we have to say, it's not business as usual.”

At the University of California, Berkeley, on Saturday, a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators waved flags and chanted during commencement and were escorted to the back of the stadium, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. There were no major counterprotests, but some attendees voiced frustration.

“I feel like they’re ruining it for those of us who paid for tickets and came to show our pride for our graduates,” said Annie Ramos, whose daughter is a student. “There’s a time and a place, and this is not it.”

This weekend's commencement events remained largely peaceful.

At Emerson College in Boston, some students took off their graduation robes and left them on stage. Others emblazoned "free Palestine" on their mortar boards. One woman, staring at a camera broadcasting a livestream to the public, unzipped her robe to show a kaffiyeh, the black and white checkered scarf commonly worn by Palestinians, and flashed a watermelon painted on her hand. Both are symbols of solidarity with those living in the occupied territories.

Others displayed messages for a camera situated on stage, but the livestream quickly shifted to a different view, preventing them from being seen for long. Chants during some of the speeches were difficult to decipher.

Protests at Columbia University, where student uprisings inspired others at campuses across the country, led the school to cancel its main graduation ceremony in favor of smaller gatherings.

The University of Southern California told its valedictorian, who publicly backed Palestinians, that she could not deliver her keynote speech at its graduation ceremony because of security concerns. It later canceled its main graduation ceremony.

At DePaul University in Chicago, graduation is more than a month away. But as the academic year closes, school leaders said they had reached an “impasse” with the school's pro-Palestinian protesters, leaving the future of their encampment on the Chicago campus unclear.

The student-led DePaul Divestment Coalition, which is calling on the university to divest from economic interests tied to Israel, set up the encampment nearly two weeks ago. The group alleged university officials walked away from talks and tried to force students into signing an agreement, according to a student statement late Saturday.

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Associated Press journalists Ryan Sun in Los Angeles, Sophia Tareen in Chicago and Kimberlee Kreusi in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press' education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP's standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

Palestinian flags are taken from protesters as they walk out of UNC Chapel Hill's commencement ceremonies at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, May 11, 2024. (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP)

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A student sits with her cap decorated to read "Free Palestine" while attending the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts graduation ceremony, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Minneapolis, Minn. (Angelina Katsanis /Star Tribune via AP)

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Police clash with pro-Palestinian demonstrators at the Shrine Auditorium, where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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A graduate displays a message on his shirt, "No Grad in Gaza," during the Emerson College commencement ceremony at Boston University's Agganis Arena, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Boston. Many students verbally protested throughout the ceremony. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via AP)

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A graduate twirls with her Palestinian flag cape during the Emerson College commencement ceremony at Boston University's Agganis Arena, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Boston. Many students verbally protested throughout the ceremony. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via AP)

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Asna Tabassum sits during commencement for the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering Friday, May 10, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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In this photo provided by Duke University, commencement speaker Jerry Seinfeld laughs on stage during the school's graduation ceremony, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Durham, N.C. A tiny contingent of Duke graduates opposed the pro-Israel comedian speaking at their commencement Sunday, with about 30 of the 7,000 students leaving their seats and chanting “Free Palestine!” amid a mix of boos and cheers. (Bill Snead/Duke University via AP)

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A Los Angeles Police Department officer holds back pro-Palestinian demonstrators at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators are seen at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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This photo provided by Duke University shows commencement speaker Jerry Seinfeld, front row second from left, on stage during the school's graduation ceremony, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Durham, N.C. A tiny contingent of graduates opposed the pro-Israel comedian speaking at their commencement Sunday, with about 30 of the 7,000 students leaving their seats and chanting “Free Palestine!” amid a mix of boos and cheers. (Jared Lazarus/Duke University via AP)

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In this photo provided by Duke University, commencement speaker Jerry Seinfeld speaks during the school's graduation ceremony, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Durham, N.C. A tiny contingent of graduates opposed the pro-Israel comedian speaking at their commencement Sunday, with about 30 of the 7,000 students leaving their seats and chanting “Free Palestine!” amid a mix of boos and cheers. (Bill Snead/Duke University via AP)

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Asna Tabassum reacts after receiving her diploma during commencement for the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering Friday, May 10, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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Pro-Palestinian students protest during the UC Berkeley graduation at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday, May 11, 2024. (Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

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Attendees hold an Israeli flag as pro-Palestinian students protest during the UC Berkeley commencement ceremony in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, May 11, 2024. (Stephen Lam/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

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Los Angeles Police Department officers push aside pro-Palestinian demonstrators so that attendees can get through at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators are seen at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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A Los Angeles Police Department officer attempts to make a hole where pro-Palestinian demonstrators were attempting to keep attendees from getting through at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators rally at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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Los Angeles Police Department officers clash with pro-Palestinian demonstrators at the Shrine Auditorium where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators rally at the Shrine Auditorium, where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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Asna Tabassum, left, stands in line during commencement for the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering Friday, May 10, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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Palestinian insignia are seen on the stole of a graduate during commencement for the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering Friday, May 10, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

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