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At UMass Amherst, protesters briefly halt graduation, hold their own unofficial ceremony

There was little expectation of a normal UMass Amherst commencement ceremony this year.

That was especially true after author Colson Whitehead, the scheduled speaker, canceled his appearance, calling the recent arrests of pro-Palestinian protesters on campus a "shameful act."

And on Saturday, one ceremony quickly became two.

 UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes stands at the podium, right, while protesters exit McGuirk Stadium during the commencement ceremony, May 18, 2024.
Ben James
/
NEPM
UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes stands at the podium, right, while protesters exit McGuirk Stadium during the commencement ceremony, May 18, 2024.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes stood before thousands of onlookers in McGuirk Stadium for a long 2 1/2 minutes, without speaking a word. During those minutes, dozens of students wearing keffiyehs and Palestinian flags, along with their graduation regalia, made their way to the stadium’s exits.

Some in the crowd booed at them; others cheered. Chants of “USA! USA!” broke out in sections of the stadium.

Finally, Reyes spoke.

“As a public university,” Reyes said, “we're deeply committed to upholding the tenets of academic freedom and free speech.”

Reyes has faced criticism from students, faculty, the Massachusetts ACLU and even U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, for ordering police to clear a protest encampment earlier this month, leading to more than 130 arrests, including of 70 UMass students. They still face criminal charges.

A day earlier, there was no walkout during the graduation for graduate students. But the student speaker addressed the issue without directly referencing the arrests.

"When we are revolutionary in a peaceful way without provocation, we should not be punished," Jarrel De Matas said Friday, to applause.

Students, family and friends gather to celebrate graduating UMass Amherst seniors at what organizers called the "People's University for Gaza" commencement celebration, held just outside the official graduation ceremony, on May 18, 2024.
Ben James
/
NEPM
Students, family and friends gather to celebrate graduating UMass Amherst seniors at what organizers called the "People's University for Gaza" commencement celebration, held just outside the official graduation ceremony, on May 18, 2024.

On Saturday, by the time the chancellor was finished speaking, a couple hundred people had gathered under pine trees outside the stadium, for an alternate commencement of what they called the “People's University for Gaza.”

Maysoun Batley, an organizer of the campus protests — and one of Saturday’s graduates — said the unofficial ceremony meant “everything” to her.

“The fact that this cause has touched so many people, and everyone here cares about Gaza, and cares about what's happening to the people of Palestine, enough to disrupt something as big as commencement is just really inspiring,” Batley said.

The protesting students’ chosen commencement speaker was social justice lawyer Rachel Weber. She thanked the parents of the graduates, some of whom she said might feel confused by their children’s decisions.

“It's good to feel confused about what our children are doing,” Weber said. “Because if we weren't confused, it would just mean that we had produced a small version of ourselves, but the world has us, and the world needs them.”

Those families and other students cheered as UMass faculty and staff, and several community organizers, bestowed to the graduates alternate diplomas, emblazoned with the degree they called “Resistance to Genocide.”

A graduating senior waves to family members as he enters McGuirk Stadium for the UMass Amherst commencement ceremony on May 18, 2024.
Ben James
/
NEPM
A graduating senior waves to family members as he enters McGuirk Stadium for the UMass Amherst commencement ceremony on May 18, 2024.

Meanwhile, inside McGuirk Stadium, thousands of students from the university’s various schools were formally presented to the provost, having finally earned their undergraduate degrees.

And that crowd cheered, too.

Disclosure: The license for NEPM’s main radio signal is held by UMass Amherst. The newsroom operates independently.

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