Hundreds Attend Historic “Counter-Commencement” for Columbia Students in NYC

In the middle of her commencement speech, actor and poet Amanda Seales stepped away from the rostrum and turned around with a flourish to show the back of her graduation gown, right below the keffiyeh she was wearing. The words painted on the gown read, “Master’s in Revolution.”

It was a fitting beginning to the event that was to follow.

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An alumna of Columbia University, Seales was addressing hundreds of graduating students of the university’s Class of 2024 on Thursday, May 16 — not on campus as part of an official commencement ceremony organized by the university, but at one of New York’s most iconic churches, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in uptown Manhattan.

The “counter commencement” was organized by members of Columbia’s faculty in a repudiation of the university administration’s recent actions, especially its decision to call in the New York Police Department (NYPD) to arrest pro-Palestine protesters on campus.

On May 4, four days after NYPD officials stormed into Columbia to arrest activists occupying Hamilton Hall and to end the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on campus for the second time, student organizers announced that St. John’s Cathedral had invited them to set up a space there for “community building and healing.”

Twelve days later, the cathedral would once again become a space for those who felt disappointed by the university’s conduct in recent months to participate in a commencement they felt was more aligned with their values. They called it “The People’s Graduation – A Gathering for Justice and Peace,” and through words, songs, and visual interventions throughout, they centered the people of Gaza and their suffering.

“Your people are my people, our strengths align,” the lyrics of one of the defining songs of the pro-Palestine student protests sailed across the long, majestic hall of the cathedral, performed by the six-member band Liberated Zone. The musical group was formed at the Columbia demonstrations, named after what the protesters called the encampment.

“To those who gather their families to die together so that no survivor suffers survival alone, to those who scatter their families so that they’re not all wiped out from the civil record,” recited Palestinian-American poet and physician Fady Joudah, one of the speakers.

“I have read this poem so many times, and I have never broken down before,” he said shortly after. Many listeners wept, heads adorned with blue caps bowed, and students in blue regalia leaned on each other.

Vijay Iyer, a professor in the Department of Music at Harvard University, played a piece titled “The Kite.” It was an homage to Refaat Alareer, the 44-year-old Palestinian professor and poet who was killed by an Israeli strike in northern Gaza in December, and to his poem “If I Must Die.”

As they thought about Gaza, the graduating students gathered would soon hear directly from someone in the besieged region. Hind Khoudary, a young journalist, shared a video message for the students from Al-Aqsa Hospital. “I saw you protesting, risking your education and I totally appreciate every single person of you,” Khoudary said. “You gave us hope in a way we never imagined.”

An unconventional roll call honored students not by name or school, but by the kinds of collective care they had each given and received over the past several weeks.

“Stand up if you have fed someone,” Seales announced. “Stand up if you’ve been fed by somebody. Stand up if you have offered shelter to someone, if you’ve been sheltered by someone …” As she went on, the students all stood up, cheering and applauding.

“I’ve been inspired by young people from the beginning,” Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and Professor at Rutgers University, told Hyperallergic. “Students don’t have less to lose than other professionals in the world. Students are just willing to take greater risks.

Students who performed jail support and student journalists who bore witness to the protests and police actions were also celebrated. “You had begun reporting before a single tent was assembled,” said Mona Chalabi, an award-winning journalist who spoke at the ceremony. “You did the work, and you did it so well that journalists like me off campus turned to your words.” 

Yussre El Bardicy, an Egyptian-American graduating student from Columbia Business School who attended the counter commencement, described the event as “wholesome.”, “Especially after the last couple of weeks on campus, this felt like the right way to end it,” El Bardicy said.

“I don’t know if I would call this a counter commencement,” added Minhas Wasaya, another graduating Columbia student. “This was the commencement that we all deserved.”

The counter commencement also featured interfaith prayers by Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers. In her address, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, a Reconstructionist rabbi and professor emerita of Religion at Temple University, thanked the 2024 class. “You have sought justice for the people of Palestine, keeping the world’s attention on this terrifying war,” she said. “Know that your demand that these injustices end and that Israelis and Palestinians find a way to live together in peace, will make a difference.”

Reverend Herbert Daughtry, a Black church leader with a long history of activism, also praised the students’ resilience. “When you were threatened with suspension and other threats, your response was, “It is nothing compared to what the people of Gaza are suffering,” he said.

“You have already made world history, you started the encampment movement right here in New York City, in Harlem,” added Asad Dandia, who spoke as the Muslim representative.

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Yesterday’s ceremony is historically resonant in other ways. In 1968,  Columbia students protesting the Vietnam War also occupied Hamilton Hall, and university leadership similarly called in the NYPD. Weeks later, the university relocated the university commencement ceremony from its traditional venue at Low Plaza on campus to the Cathedral of St John the Divine; students organized a counter-commencement at Low Plaza in protest.

“We began planning the counter-commencement after the first wave of student arrests [on April 18],” said Manu Karuka, associate professor of American Studies at Columbia’s Barnard College.

“There were rumors of the student suspensions and that some of our students would not be allowed to participate in the official commencement,” he said. “And as faculty, we strongly felt that all of our students need to participate in a commencement.”

And participate they did. Indeed, the gathering was so lively that the Very Reverend Patrick Malloy, Dean of the Cathedral, remarked with a smile, “I wish people were this way on Sunday here.”


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