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Walkouts, Encampments & Protests Provided Me With a Classic Berkeley Education
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By Anya Ellis, Berkeley Correspondent
Published 4 weeks ago on
May 30, 2024

UC Berkeley's commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 11, 2024, at Memorial Stadium matched the academic year — steeped in protests calling attention to the Palestine-Israel conflict. (GV Wire/Anya Ellis)

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My time as a University of California, Berkeley student recently concluded with a commencement ceremony that matched the academic year — steeped in protests calling attention to the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Anya Ellis

Opinion

Berkeley has long been identified as a hub for student activism. This reputation was solidified during 1960s demonstrations in support of the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements and opposition to the Vietnam War.

This history encapsulates the campus, becoming a presence students feel and take responsibility for upholding. Activism is so integral to Berkeley’s fabric that it often is a contributing factor in a student’s choice to attend the university.

“Let your compassion motivate you to take agency,” said commencement speaker Sydney Roberts, president of Associated Students of the University of California. “Use it to engage in conversation, because this would not be the first time that UC Berkeley student activism led to global change.”

The commencement began with Chancellor Carol Christ — who is set to retire in June — acknowledging the student protests and encampment, which began April 23 following the lead of Columbia University students. It elicited cheers from the graduating class.

“The encampment is civil disobedience of the sort Berkeley has long witnessed and my efforts to bring it to a peaceful end are in line with how this university has historically dealt with similar protests,” she said.

Daily Activities at 200 Tent Encampment

The encampment, which grew to around 200 tents, was one of the largest and longest in the nation. Students and community members pitched tents and hung banners in front of Sproul Hall, expanding to cover both side lawns. There were daily activities, including student- and faculty-led lectures, film screenings, and art programs. Participants also held an interfaith seder during Passover.

This was a sight that greeted a majority of students, including myself, as we entered campus during the last few weeks of school.

Sproul Plaza long ago became an emblem of change, serving as a podium for revolutionary figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Its legacy continues today, serving as the center ground for this year’s multiple protests.

“While most of our campus community has engaged peacefully, political positions have bled over too easily and quickly to antisemitism and anti-Palestinian harassment. I have no tolerance for either.” — UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ

Demonstrators gave vehement speeches and led thundering chants there. Students took to the plaza, honing its significance to amplify their sadness and anger over events since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants conducted a surprise attack on Israel, killing more than 1,200 individuals and taking more than 240 hostages, some of whom have subsequently been released, while others have been confirmed dead. The Gaza health ministry estimates that more than 36,000 Palestinians have died in the subsequent Israeli offensive to eliminate Hamas from Gaza.

“I’m saddened by how this conflict has divided students, faculty, and staff,” Christ said. “While most of our campus community has engaged peacefully, political positions have bled over too easily and quickly to antisemitism and anti-Palestinian harassment. I have no tolerance for either.”

Students hid keffiyehs beneath their gowns while entering the UC Berkeley commencement on May 11, 2024, ensuring their ability to bring them into the ceremony. Others had messages in support of Palestine on their caps. (GV Wire/Anya Ellis)

‘Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students’

Tensions drifted into the classroom. Berkeley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon published a controversial op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students,” which created internal strife in the department.

Similarly, the law school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, published his own op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, divulging the anti-semitism he had faced since the war began. This was published after 200 law school alumni signed an open letter to Chemerinsky demanding he address Solomon’s article and uphold free speech, resulting in him issuing a statement via email emphasizing the campus’s commitment to free speech.

In my film class, a professor screened an extremely graphic film depicting the Holocaust, causing students to cry and leave the room. This came days after a walkout occurred during our class.

Demonstrations enveloped the campus. Multiple student organizations, such as Bears for Palestine and Bears for Israel, led protest and vigil ceremonies, often having a master of ceremonies from the group and multiple speakers. Volunteers scattered throughout the crowd passed out informational papers and led protests using megaphones.

These events rarely lead to outrage or violence. Crossing through Strawberry Creek as activists blocked Sather Gate has become a right of passage for Berkeley students, who, rather than being annoyed, stop to take videos of the event.

Commencement Becomes a Stage to Protest the Israel-Hamas War

The commencement was another platform activists used to call attention to the overseas war.

As graduates were funneled into Witter Rugby Field, located behind California Memorial Stadium, security was stopping select students wearing keffiyehs, a symbol of solidarity with Palestine, while letting others through. Witnessing this, students moved to hide their keffiyehs beneath their gowns, ensuring their ability to bring them into the ceremony. Others had messages in support of Palestine on their caps.

When speakers took to the podium, pockets of students stood, raising flags, revealing messages previously hidden by their gowns, and beginning roaring chants. They included a group wearing shirts that spelled out “divest,” a reference to one of the encampments’ demands for Cal to divest from businesses, corporations and organizations aiding Israel.

Soon, Dean of Students Sunny Lee, interrupted Roberts, the ASUC president, to warn protests to quiet down or they would be asked to leave. This moment has been edited out of the official commencement video released by Berkeley. At the time, it was met with cheers from commencement guests, mainly consisting of students’ families, including a family holding an Israeli flag. This evoked a scatter of baffled noises and booing from the student section.

As Roberts returned to the podium, she acknowledged the students: “This wouldn’t be Berkeley without a protest, so I get it.”

‘Hey Hey, Ho Ho, the Occupation Has Got to Go’

Lee continued to interrupt multiple speakers to share a sentiment of “We see you. We hear you. But there is a time and a place.” However, protestors remained undeterred, making their way to a separate, unoccupied stadium section. Soon, other students began to join the initial crowd of around 50 students, growing to become a congregation of about 500 graduates. Chants of “Viva, Viva, Palestinian” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go” echoed through the stadium.

There were also a select few students holding Israeli flags in counter-protest. These individuals remained in the general student sections and did not begin chats.

Later, Lee halted a speaker as the stadium began to play Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in an attempt to drown out protesters. Small groups of students, armed with beer cans, stood to begin singing along. Cameras focused on those students remaining in the general crowd of graduates.

Instead of stopping protests, the display spurred more to join the growing group.

As the commencement ended, protesters moved to fill the street outside of the stadium — greeting exiting students and families.

UC Berkeley students come to expect protests. They accept it as a part of the student experience rather than something that needs to be regulated. This ceremony was unforgettable and the perfect homage to Berkeley’s history and spirit.

 

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Anya Ellis,
Reporter/Researcher
Anya Ellis began working for GV Wire in July 2023. The daughter of journalists, Anya is a Fresno native and Buchanan High School graduate. She is currently at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in film and media studies and minoring in creative writing. She plans to pursue her masters in screenwriting after graduating. You can contact Anya at anya.ellis@gvwire.com.

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