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UCLA graduation marked by a ceremony with searing speeches against policing, Gaza violence

Jaweed Kaleem, Connor Sheets and Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — UCLA commencement ceremonies kicked off Friday with at least one event marked by student speakers who delivered searing criticism of the university’s handling of pro-Palestinian protests and controversial police tactics, as graduates prepared to receive degrees after a tumultuous educational journey through a global pandemic, labor strife and political polarization.

As most students celebrated their milestone moment with excitement and joy — sporting colorful leis and brightly decorated mortar boards — others expressed anger and grief over campus tensions that have pushed the University of California, Los Angeles into the center of national controversy over policing, vigilante violence, pro-Palestinian protests and accusations of antisemitism.

At the Luskin School of Public Affairs morning ceremony, a number of graduates wore kaffiyeh scarves in support of Palestinians and all three student speakers decried the violence in Gaza and UCLA leadership. Sebastian Cazares, graduating with a master’s degree in public policy, criticized the administration for turning UCLA into “a war zone” and enabling “police brutality” against students and faculty. But he also expressed optimism about the future of his fellow graduates as change makers who will create more “equity and righteousness” in the world.

“I have renewed hope in the students here who join a historic international movement for change in the greatest college antiwar activism seen since Vietnam,” Cazares said. “Every past moment of grave injustice and humanitarian tragedy historically always will lead to an equal reaction of transformational justice.”

Another student speaker, Haniya Saleem Syeda, drew parallels between the Palestinian cause and what she called the scars of her own family’s experience with the 1947 partition of her ancestral homeland into Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan with its mass displacement and violent migration that forced them to leave homes behind.

She described the torn emotions she and many of her peers shared during this fraught moment. “Today many of us are here attempting to balance this moment of joy that we dreamed of with the grief of the months that led up to it,” she said.

Dozens of graduates peacefully walked out of the Luskin ceremony after the speeches to grassy Dickson Court — the same place where police violently dismantled a pro-Palestinian encampment weeks earlier. Ananya Roy, a Luskin School professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography, called the walkout “the People’s Commencement Part Two” and commended the students, faculty members and their loved ones for “standing up for the truth” as private security guards watched from yards away.

“I’m in awe of the courage you all have shown today,” Roy said. “Our words matter and I know you will continue to lead us toward the horizon that is decolonization and abolition. Free Palestine! Cops off campus!”

The students then held a mock graduation, with students handed commencement cards after their names were called out, to the cheers of fellow protesters — while the traditional ceremony took place inside.

But overall, a festive atmosphere prevailed throughout the morning for tens of thousands of graduates and visitors. Streams of black-gown-clad students and faculty members — and their loved ones in blue-and-gold accented suits and dresses reflecting Bruin colors — filed into graduation venues. Anthony Contreras, 36, was clutching a bouquet of red roses for his girlfriend, Sarai Buruel, who is graduating with a master’s degree in social work.

“It’s so exciting,” said Contreras, who was walking with eight members of Buruel’s family. “I’ve never been to a graduation ceremony at UCLA before.”

More than 15,000 UCLA graduates will receive degrees during commencement ceremonies Friday and through the weekend. The graduation events began Thursday evening with academic honors and athletics receptions, with roughly 70 events for undergraduate and graduate programs spanning the UCLA campus through Monday. About 26,000 people in total are expected at the arena ceremonies, with thousands more at other graduation festivities.

UCLA is one of seven University of California campuses — from Davis to San Diego — celebrating commencement over the next few days. But ongoing flare-ups and controversy over pro-Palestinian protests have forced universities to put in place new security measures as they welcome tens of thousands of guests and graduates for a milestone moment of pride and accomplishment. At the University of California, Irvine, the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of California, Davis, morning ceremonies Friday rolled out smoothly, with the conferring of thousands of degrees.

At UCLA, more than 2,200 students streamed into Pauley Pavilion on Friday for the first of three ceremonies for the College of Letters and Science, the university’s largest. Roughly 7,000 relatives and other guests were present. Students danced, high-fived and shouted in celebration as they appeared in camera shots beamed on a big screen in the center of the arena.

There were no banners or flags — which were banned from the arena as they were last year — or signs of protest. At the beginning of the ceremony, Melissa Nessman, the director of UCLA’s transfer alliance program, directed students to avoid disruptive behavior.

“Refrain from actions that disrupt or prevent speakers from being heard,” said Nessman, who is also the chief of college commencement. She said that “we recognize and value freedom of expression” but suggested that commencement was the wrong venue for activism.

