Students host ‘People’s Commencement’ after University bans protesters from graduation

Thirty-four students walked at the event, which featured keynote speakers and food.  

The USC Divest from Death Coalition decorated St. James Park with red and gold balloons, a “LIBERATED ZONE” sign and a banner that read “NO AWARDS FOR GENOCIDE!” at their People’s Commencement ceremony. (Zachary Whalen / Daily Trojan)

The USC Divest from Death Coalition held a “People’s Commencement” in St. James Park after the University banned numerous student protesters from walking at their schools’ graduation ceremonies. Their corner of the park was decorated with red and gold balloons, a “LIBERATED ZONE” sign and a banner that read, “NO AWARDS FOR GENOCIDE!” A member of the coalition read out the names of 34 graduates who had the opportunity to walk before the podium and receive a flower on the other side of the stage.  

A representative from the USC Divest from Death Coalition said the People’s Commencement aimed to clarify its goal of a liberated Palestine, while also providing a supportive space for the seniors in the group who the representative claimed were “brutalized” by President Carol Folt’s administration. 

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“How can you walk in an institution that for the past few weeks has misrepresented you, has lied about you, has called the cops on you, has beaten you, and continually shown that they can’t make right on their promises and can’t even engage with your demands?” they said. 

Two students who identified themselves using pseudonyms spoke on behalf of the graduating seniors and the coalition. They said they were grateful for the people they met at USC and for the opportunity to grow as organizers through the Gaza Solidarity Occupation. 

“We exposed Carol Folt as a spokesperson of the ruling class interest and the University as a whole as a financial institute first and foremost,” one of the speakers said. “We unveiled the truth of how USC is willing to lie, levy academic sanctions and unleash LAPD, the militarized arm of the ruling class state, to suppress its own students and community voices.”

The speaker said although they were graduating from USC, “the struggle against imperialist and settler colonial violence does not end until we’re all free.” They also noted that while it stood, the Gaza Solidarity Occupation was one of the first places they felt they had safety and solidarity on campus.

“While the encampment is physically gone, violently swept by the pigs, we got a glimpse of the university and society that we want to build and achieve,” one speaker said. “However, remember that the encampment was just one tactic of many within a protracted and collective struggle that will last beyond our lifetimes.”

When the ceremony concluded, students were provided with a buffet, mingled with friends and family, and used Divest from Death’s decorations as the backdrops for pictures with other graduating students and Divest from Death members. The ceremony also featured a performance from the Service Employees International Union’s drumming team, and Nodutdol, an anti-imperialist Korean organization. The two groups performed traditional Korean drumming. 

One graduate, who chose to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said they boycotted their own commencement ceremony because they were upset at the actions the University had taken against the USC Divest from Death coalition. They attended their friend’s graduation instead and said the atmosphere on campus was unwelcoming.     

“Honestly, the school looked like a prison,” the alum said. “The line to get in was so long, there were metal detectors, these really tall fences and it just did not feel like the most warm environment personally, whereas [the people’s commencement] feels a lot more open and welcoming.”

Lan Duong, an associate professor of cinematic arts, was the keynote speaker for the people’s commencement. She said she hoped students experienced moments of wonder and curiosity that inspired them to create, vote and donate their time to worthy causes. She also said that, while she worked at USC, she would never be a part “of this soulless University,” and that there was nowhere she would rather be than at the People’s Commencement ceremony. 

Duong expressed her gratitude to those who forefronted Gaza and Palestinians at the University and in the United States, as well as the Jewish American community for helping at the encampment by teaching others the leadership skills needed for the “next revolution.” 

“I’m grateful for the political education that you sought to have on the University’s grounds so that you could further understand the corrupt racial capitalist systems under which we labor and are slowly killed by,” Duong said. “I am thankful to every sexual, gender and racial minority. You defended [the encampment] with all of your life and being.”

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