Antiwar protesters are ready to hunker down past graduation

Don’t expect summer break to lower the political temperature among American college students protesting the Israel-Gaza war.

While police have shut down some encampments ahead of graduation ceremonies — moves that temporarily dismantled the most eye-catching platforms for pro-Palestinian messages and criticism of college presidents — activists at some schools say they’re planning to carry on well past graduation.

“I don’t have any expectation that things are going to slow down,” Ember McCoy, a doctoral candidate and demonstrator at the University of Michigan, said in an interview from an encampment in the heart of the school’s Ann Arbor campus. “Both locally, state, and nationally, there is valid and continued pressure on politicians to respond to Palestine — and there’s a lot that can happen between now and November that I hope folks are paying attention to.”

Protests are almost certain to continue dividing Democrats and serve as fodder for former President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers suggesting that President Joe Biden is presiding over a lawless America in the run-up to the November election.

The pressure on campuses also ensures university presidents will stay within the scrutiny of Republicans on Capitol Hill, where multiple committee chairs are launching probes into research grants and the tax-exempt status of some colleges. Three school presidents, including the University of Michigan’s, are expected to testify later this month.

Like many other institutions, Michigan faces a standoff amid its graduation ceremonies, some of which were interrupted on Saturday: Last month, the state’s ACLU chapter denounced a draft school “disruptive activity policy” administrators proposed after protests interrupted a March honors convocation ceremony.

Demonstrators from a broad coalition of student-led groups say they will not leave their encampment until the school divests its finances from companies that “profit off of the human rights violations committed by Israel, and aid in the apartheid system maintained against Palestinians.” Officials quickly rebuffed the idea.

That type of pressure has school leaders preparing for a long haul.

“I don’t think anybody is feeling tremendous relief,” Barbara Snyder, who served as president of Case Western University from 2007 to 2020, said in an interview.

“It is true that our campuses have fewer students during the summer term, so that presents an opportunity to take a breath,” said Snyder, who is now president of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of top research institutions. “That doesn’t mean — and I don’t think any of our presidents or chancellors think it means — that this is over or that these demonstrations might not continue even during the summer.”

The presidential nominating conventions, still months away, promise to feature renewed dissent.

The national College Democrats of America organization rebuked the White House for taking “the mistaken route of a bear hug strategy” for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a “cold shoulder strategy for its own base” and Americans who want to end the war.

“It’s a very complicated situation and unlike anything that I think we’ve ever faced before,” Snyder said.

“The biggest difference is that the protests in the 60s were characterized by the students against the national administration,” she said. “In this case, we have a situation where students are deeply divided against each other in some cases. That’s very difficult for college and university leaders to deal with.”

At the University of Utah, demonstrators walked out on President Taylor Randall during a commencement ceremony after he urged graduates to express their views “in a dignified, peaceful, and legal manner” following confrontations where riot police cleared a campus encampment and arrested roughly 20 people.

Some students at the University of Vermont have called to cancel this month’s convocation if the school does not break off a scheduled commencement speech from United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The speech was nixed Friday night.

At Cal Poly Humboldt, an institution that officials closed through the end of the semester despite entrenched protests, commencement ceremonies will be broken into smaller off-campus events.

Some schools are still trying to figure out how to recover from recent protests and move forward.

“We were a little less prepared for it. And I think the administration was a little less prepared for how divisive it was and how divisive it would get,” University of Michigan Regent Jordan Acker said in an interview.

“In this situation, maybe for the first time ever, we have students on both sides with very strong views who believe that one side is trying to eliminate the other one,” said Acker, a Democrat and former Homeland Security attorney-adviser who was elected to his post in 2018. “That can really come back to bite an institution.”

Michigan officials recruited volunteers to deescalate anticipated demonstrations during a Saturday graduation ceremony set to be staged inside one of the planet’s largest stadiums. The school’s goal, it said in a recent campus announcement, “is to limit substantial disruption.”

The school did not respond to questions on whether officials would order demonstrators to disperse from the campus square, or authorize police to forcibly remove them. Michigan President Santa Ono was unavailable for an interview, a university spokesperson said.

“It doesn’t matter one way or another to us. We’re staying here,” Ryan Mersol-Barg, a Michigan senior, said in an interview.

“There is a genocide going on in Gaza and there’s nothing that will deter us from doing everything we can to end it,” he said. “This movement is not a flash in the pan, but it’s here to stay and we’ll stay until we achieve divestment as happened with the South African anti-apartheid movement in the 80s and so many others.”

Even when the tensions subside and protesters eventually leave, plenty of work will remain, said Acker, the Michigan regent.

“We have to use this moment, as difficult as it is and as painful as these conversations can be, as a teachable moment for our students,” he said.

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