Featured photo: A group of protesters including Guilford College students, faculty and activists held signs outside of the school gym after the college’s graduation commencement ceremony on May 18. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

As hundreds of students, faculty, staff and family members walked out of Guilford College’s Ragan Brown Field House on the morning of May 18, a small group of protesters stood in the parking lot holding signs in support of Palestine. Among the group were two graduates of the class of 2024 who were not allowed to walk during the commencement ceremony that had taken place just an hour before due to their involvement in the planned protest.

“We knew there was a strong possibility that they wouldn’t let us walk for participating in the action,” said graduate Matthew Howard, who dual majored in history and peace and conflict studies.

A group of protesters including Guliford College students, faculty and activists held signs outside of the school gym after the college’s graduation commencement ceremony on May 18. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Howard and Dasia Washington wore recognizable white and black scarves, or keffiyehs, that are worn as headdresses in Middle Eastern countries. The cloths have become a symbol of those who oppose the ongoing military action by the Israeli government that has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza.

“I can’t say I’m surprised at all,” said Washington, a psychology major with a minor in criminal justice. “I knew this was going to happen, but I’m at peace. And I’m glad that we showed people that there’s something more that you can do, that being silent is not our only option.”

Earlier, about an hour into the commencement ceremony, Howard, Washington and about 10 other people interrupted speaker Wendy Poteat to call justice for Palestine. The group walked up to the stage where they held a sign that said, “There are no universities left in Gaza,” along with posters with images of the dead bodies of Palestinians before they proceeded around the perimeter of the gym and walked out.

During the procession, a few students started a chant that was joined in by others sitting in the building.

“Palestine will be free!”

The action was not met with any resistance by administrators or security and Poteat continued her speech after the demonstrators had exited the building. She also lauded them for their actions.

Only a few shouts from the audience were made in protest to the action.

According to both Washington and Howard, the two were not allowed back into the building after they left and were told by Ted Johnson, the school’s public safety director, that if they tried to re-enter, that the school would have to call the Greensboro Police Department.

A group of protesters including Guliford College students, faculty and activists interrupted graduation commencement ceremony on May 18 to protest for Palestine. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

“We found out about it when we got to the end of the student section of seating when the dean of students walked up to us and ushered us outside and then told [public safety] subsequently that we would not be allowed back in,” Washington said.

That means that the students didn’t know that they would be barred from walking if they participated in the protest.

A group of protesters including Guliford College students, faculty and activists held signs outside of the school gym after the college’s graduation commencement ceremony on May 18. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Washington said that she wasn’t surprised that they were kept from walking because she said that she’s been targeted for her protest actions in the past.

For the last few months, Washington worked as the research assistant to College President Kyle Farmbry. A quick search on the college’s website shows Washington listed as “Administrative Assistant of Research.” However, Washington said that recently, her position was “terminated” because she was told that the “president couldn’t have the image of pro-Palestinian sentiment close to his office because of how intertwined the president’s office image is with the image of the institution.”

Kyle Farmbry has been Guilford College’s president since January 2022. (photo from Guilford College’s website)

Washington said that she had been in the role for about a month or two but that she had been closely working with Farmbry for two years previously and had been personally asked to “stick around to continue working with him” after graduation.

“He said that he would create a new position for me in his office,” Washington said.

Now, those prospects are unclear for Washington. But she has no regrets, she said.

“You just have to be willing to accept the consequences it takes to achieve all of our freedom,” Washington said.

Similarly, Howard also expressed no regrets.

“Not being able to walk is certainly unfortunate,” he said. “But it’s certainly also worth it. I know my family is super disappointed, but there’s also a genocide going on. So that’s certainly more important.”

Ty Buckner, the vice president of communications and market for Guilford College declined to comment as to why the two students were kept from walking after the protest. On the issue concerning the termination of Washington’s position, Buckner said that per college policy, they don’t comment on personnel-related issues.

A graduating student holds up a keffiyeh during the Guilford College commencement ceremony. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

After all of the students had walked and speakers congratulated the graduates on their completion of their degrees, a handful of faculty members raised their fists in solidarity with Palestine during the singing of the alma mater.

The actions of both the students and faculty at Guilford College on Saturday morning are in line with actions taken by others at numerous other higher education institutions across the United States.

In North Carolina, students at Duke University walked out during Jerry Seinfeld’s commencement speech on May 12. Seinfeld, who has been publicly supportive of Jews in the US and of Israel in recent weeks, had been there to deliver a speech and receive an honorary degree.

And in the weeks leading up to many campus commencement ceremonies, students at numerous institutions — including at UNC Chapel-Hill and Wake Forest University — launched protests including encampments that went on for days. Many were met with reaction from armed police officers and groups of anti-protesters.

A view of the pro-Palestinian encampment on Manchester Plaza at Wake Forest University on May 2. (photo by Gale Melcher)

In a statement posted to the newly formed AAUP Guilford Chapter’s Facebook page, members of Guilford College’s faculty stated that they were calling for administration to “take a stand against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and to support [its] students.”

“Guilford College students and alumni have been organizing in response to the genocide in Palestine since October, 2023,” the statement reads. “On several occasions, students and alumni who are part of this collective have had one-on-one conversations with senior administrators requesting a response, statement, or community forum regarding the multiple global genocides, especially the ethnic cleansing in Palestine. Given the College’s close and special relationship with Palestine, the Ramallah Friends School on the West Bank, and current Guilford Palestinian students, we are deeply troubled by the lack of response from administration. 

“This lack of positive action by the administration has contributed to an environment where students, staff, and faculty feel unsafe and silenced,” the post continues. “This disregard for students’ request for an ethical response and for the unique humanitarian Quaker mission of the College is unacceptable.”

According to the post, the group is demanding the college administrators make a public statement taking a stand against Israel’s actions, formally apologize to Palestinian students and alumni and meet with students to support them.

A graduating student wears a keffiyeh at the Guilford College commencement ceremony. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

As a Quaker institution that was established in 1837, Guilford College has been well-known in the community for its social justice principles. The woods on campus once served as a meeting point on the Underground Railroad and the college offers majors like Peace and Conflict Studies. It is the only Quaker-founded college in the southeastern US, according to the institution’s website.

In 2020, the college faced a crisis in which numerous faculty members, including Director of the Bonner Scholars program James Shields, were laid off and several programs were cut. In 2021, the college paused layoff plans and began fundraising efforts that helped to stabilize the institution, according to reporting by the News & Record.

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