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An arrest, more protests at University of Michigan graduation events

U-M commencement protest
Joseph Fisher was among demonstrators who chanted during the University of Michigan commencement ceremony Saturday, May 4, 2024. (Bridge photo by Isabel Lohman)
  • Police arrest one person in pro-Palestinian demonstration at the University of Michigan on Friday
  • Demonstrators chanted throughout U-M commencement ceremony on Saturday 
  • Similar demonstrations at college campuses across the country have led to more than 2,400 arrests

May 10: Pro-Palestinian camp continues at U-M amid national arrests, negotiations

ANN ARBOR — Police arrested one person Friday, and dozens of activists attempted to disrupt a Saturday graduation ceremony as pro-Palestinian demonstrations escalated at the University of Michigan. 

The arrest was the first of its kind in the nearly two weeks since activists set up an encampment at U-M, which has otherwise remained peaceful, despite heated rhetoric and more than 2,400 arrests at other college campuses across the country amid similar protests over the Israel-Hamas war. 

Video posted online late Friday by the TAHRIR Coalition student group showed demonstrators clashing with Michigan State Police officers outside the U-M Museum of Art. One officer, who had used a bicycle as a barricade, put a protestor against museum windows and placed the person in handcuffs. 

Activists said authorities used chemical spay during the confrontation. They accused U-M officials of refusing to meet and instead “traumatizing us.”

The individual arrested was “not affiliated with the university” and was part of a crowd of roughly 200 demonstrators that had gathered outside the museum during a dinner to recognize individuals receiving honorary degrees from the college, U-M spokesperson Colleen Mastony told Bridge Michigan. 

After the dinner ended, and attendees departed, police officers were removing barriers “when the crowd pushed forward and converged” and “the officers pushed the crowd back,” Mastony said in a statement. “The campus has otherwise remained peaceful.”

Michigan State Police were on campus to assist local authorities, “as we do for many events,” spokesperson Shanon Banner told Bridge, declining any additional comment on the confrontation and arrest. 

The Friday night dinner was among a series of graduation-related weekend events at the university. U-M demonstrators first set up an encampment on April 22 after student arrests at a similar demonstration at Columbia University in New York.

‘Shut it down’

On Saturday, U-M demonstrators broke out into chants during Saturday’s commencement ceremony at Michigan Stadium, testing the university’s commitment to free speech, which officials had stressed before the event by saying they would not attempt to prevent peaceful protests. 

After a previous demonstration at an honors event in March, U-M announced a proposal to crack down on “disruptive activity,” but university officials have not adopted or finalized the policy. 

University of Michigan commencement demonstrators
Demonstrators chanted for more than an hour at the University of Michigan 2024 commencement ceremony calling on leaders to divest from funds that aid Israel in the Israel-Hamas war. (Bridge photo by Isabel Lohman)

Activists are calling for the university to “divest” from Israel by ending any investments directly or indirectly supporting the country's ongoing war with Hamas militants, who in October killed roughly 1,200 people in Israel.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in the ensuing conflict, which has sparked demonstrations at college campuses across the country and tested America’s longstanding alliance with Israel. 

"U-M wants divestment now, if we don't get it, shut it down,” activists chanted Saturday. "Israel bombs, U-of-M pays, how many kids have you killed today?"

Other chants on Saturday included calls of “long live the intifada,” a reference to past Palestinian uprisings that the Anti-Defamation League of Michigan has said it considers “a call for violence that only stokes fear, anger and division." 

President Joe Biden, who activists have criticized for not doing more to stop the war, last week condemned use of the word "intifada" and urged campus activists to avoid violence or property damage. 

When the group first started holding up flags at Saturday’s U-M commencement, some booed while others cheered.  A speaker briefly stopped his remarks but eventually continued. Several demonstrators held up Palestine flags and, at one point, booed U-M President Santa Ono, calling him a “coward.”

Authorities escorted the protesters to the back of the crowd, where university officers and Michigan State Police surrounded them but did not take any additional action to silence them. 

Some graduates shouted back at the activists: “USA, USA.” 

Eaman Ali, one of the U-M demonstrators, told Bridge she chose to protest Saturday because there can be no business as usual, adding that there are no universities left in Gaza.

“I think that there’s a history of student protest through disruption,” she said. 

Mastony, the U-M spokesperson, said no arrests were made Saturday. 

"Peaceful protests like this have taken place at U-M commencement ceremonies for decades," she said in an email.

"The university supports free speech and expression, and university leaders are pleased that today’s commencement was such a proud and triumphant moment, worthy of the achievements of our extraordinary graduates."

Nationwide demonstrations

Police have forcibly cleared encampments or made sweeping arrests at colleges in other states, including this week at Columbia and the University of California, Los Angeles, where more than 200 people were reportedly taken into custody. 

The U-M campus encampment remains the largest of its kind in Michigan. Students at Michigan State University set up a smaller encampment last week but later dispersed without incident

U-M President Santa Ono
University of Michigan President Santa Ono spoke briefly at the Saturday commencement ceremony. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at the back of the ceremony booed him. (Bridge photo by Isabel Lohman)

Western Michigan University had a small group of demonstrators this week on campus. Four students met with university administrators on Thursday, said Paula Davis, WMU Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications.

“The students submitted a comprehensive list of requested actions, which will be carefully reviewed,” a Friday university news release states. “University leaders look forward to continued dialogue.” 

Davis declined to provide a list of the requested actions to Bridge.

Wayne State University officials reportedly arrested one protester accused of disrupting a Board of Governors meeting on April 26, a response that faculty members later criticized in a letter to school officials. 

At U-M, students have previously held rallies in support of Palestine and spoke out at board meetings, joining peers at other college campuses calling for their schools to end any investments that support Israel’s war effort. 

The TAHRIR Coalition, the student group that posted video of the Friday night arrest, has claimed U-M “commits over $6 billion to investment managers who have profited from investments in Israeli companies and/or military contractors.”  

Regent Michael Behm previously told Bridge the university has not directly invested in any Israeli company but has funds with roughly $10 million in related investments. 

In recent days, officials at some universities have struck deals with students to review their investments, including Brown, Northwestern and Rutgers.

U-M regents previously made clear they have no plans to divest.

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