Students for Justice in Palestine organize commencement-day drive-by to show solidarity with Palestine

The demonstration created noise on campus during commencement day

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Saliha Bayrak / Daily Collegian

By Saliha Bayrak, Assistant News Editor

The University of Massachusetts Students for Justice in Palestine organized a drive-by demonstration on undergraduate commencement day on Friday to spread awareness of the recent violent attacks on Palestinians in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Starting early in the afternoon and continuing into the evening, demonstrators drove around campus and throughout downtown Amherst while waving Palestinian flags and drawing attention with honking, chanting “Free Palestine” and playing Palestinian music.

The cars in the demonstration had various statements written on them. One had “Gaza under attack, defend Palestine” on it while another wrote “3.8 billion dollars/year of U.S. tax dollars go towards aiding Israel’s settler colonialism.”

“We all think that [with] what is happening in Palestine right now, but also what has historically happened in Palestine, what would be illegal occupation of Palestine, it’s important for us to have people know about what is happening,” said Barkha Bhandari, a junior economics major who participated in the demonstration.

Lana Sabbah, a student at Smith College, is Palestinian and was among the demonstrators.

“My family are in Gaza right now and they are under attack. I just feel so helpless and I can’t do anything, like this is the first time a war is going on back home and I’m not there,” Sabbah said.

Although the demonstration only had a few participants, Sabbah was glad to see it be organized and find an opportunity to take action.

“Palestinians are so tired of educating people. It’s not our responsibility. And it just, it makes me, like, happy to see that some people are taking the initiative to do so and to start doing this,” Sabbah said.

Isabella Hann, a junior nutrition major who also participated in the demonstration, stated that the demonstration was a way of “breaking the silence here, so that people will realize their complicity in the genocide and the murders that are happening.”

The organizers believed this was a good time to hold the demonstration because the Amherst area would receive an influx of people for commencement day.

“Today, there’s a lot of people out and so it felt like a good day to tell people about this, if they don’t already know,” Bhandari said.

“[UMass] actively marginalizes Palestinian students on this campus, so on this day of celebration, it’s important to like, uplift Palestinian students and Palestinians all over the world,” said Adrienne Ashe, a junior sustainable food and farming major and a member of the UMass SJP.

The demonstrators also placed banners on the campus parking garage and campus center that read “Free Palestine, free Gaza, end the occupation” and “is UMass revolutionary until it comes to Palestine?” They hung in the backdrop as graduates took pictures in their caps and gowns.

One objective of the demonstration, according to Bhandari, was to “showcase how UMass is complicit in [the occupation], how the United States of America is complicit in [the occupation].”

“Their complicity of the occupation is material, but it’s also it’s also very on campus in their silence, in the statements that they pass very routinely that ostracize Palestinian students and students that are doing Palestinian solidarity work,” Bhandari added.

The demonstration also took place inside McGuirk Stadium during the 3 p.m. commencement. Two people held a banner that said “since classes ended, Israel murdered 100+ Palestinians.”

The demonstrators also stated that they were being treated unfairly by police on campus. Timmy Sullivan, an alumnus who also participated in the demonstration, stated that the group was being directed through traffic a different way than others arriving for the commencement, despite having a graduating senior among them, and had their license plates recorded.

“This is not the first time police selectively target students in solidarity with Palestine,”  Sullivan said. “I am not surprised, because we know this is what police do — discriminately target based on a politically constructed agenda. Solidarity with Palestine is criminalized in the United States and on campus.”

“Police said their concern with the student vehicles was that they were slowing traffic with no initial attempts to park, and at one point the vehicles came to a halt. Police became concerned the group might not move. At that point, license plates were called into the dispatch center. However, the group proceeded on and police took no action,” said Ed Blaguszewski, a University spokesperson.

Blaguszewski also emphasized that the University was committed to protecting free speech for all people.

“UMass Amherst is firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom, and that commitment certainly encompasses expressions of views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Blaguszewski said.

The group of demonstrators made a few stops throughout the day. While waiting in a parking lot by the McGuirk alumni stadium, the group chanted among themselves before continuing their drive around Amherst.

“We must love each other and support each other,” chanted the crowd together.

The protest comes after violence has intensified in Israel and Gaza. For the last few nights, Israel has bombarded Palestinian territories with heavy airstrikes and artillery. Palestine has suffered severe losses; 192 Palestinians have been killed, including 58 children, and hundreds more have been wounded. International media outlet centers and refugee camps were among the places destroyed by airstrikes.

In Israel, ten people have been killed, including two children, after Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that has control over the area of Gaza and the alleged target of Israel, fired rockets into the area.

The recent violent developments of the decades-long conflict began with Palestinian families facing eviction from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Eastern Jerusalem. Following an Israeli court’s ruling that the families must evacuate their homes by May of 2021 to be passed onto Israeli settlers, Palestinian’s began to protest while Israeli police doubled down.

Saliha Bayrak can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @salihabayrak_.