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UMass Amherst will go forward with graduation, even after keynote speaker Colson Whitehead cancels

Hundreds of students gather on campus, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, to protest the war in Gaza, UMass Amherst's ties to military contractors, and the university's decision to order police to clear an encampment the night before. Police arrested more than 130 protesters.
Nirvani Williams
Hundreds of students gather on campus, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, to protest the war in Gaza, UMass Amherst's ties to military contractors, and the university's decision to order police to clear an encampment the night before. Police arrested more than 130 protesters.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst will proceed with graduation, even as commencement speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead, announced he will not speak at graduation. In a post on social media he cited solidarity with the 132 arrests that took place on Tuesday night during an unauthorized encampment in solidarity with Palestine.

“I was looking forward to speaking next week at UMass Amherst. But calling the cops on peaceful protesters is a shameful act,” Whitehead wrote.

Graduation is set to commence at McGuirk Stadium on Saturday, May 18, with individual college ceremonies booked at the Mullins Center throughout the weekend. Columbia University in New York and the University of Southern California have both canceled their ceremonies due to recent on-campus protests.

University spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said in a statement "planning is proceeding for UMass Amherst Commencement. As with all major events, plans are developed to welcome and host our guests. UMass Amherst firmly stands by the rights of individuals to exercise their right to free speech in a fashion that does not conflict with the rights of others in attendance to take part in the program.”

On Tuesday, Chancellor Javier Reyes called on students to take down the unauthorized encampment, which was situated on the campus’s South Lawn next to the W.E.B Du Bois Library. This was the second encampment that occurred on campus, the first being taken down after a land-use policy violation warning from the chancellor on April 29.

On Tuesday the administration called in Massachusetts State Police, the UMass Police Department and the state’s Special Emergency Response Team, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian reported.

The May 7 protest was organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as part of “Popular Universities for Gaza,” a nationwide college campus protest movement. The UMass protesters advocated for a list of demands to be met by the administration, such as divestment from war profiteer companies and for charges to be dropped for the 56 arrested students at a Whitmore Administration Building protest held in October.

Student Government Association (SGA) Chair of Academic Oversight Committee Emmanuelle Sussman, who was arrested on Tuesday at the encampment at approximately 10:30 p.m., is expected to graduate on May 18. Upon her arrest, Sussman was held Tuesday night at the Mullins Center alongside fellow protesters. There were 70 UMass students and six faculty members arrested.

“I've been grappling with this all day. I don't even know if I want to walk in, you know, go back to Mullins, where I was detained,” Sussman said. “I don't feel any loyalties to the school at this point. Besides to the amazing students and faculty.”

Videos have surfaced of police in riot gear using force on the protesters, who gathered on campus starting at 1:00 p.m. On Wednesday night, SGA passed a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Reyes’ leadership, and some labor unions alongside ACLU Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern have spoken out condemning the presence of police.

Sussman talked about her experience being held in Mullins until approximately 3:15 a.m. She was held in zip ties throughout the night, and said her wrists are “still tender to the touch.”

Protestors, including Sussman, are facing criminal charges related to their arrests. The 132 arrested will be arraigned this coming Monday at the Eastern Hampshire District Court. Arraignments are scheduled to proceed over the course of the next couple of weeks.

“I was obviously pretty terrified. But, you know, I was telling myself that it wasn't as scary as what people in Palestine have to go through every single day,” she said.

Sussman, a fan of Whitehead, is sad he won’t be speaking at graduation, but respects his decision to pull out of the ceremony.

“I think I would be disappointed if he hadn't done that because I think, you know, if you look even a little bit into Colson Whitehead, what he advocates for, what he writes about, then you'll quickly realize that it's completely in line with his morals to withdraw from commencement after that,” she said.

A UMass spokesperson said in another statement, “We respect Mr. Whitehead’s position and regret that he will not be addressing the Class of 2024.”

Disclosure: The license for NEPM’s main radio signal is held by UMass Amherst. In addition, some NEPM employees are in the Professional Staff Union at the university.

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