Demonstrations continue at universities across the country during weekend commencement ceremonies

Demonstrations continued and new encampments were erected at universities across the country as commencement ceremonies took place Saturday following weeks of pro-Palestinian protests that have led to nearly 3,000 arrests, according to an NBC News tally.

Dozens of students walked out of the Virginia Commonwealth University ceremony Saturday morning as Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivered the commencement address, video posted on X showed.

After several people were arrested last week at the school as police dismantled encampments on college campuses, VCU said on its website ahead of commencement that disruptions at the ceremony were strictly prohibited.

But student groups, including the VCU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, moved forward with a “silent walkout” to protest Youngkin’s policies and his role in the arrests of pro-Palestinian student protesters in April.

On Saturday, students dressed in caps and gowns quietly marched toward the back of the Greater Richmond Convention Center, prompting some people in the crowd to erupt in cheers.

The Commonwealth Times, the university’s student newspaper, said in a post on X that the walkout was “in protest of Gov. Glenn Youngkin appearing as the keynote speaker.”

Other footage posted on X showed a group of people, including some graduates, outside the convention center chanting and holding signs, including one that read, “No graduation as usual.”

Palestinian insignia in a graduate. (Ryan Sun / AP)
Palestinian insignia in a graduate. (Ryan Sun / AP)

Attendees who left the convention center after the ceremony began would not be allowed to re-enter, the school said.

The university declined to comment Saturday.

The University of Southern California in Los Angeles has held weeklong commencement events after canceling its main stage ceremony due to safety concerns over student protests. It also scrapped Muslim student Asna Tabassum’s valedictorian speech after complaints about pro-Palestinian content on her Instagram page from at least two pro-Israel and Jewish groups.

USC Provost Andrew Guzman said they canceled Tabassum’s speech because of safety concerns amid tensions related to “the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.”

Tabassum, who said the university’s decision was thinly veiled racism, walked the stage in a commencement ceremony Friday night and received loud applause from students and spectators, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Joel Curran, senior vice president of communications, told the newspaper that the ceremony was “joyful, celebratory,” with “no disruptions.”

Also on Saturday, students waved Palestinian flags at Claremont College's Pitzer College graduation ceremony in Claremont, California, video posted to social media shows. Students wearing "keffiyeh stoles" handed the flags to President Strom Thacker as they shook his hand after receiving their diplomas.

Protests disrupted commencement ceremonies on Friday and Saturday at the University of California, Berkeley. As Sydney Roberts, the school's student body president, addressed her fellow graduates Saturday, a group of people in the crowd began chanting.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that soon after, about 20 students stood up and waved signs and Palestinian flags while chanting “Free Palestine!” Security guards escorted them to the back of the venue, according to the news outlet.

About 300 other graduates then got up and moved to a section of the venue and began chanting, prompting some people to counter-chant “Kick them out,” the Chronicle reported.

During Friday’s ceremony, there was a similar disruption when students removed their gowns to reveal white shirts with “UC Divest” written on them at UC Berkeley’s law school graduation, according to the Chronicle. The university responded Friday, saying in a statement that the interruption "did not impact the proceedings, prevent us from honoring the hard work and accomplishments of our students, or necessitate the premature conclusion of our ceremony.”

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Executive MBA Program, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin will hold ceremonies throughout Saturday.

Officers in riot gear descended on the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia at dawn on Friday to arrest and remove demonstrators who defied earlier orders to disperse. Police said nine of those arrested were students while the other 24 had no affiliation with the school.

Like other universities, the schools implemented additional safety measures and said disruptions would not be tolerated. Officials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said graduates had to present their student ID card to enter Kenan Stadium and reminded students of free speech laws and policies that include a range of disciplinary actions for those who substantially interfere with another person’s protected free speech.

“This includes protests that limit the ability of others to hear a speaker,” the school said on its website. “The University respects the rights of peaceful protesters. While anyone — including students, faculty and staff — may gather and exercise their rights to free speech, state law and the Board of Governors policy prohibit significant disruption of University operations.”

The school — which has seen several campus protests and subsequent arrests — warned that anyone who does not comply “will be subject to arrest.”

Hours before Saturday evening's graduation ceremony, some pro-Palestinian demonstrators defaced a campus building with red paint and chalk amid a protest, WRAL reported. Protesters left red handprints with messages that said "UNC has blood on its hands" and covered the South Building's steps in red paint.

A new encampment was also erected Saturday on UNC's campus, WRAL reported, featuring tents and protesters holding signs that said "Stop Genocide" and "End the Siege."

Earlier Saturday, protesters held a "people's graduation" for students who were suspended following a different protest two weeks ago, according to WRAL.

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell, who has been under fire from faculty and students for calling in state troopers to arrest protesters, said in a video message that the 2024 class of about 10,800 graduates deserves to have a commencement but warned that there will be “no tolerance for any disruption to your special and hard-earned achievement.”

UT would not say if it was increasing security ahead of the celebration and issued a detailed guideline on its clear-bag policy and what items would be strictly prohibited. Brian Davis, UT’s spokesman for issues and crisis communication, said those rules have been in place for previous graduations but that the university was being more explicit about them this year.

Video showed a handful of protesters wearing keffiyehs walking around outside Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium while carrying signs calling for divestment and Palestinian freedom.

This article was originally published on