Mary Osako, vice chancellor of strategic communications, described this main UCLA ceremony as “poignant and simply beautiful.” She said the absence of disruptions “illustrates our students’ unified desire to mark this moment as a sole celebration of their success.”

Meghan Buddy lined up at the Bruin bear statue for photos with her parents, who had flown in from Michigan. Buddy, who was graduating Friday with a degree in molecular cell and developmental biology, planned to move to Salt Lake City to work as a research scientist at the University of Utah.

“It’s definitely been an unusual year, but that has always been the case for us because we began school during COVID,” Buddy said, noting that this was not the first year of campus strife. She was enrolled in 2022 when academic workers went on strike over pay and benefits. “Even if commencement was disrupted, I’d still be happy because I’m here, able to celebrate graduation and be with everyone.”


Jack Lin, a senior graduating with a degree in computer science, gathered near Royce Hall on Friday morning with his girlfriend and a group of friends attending the ceremony at Pauley Pavilion. Lin, whose Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science ceremony is set for Saturday at the pavilion, said he had been distraught over the last two months as protests, violence and the union strike upended the campus.

“We were a little worried there might be no graduation because our parents planned to fly in from Taiwan,” said Lin, of Chino Hills, as he held hands with his girlfriend, Audrey. “So we’re excited it still happened,” said Lin, who will be moving to the Bay Area to start a job in software engineering.

Several ceremonies were to take place at Royce Hall, one of the oldest campus buildings, which is adjacent to the central green where a pro-Palestinian encampment went up April 25. Law enforcement arrested more than 200 activists there on May 1 after a night of mob violence against protesters.

The attack is the focus of internal and external investigations because of an hours-long delay in police response to quell the violence, a failure that led to the removal of UCLA’s then-police chief and the creation of a new Office of Campus Safety.

UCLA has faced multiple demonstrations since then as pro-Palestinian activists have demanded that the university end its financial ties to weapons companies and Israel — including two short-lived encampments. The most recent one on Monday night ended with 25 protesters under arrest and ordered to stay away from campus for two weeks.

Questions of antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment have also been an issue. Outgoing Chancellor Gene Block faced hostile questioning last month by a congressional committee over complaints about rising antisemitism on campus; several Jewish students have sued the university over accusations of pro-Palestinian protesters illegally restricting campus access, and the U.S. Department of Education in December announced a civil rights investigation into UCLA.

During a commencement season when protests have become the norm, UCLA officials said they are prepared for disruptions.

“While we are putting in place additional security measures to ensure commencement ceremonies proceed, it is also possible that there will be demonstrations during the events themselves,” said a statement on the UCLA website.

“If minor disruptions during ceremonies occur, our commencement speakers and leadership will approach them with patience, and we ask that you do the same. In the event of any significant interruptions, we will take appropriate action to de-escalate the situation to protect the safety of all attendees and allow the event to move forward,” the statement said.

For the first time, all major commencement events require guests to bring either clear bags or no bags. The policy has been in place for sporting events, including basketball games at Pauley Pavilion. Additional ceremony sites with clear-bag screening rules include Royce Hall, Drake Stadium, Los Angeles Tennis Center, Intramural Field and Ackerman Grand Ballroom, among other locations.

One location that has been home to pro-Palestinian protests, Kerckhoff Patio, does not appear on the commencement schedule despite being selected for several graduation events last year.

“Banners, signs, or flags” are banned, although that rule was in place last year.

The commencements at UCLA are among the last in the nation, as are those at six other UC campuses that will hold ceremonies between Friday and Tuesday.

A clear-bag rule is in place at the University of California, San Diego, where the main events take place Saturday, while at the University of California, Riverside, officials said clear bags are “preferred” for ceremonies on Monday and Tuesday.

Some universities are requiring tickets and security screenings for the first time, including the University of California, Santa Barbara, where celebrations take place through Sunday. The campus has also expanded a list of prohibited items, including artificial noisemakers, balloons, confetti, large banners, signs, flags, backpacks, bags and luggage larger than 14 inches by 14 inches by 6 inches. Such items are also banned at several other campuses.

Officials at UC Irvine, however, said no changes are expected at its graduation ceremonies, which will be held beginning Friday at the Bren Events Center, the campus indoor arena. The Irvine center and other sports venues being used as commencement sites — Toyota Arena for UC Riverside and Golden 1 Center for UC Davis — have their own rules that will apply to students and guests. They include a list of prohibited items and conduct codes, such as no fighting, insults or vulgar speech.

Campus officials across the UC system declined to share information about whether they intend to beef up security presence and how they plan to respond to any protests that may disrupt ceremonies.

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