Protests on American campuses: ‘Student arrests will be my last university memory’

  • By Brandon Drenon
  • BBC news

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Protesters gather at the University of California, Los Angeles

In January 2020, they were seniors in high school. Graduation was just around the corner. But so did a deadly pandemic.

By mid-March, Covid had turned daily life upside down and many students were forced to spend their last months of school at home. Proms were canceled.

Four years later, those same students are now about to graduate. And once again they are faced with a similar deterioration of what would normally be a festive occasion.

Pro-Palestinian protests have erupted on more than 130 college campuses across the US as organizers demand their universities cut ties with companies linked to Israel.

They have set up huge encampments in the middle of the university grounds and defied multiple warnings to disperse, leading to police raids and more than 2,000 arrests.

Three seniors talk for the second time about how they deal with this tumultuous end to their academic career.

‘Students dragged away by police are my last memories’

Madison Morris, 22, University of Texas

The day the state troops came in was also the day I had my last final exam. When I arrived on campus, they were already there and getting closer to the students.

The tension was super high. I had never been so close to so many police before. It was scary.

I didn’t really study for my exam later that day, I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was what I had just seen. I doubt I did as well on the exam as I wanted.

My last day of class was the day I saw protesters – my fellow students – gathering peacefully on the large lawn, being dragged away by the police and arrested.

Image source, Madison Morris

That is something that will remain etched in my memory forever. Those will be the memories of my last moments in college.

It’s hard to even feel happy right now when you see all the negative things happening. I feel like I can’t even really celebrate my achievements because I’m just so overwhelmed.

Graduation is next week. I’ve been looking forward to it for the past four years because I didn’t have a real one in high school. Due to Covid we had to wear masks and social distancing was in place. It wasn’t the same.

I was really hoping for a traditional graduation ceremony this year. I’ve tried to make the most of my senior year and take it all in, but it’s hard when things like this happen. Like Covid, it all honestly feels super dystopian.

‘Maybe I won’t be allowed to walk upstairs at graduation’

Craig Birckhead-Morton, 21, Yale University

I was one of 48 students arrested on April 22. I woke up in the encampment at 5:30 am to warnings from our security marshals that we were surrounded by police. They told us to get up and prepare for arrest. I went to class the same day. It’s been a very difficult time – a whole new level of stress.

I still have two final papers to hand in. I have an Arabic project ready. And I’m still behind because of everything that’s going on.

The last year is extremely important considering my family is in all of this. They want to see me graduate. It has been a major concern of mine.

We still haven’t heard how the university will respond. And in many ways, that’s scarier than our actual legal challenge.

Image source, Craig Birckhead-Morton

We may not be allowed to walk during the graduation ceremony. We may not receive our diplomas or final transcripts. For me, the transcription is crucial. I need it to enroll in the master’s program I was accepted into at Columbia.

Personally, I believe that all this knowledge I gain at Yale should go to a just cause. That’s why I thought it necessary to keep a line here. The situation in Palestine is unacceptable.

I remember the first week of March during my senior year of high school. We were sent home and things were made remotely.

We didn’t know this would be the end, but it was. No prom, no graduation ceremony. The pandemic was a major disruptor, but so were the Black Lives Matter protests. That was also a crucial part of the end of my high school experience and something that led me to organizing and where I am today.

‘The demonstrators are ruining student life’

Melissa Manesh, 21, University of Southern California

This should be a happy time, the last few days on campus that we as students will ever have. And now it’s being taken over by protesters. There’s so much chaos happening. It’s frustrating.

The demonstrators are ruining student life. Libraries are not open at a time when most people are trying to study for their final exams.

There are helicopters flying around. There are only two entrances to campus open, which means some of us have to walk extra long distances. Protesters are also blocking off a large area on campus, making it feel unsafe to walk through.

Video Caption, Watch: See how the Gaza campus protests spread across the US

I know many of us are afraid of the Jewish students. They will yell at you. They will call you a genocide supporter. We don’t want to see these protesters and their extremely offensive signs. It increases the stress of having to study. It’s hard not to think about this when it’s all happening right in front of you. It’s extremely distracting.

If you had told me that graduation was cancelled, I wouldn’t have believed you. When we found out, we were all very distraught and upset. This should have been one of the greatest moments of our academic careers – a moment we’ve all been waiting for – and now it’s over.

I was also the class of 2020 for high school, and we didn’t have a graduation ceremony at the time due to Covid. This really feels the same, and it’s so sad and disturbing. But now it feels much deeper and much more personal. This time, it’s not every graduating senior in the world who will lose his or her ceremony. It’s just every graduating senior at USC.