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‘To celebrate our graduation was not morally sound for us’: Pro-Palestine demonstrations mark 2024 commencement, graduations

Val O’Neill
A graduate holds up a Palestinian flag during the undergraduate commencement ceremony May 5. Many students took the opportunity to voice their solidarity with Palestine during the commencement.

As the Class of 2024 graduates flipped their tassels and walked the stage over the last several weeks, some students used graduation and commencement ceremonies as an opportunity to express their frustration and anger with Northeastern’s refusal to divest from military-industrial companies and voice their solidarity with Palestine.

The university held its undergraduate 2024 commencement ceremony at Fenway Park May 5, just over a week after 98 protesters were arrested at the pro-Palestinian encampment erected on Centennial Common April 25. Less than a week later, graduating law students from the Northeastern University School of Law, or NUSL, protested during their commencement May 10. 

At individual college graduation ceremonies and the Fenway Park commencement, many students donned graduation caps decorated with pro-Palestinian messages, carried Palestinian flags or held up their phones to a livestreaming camera with written messages demanding Northeastern divest and listen to its students as they crossed the stage or posed for photos with college deans. 

Students participating in pro-Palestine protests the past six months — most recently the near-48-hour-long encampment on Centennial Common — are demanding the university disclose its financial investments, divest from companies with ties to Israel and its military and denounce what they believe is Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. Demonstrators also want the school to address the situation in Gaza beyond President Joseph E. Aoun’s initial statement Oct. 10 and call for a ceasefire in the war. 

At the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, or CSSH, graduation ceremony May 4, Laith Matari, who graduated with a Master of Science, walked the stage to receive his diploma wearing a white shirt with “NEU Kills” written on it in fake blood. His hands were also covered in fake blood which he smeared on himself as he reached the front of the ceremony, a common symbol used to protest university administrators who protesters say have “blood on their hands” because of their lack of action regarding the war.

Following Matari’s demonstration, Laura Green, associate dean of teaching, learning, and experiential education, approached the podium holding a printed speech.

“We respect your passion and opinions. We respect your right to voice them in the appropriate setting,” she said to the audience. “This event honors our graduates and distinguished guests, and it’s a celebration of their achievements. Out of respect for your community and honored guests, I ask that you let us continue with this event.”

Matari said several Northeastern University Police Department, or NUPD, officers escorted him outside to a load-in zone behind Matthews Arena to interrogate him, ultimately permanently banning him from campus. Matari’s tickets to the Fenway commencement ceremony were also deactivated, Vice President for Communications Renata Nyul told The News in a statement.

“I really wanted to show you cannot suppress people’s voices, and it is a vain attempt because people who believe in what’s right — and this is obviously right — will always find a way to continue to convey their support for it,” Matari said. “I think what I had hoped for administration and CSSH and Northeastern in general to understand from this is that this will never go away.”

Kellee Tsai, the dean of CSSH, recited the same speech at the Fenway Park commencement after Aoun briefly spoke when a graduate approached the stage holding a graduation cap that said “Free Palestine” and wearing a shirt that said “Divest” whose hands were also smeared with fake blood.

The individual and others in the crowd could be heard chanting “Aoun, Aoun, you can’t hide, you are funding genocide.” The graduate was quickly apprehended before they reached the stage and arrested by two NUPD officers, the university told The News May 5.

At the Fenway Park commencement, reporters for The News saw police officers take larger Palestinian flags out of graduates’ hands. Northeastern did not address questions asking to confirm whether or why the flags were confiscated.

“Northeastern held more than 15 academic ceremonies to celebrate the remarkable achievements of our students, including its main undergraduate and graduate ceremonies with 55,000 people at Fenway Park,” Nyul said in the statement. “Although a couple of individuals attempted to disrupt these celebrations, the university handled each incident promptly and the events were concluded successfully.”

Several graduates who spoke to The News said they did not find the demonstrations disruptive, adding that some of their families didn’t fully realize what was happening until administrators’ announcements rebuking demonstrators were made. 

“Although I’m sure the administration saw it as a really big disruption, I talked to my parents, and they were just kind of confused and didn’t know what was going on,” said Mikaela Gordon, a 2024 graduate with a degree in civil engineering. “I think it’s good to disrupt things because this is a really important cause.”

A student wears a graduation cap that reads, “NEU Divest!” during the undergraduate commencement. Many graduating students decorated their caps with pro-Palestinian messaging. (Val O’Neill)

Rebecca Bamidele, the 2024 Fenway undergraduate student speaker who graduated with a combined degree in biology and political science, highlighted the crisis in Gaza in her speech, specifically the destruction of hospitals and the ongoing healthcare system crisis. The school said this part of her speech was not approved. 

The university routinely reviews all commencement speeches in advance for clarity and length. At the undergraduate ceremony on Sunday, May 5, the student speaker deviated from previously reviewed remarks without the knowledge of university leaders,” Nyul told The News. Bamidele did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think that the demonstration [at commencement] was absolutely justified. I was really proud of [Bamidele] for integrating mentions of Gaza into her speech,” said Jasper Duval, a December 2023 graduate with a combined degree in cultural anthropology and health sciences who walked the stage at Fenway May 5.

Similar demonstrations happened at NUSL’s graduation, with more than 25 graduating students carrying “protest signs, flags or red (‘bloody’) hands” as they crossed the stage, according to a press release from Northeastern Law Students for Justice in Palestine obtained by The News. Unlike years prior, Provost David Madigan and Aoun were no-shows at the ceremony, according to the press release. 

Hirah Ahmed, a 2024 NUSL graduate, said she knew she was going to protest during commencement as early as January. Ahmed said that it was important for students who have been involved in pro-Palestine activism to use commencement as an opportunity to protest. 

“The idea that we’d be doing this protest and advocacy for the year and then all of a sudden forget that pull during graduation and forget that our brothers and sisters … in Gaza [who] are either dead or unable to attend graduation because their university doesn’t exist anymore … to celebrate our graduation was not morally sound for us,” she said. 

Matari said that commencement was students’ chance to show the crowd of family members and friends what students have been pushing for without Northeastern “switching the narrative.”

“I really wanted to bring attention in a more public space of Northeastern’s contribution to all of this. And I found that doing that in front of parents, in front of other students, in front of faculty would be a good way to go about that to ensure that they can’t just [do what they do] with other student protests that were within the confines of the campus, and NUPD or [the Boston Police Department] could just suppress the students,” Matari said. “Because this was in front of parents and people who continue to pay for their Northeastern education, they got to see a firsthand look at what students were doing.” 

Campus Editor Emily Spatz contributed reporting to this story.

About the Contributors
Val O’Neill
Val O’Neill, Managing Editor
Val O’Neill is a third-year journalism major with a minor in photography and one of the deputy campus editors. She has previously been a staff writer and staff photographer and is excited to bring new ideas and continue her participation on The News. You can follow her on X/Twitter at @vqon717.
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