Pro-Palestine Students, Supports Begin `Occupation' on USC Campus

Protest or public demonstration, focus on microphone, blurred group of people in the background

Photo: Mihajlo Maricic / iStock / Getty Images

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Hundreds of pro-Palestinian students and their supporters began an "occupation" of USC's Alumni Park Wednesday and issued a list of demands -- including university divestment from organizations that "profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine" -- and the gathering got briefly chaotic when campus security tried to confiscate items from protesters.

The occupation action added USC to a growing list of college campuses across the nation that have seen encampments and ongoing protests over the Israel-Hamas war, most notably Columbia University. USC's Alumni Park is scheduled to host the university's already headline-making commencement ceremony on May 10.

Organizers of the USC occupation -- identifying themselves as the USC Divest from Death Coalition -- issued a statement saying the action is "in solidarity with the people of Palestine as they resist genocide and continue in their struggle for liberation."

"The occupation is also in resistance to attempts by USC and other universities to suppress the student movement for Palestine on its campuses, in resistance to the silencing of students that criticize the state of Israel, in resistance to the university administrators and boards of trustees who profit off the genocide of Palestinians."

There was no immediate response from USC.

Several dozen students began the encampment early Wednesday morning. Campus Department of Public Safety officers visited the encampment in the early morning hours, instructing students not to hang signs, flags or other materials from trees and posts in the park, and warning them not to use megaphones.

Students at times broke into chants of "Free Palestine."

Around midday, campus DPS officers again moved into the park in an effort to confiscate prohibited items, such as microphones and tents. There were reports of shouting matches between protesters and officers, and some students opted to pick up their tents and carry them around the park to prevent them from being confiscated.

As the standoff intensified, hundreds of people amassed around a DPS patrol vehicle and several officers. The group shouted and chanted, then ultimately moved back into Alumni Park and began marching and shouting slogans, while some DPS officers formed a small skirmish line on the outskirts of the park.

Los Angeles Police Department units responded to the scene, but it did not appear that any LAPD officers actually entered the campus. An LAPD helicopter was spotted hovering overhead.

There were no reports of any arrests or injuries. Reports from the scene indicated that one protester was briefly detained, but then released.

The protesters' other posted demands include a complete academic boycott of Israel, including an end to study-abroad programs in the area and cutting ties with Israeli universities; protection of free speech of students voicing support for Palestine; and demanding the university issue a public statement "calling for an immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza, denouncing the ongoing genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people and call on government officials to do so too."

USC made national headlines in recent weeks over its decision to bar pro-Palestinian valedictorian Asna Tabassum from speaking during the May 10 commencement ceremony. The move came following complaints about some of Tabassum's online posts, including a link to a website advocating the abolition of Israel.

University officials insisted the decision was done not for political reasons, but due to security concerns, given the "alarming tenor" of the discourse over the issue of Tabassum. Organizations including the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles and the ACLU of Southern California have denounced the decision and demanded the university reverse course and allow Tabassum to speak.

On Friday, USC announced that it is "redesigning the commencement program," and it will no longer include any outside speakers or honorees.

Filmmaker Jon M. Chu had been scheduled to be the main commencement speaker during the May 10 event. Honorary degrees were expected to be presented to Chu, National Endowment for the Arts chair Maria Rosario Jackson, tennis legend Billie Jean King and National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt.

The university says it will "confer these honorary degrees at a future commencement or other academic ceremonies."

"Given the highly publicized circumstances surrounding our main-stage commencement program, university leadership has decided it is best to release our outside speakers and honorees from attending this year's ceremony," according to a message sent to the USC community Friday afternoon. "We've been talking to this exceptional group and hope to confer these honorary degrees at a future commencement or other academic ceremonies."

The message stated: "This year, more than ever, it is important to keep the focus on celebrating our graduates and their accomplishments, and our belief in their capacity to change the world that awaits them."

"... It is important that our full attention be on our remarkable graduates. We will be celebrating their accomplishments in a way that reflects the unity we love so much about our Trojan Family. In addition to a memorable main-stage ceremony, we also will be hosting the 38 satellite ceremonies, five celebrations, and 65 receptions, featuring dozens of students, other internal and external speakers and performers."

Also on Friday, 11 members of the university's Advisory Committee on Muslim Life at USC resigned in protest over the Tabassum issue. The group is scheduled to hold a news conference Thursday to discuss their action.

Last Thursday, hundreds of people -- including students and some university staff -- took part in a march and rally on the USC campus to protest the decision not to allow Tabassum to speak at commencement.

Tabassum said in a statement that "anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all."

"... I am both shocked by this decision and profoundly disappointed that the university is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice," she said. "I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university -- my home for four years -- has abandoned me."

USC Provost Andrew Guzman insisted in his message announcing the decision that the move in no way diminished "the remarkable academic achievements of any student considered or selected for valedictorian. To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free- speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period."

He added, "The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement. We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses."

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