'Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go!' Chants ring out from crowd during UC Berkeley commencement

BERKELEY, CA - APRIL 26, 2024 - Students and concerned citizens camp out in front of Sproul
A tent encampment last month in front of UC Berkeley's Sproul Hall protested the Israel-Hamas war. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ opened her comments at the university’s commencement ceremony Saturday by addressing recent student protests on the campus with a long and deeply influential legacy of student activism.

“I’m saddened by how this conflict has divided students, faculty and staff,” Christ said. “While most of our campus community has engaged peacefully, political positions have bled over too easily and quickly to antisemitism and anti-Palestinian harassment.”

“We have lost the ability to talk with one another,” she added. “It is my hope that we can soon find a way to recognize our shared humanity.”

Whistles and applause rang out from the crowd gathered at the California Memorial Stadium. Eventually, as some people began to chant and shout, Christ continued her remarks over all the noise. A few minutes later, Sunny Lee, the university’s dean of students, asked the crowd to quiet down.

“If you continue to disrupt the event,” Lee said, “we will have you leave.”

A livestream of the event showed several law enforcement officers walking briskly behind the podium. A few minutes later, as louder chants began to ring out from the crowd — including a chorus of “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go!" — Lee again asked for quiet.

Moments later, the livestream of the event cut out for several minutes and instead music, including Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'," played in the background.

Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, universities across the state and nation have grappled with how to respond to both protests on campus and students' commentary about the war at off-campus sites and online.

In April, a dinner for graduating UC Berkeley law students at a dean's home devolved into a tense confrontation and accusations of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hatred — a scene that captured national headlines after video spread of the dean shouting at a student, “Please leave. No. Please leave."

Later in the month, Dan Mogulof, an assistant vice chancellor at the university, put out a statement saying UC Berkeley would "take the steps necessary to ensure the protest does not disrupt the university’s operations."

At USC, President Carol Folt's decision to rescind the valedictorian's speaking slot after undisclosed threats sent the campus into two solid weeks of protest and controversy. Many classes moved online and the university canceled its main stage ceremony, instead offering an alternative celebration at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

On Friday, Asna Tabassum, the Muslim valedictorian whose speech was canceled amid controversy over her pro-Palestinian views, received her diploma during the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation ceremony. Wearing a sash bearing her academic achievements, including her minor in resistance to genocide, Tabassum beamed, and her entire class and some spectators stood to applaud her.

Earlier this month, amid questions about why UCLA was so poorly prepared to stop a recent attack on a pro-Palestinian camp formed at the heart of campus, the university announced it had launched an internal probe and implemented new security procedures.

And Pomona College — where, last month, police in riot gear arrested several people who occupied the college president's office — announced recently that it was moving its Sunday commencement ceremony off-site to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

Read more: 55 years after Reagan took on Berkeley, Newsom stays in the background amid roiling campus protests

But Berkeley has a uniquely long and influential role in the history of campus protests.

In the winter of 1964, students protesting free speech restrictions occupied the campus' Sproul Hall and, at one point, thousands of students surrounded the police car in which a student leader had been detained.

Protests went on for months, garnering national headlines, and eventually many of the restrictions were lifted — a step that paved the way for later movements in opposition of the Vietnam War and in support of environmentalism and women's rights. A decade ago, the campus that once tried to censor many of the student leaders invited them back to campus, lauding them as heroes.

In May 1969, on the sixth day of demonstrations over plans to develop land known as People’s Park, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan called in more than 2,000 National Guard troops and hundreds of highway patrolmen, who descended on campus with weapons. A helicopter hovered overhead, spraying protesters with tear gas.

More than half a century later, Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken a decidedly different approach, keeping largely in the background as universities across the state struggle with how to respond to current protests.

During Berkeley's graduation Saturday, momentum grew among a group of protesters who gathered in part of the stadium. Dressed in caps and gowns, some carried Palestinian flags and others waved black-and-white keffiyehs in the air. In video clips posted on X by the San Francisco Chronicle, protesters chanted "End, end the occupation!" and "Free Palestine!"

Mogulof, the assistant vice chancellor, noted in an email that the protesters eventually "left voluntarily and the ceremony proceeded and was completed as planned without further disruption."

Earlier in the ceremony, Sydney Roberts, the student body president, addressed the crowd, saying that, like many others gathered, she had chosen the university for its academic excellence but also to be part of a place that strives to make a difference in the world.

As Roberts spoke, a few shouts rang from the crowd and eventually Lee, the dean of students, walked to the lectern and interrupted.

“Many see your pain. We hear you,” Lee told the chanting members of the crowd before, again, asking them to quiet down out of respect for the student body president. Roberts returned to the microphone.

"This wouldn't be Berkeley without a protest," she said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.