USC cancels main graduation ceremony amid controversy over valedictorian speech, protests

Friday, April 26, 2024
USC cancels main graduation ceremony amid protests
USC is canceling the main graduation ceremony that had been planned for May 10.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- After facing scrutiny over its decision to cancel its valedictorian speech - and one day after more than 90 people were arrested at a Pro-Palestinian protest on campus - USC is canceling the main graduation ceremony that had been planned for May 10.

"With the new safety measures in place this year, the time needed to process the large number of guests coming to campus will increase substantially," read a statement posted on USC's website. "As a result, we will not be able to host the main stage ceremony that traditionally brings 65,000 students, families, and friends to our campus all at the same time and during a short window from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m."

The university says it will still host dozens of commencement events, including all the traditional individual school commencement ceremonies where students cross a stage and receive their diplomas.

"We understand that this is disappointing; however, we are adding many new activities and celebrations to make this commencement academically meaningful, memorable, and uniquely USC, including places to gather with family, friends, faculty, and staff, the celebratory releasing of the doves, and performances by the Trojan Marching Band."

USC said it's in the process of finalizing all details regarding commencement ceremonies and will post updates on its website by Tuesday, April 30.

USC campus remains closed to public after mass arrests of demonstrators

USC's campus remained closed on Thursday until further notice, although classes went on as scheduled. More 93 people were arrested when police cleared an "occupation" of USC's Alumni Park by pro-Palestinian protesters demanding that the university end ties with Israel and Israeli-tied investments.

Organizers of the USC occupation issued a statement saying the action is "in solidarity with the people of Palestine as they resist genocide and continue in their struggle for liberation."

"The occupation is also in resistance to attempts by USC and other universities to suppress the student movement for Palestine on its campuses, in resistance to the silencing of students that criticize the State of Israel, in resistance to the university administrators and boards of trustees who profit off the genocide of Palestinians," organizers said.

In part, the group demanded university divestment from organizations that "profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine."

Organizers said some students reported being assaulted by public safety officers while others were pushed by LAPD officers.

"Incomprehensible accounts of police brutality, co-signed and facilitated by the USC administration that turned our campus into a militarized zone," said one of the organizers who accused law enforcement of using unnecessary force.

USC Provost Andrew Guzman wrote in a message to the campus community Wednesday afternoon that protesters' "actions have escalated to include acts of vandalism, defacing campus buildings and structures, as well as physical confrontation that threatens the safety of our officers and campus community."

By mid-afternoon, the gathering was again mostly peaceful, with about 200 protesters marching through and later sitting in the park.

In his statement Wednesday afternoon, Guzman noted that the university has a ban on erecting tents or other encampments on the campus, along with a ban on the "use of loudspeakers, signs on poles or stakes and the disruption of classes and other essential functions of the university."

Guzman said the protest participants -- "many of whom do not appear to be affiliated with USC" -- were repeatedly asked to adhere to the campus rules by removing tents and other prohibited items. The provost's statement did not directly address any of the demands put forth by protest organizers.

Tensions over canceled valedictorian speech

Asna Tabassum - USC's 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians - recently spoke out after the university's decision to scrap her speech.

She said she isn't buying the safety claim and said she wasn't provided specifics when she pressed university officials.

"Almost a one-way conversation - and then the next day they came to me, they gave me a call and said 'It's unfortunate, but you don't get to speak,'" Tabassum recalled.

Guzman previously said that debate over the selection of Tabassum to give the commencement speech took on an "alarming tenor." Her speech would have presented "substantial" security risks for the event that draws 65,000 people to campus, he said.

While Guzman did not specify whether there had been threats, he said "we cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses."

More protests, encampments pop up across US college campuses

At Emerson College in Boston, 108 people were arrested overnight at an alleyway encampment, and new encampments and protests continued to pop up at campuses across the country.

Students protesting the war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling the conflict. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

At Emerson, video shows police first warning students in the alleyway to leave. Students link arms to resist officers, who move forcefully through the crowd and throw some protesters to the ground.

"As the night progressed, it got tenser and tenser. There were just more cops on all sides. It felt like we were being slowly pushed in and crushed," said Ocean Muir, a sophomore.

"For me, the scariest moment was holding these umbrellas out in case we were tear-gassed, and hearing them come, and hearing their boots on the ground, just pounding into the ground louder than we could chant, and not being able to see a single person," she said.

Muir said police lifted her by her arms and legs and carried her away. Along with other students, Muir was charged Thursday with trespassing and disorderly conduct.

Emerson College leaders had earlier warned students that the alley has a public right-of-way and city authorities had threatened to take action if the protesters didn't leave. Emerson canceled classes Thursday, and Boston police said four officers suffered injuries that were not life-threatening during the confrontation.

On Wednesday, officers at the University of Texas at Austin aggressively detained dozens of protesters. Hundreds of local and state police - including some on horseback and holding batons - bulldozed into protesters, at one point sending some tumbling into the street. In all, 57 people were jailed and charged with criminal trespass, according to a spokeswoman for the Travis County Sheriff's Office.

Dane Urquhart, a third-year Texas student, called the police presence and arrests an "overreaction," adding that the protest would have remained peaceful if the officers hadn't turned out in force. In a statement, the university's president, Jay Hartzell, said: "Our rules matter, and they will be enforced. Our university will not be occupied."

North of USC, protesters at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, remained barricaded inside a building for a third day. The school shut down campus through the weekend and made classes virtual.

At Emory University in Atlanta, local and state police swept in to dismantle a camp, although the university said the protesters weren't students but rather outside activists. Some officers carried semiautomatic weapons, and video shows officers using a stun gun on one protester who they had pinned to the ground. At least 17 people were detained, handcuffed with zip ties and loaded into a police transport van.

Protesters at Emory chanted slogans supporting Palestinians and opposing a public safety training center being built in Atlanta. The two movements are closely entwined in Atlanta, where there has been years of "Stop Cop City" activism that has included attacks on property.

But many colleges, including Harvard University in Massachusetts, were choosing not to take immediate action against protesters who had set up tents, even though they were openly defying campus rules. And some colleges were making new rules, like Northwestern University, which hastily changed its student code of conduct Thursday morning to bar tents on its suburban Chicago campus.

The current wave of protests was inspired by events at Columbia University in New York, where police cleared an encampment and arrested more than 100 people last week, only for students to defiantly put up tents again, in an area where many are set to graduate in front of families in a few weeks. Columbia has said it plans to continue negotiations with protesters through early Friday.

The Associated Press and City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.