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As Commencement Looms, Garber and the Harvard Encampment Protesters Are Running Out of Time

The persistence of the pro-Palestine Harvard Yard encampment 10 days before Commencement means interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 can no longer wait for the demonstration to run its course.
The persistence of the pro-Palestine Harvard Yard encampment 10 days before Commencement means interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 can no longer wait for the demonstration to run its course. By Julian J. Giordano
By Emma H. Haidar and Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writers

The pro-Palestine protesters staging an encampment in Harvard Yard and interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 are at a standstill — and they are both running out of time to wait the other out.

Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine — the student coalition of pro-Palestine groups organizing the occupation — saw a significant dip in the number of protesters at the encampment over the weekend when most students lost access to dining halls and on-campus housing. And some of the encampment’s most active organizers were barred from campus when the University placed them on involuntary leaves of absence.

Meanwhile, Garber is just 10 days away from Commencement, Harvard’s annual University-wide graduation ceremony held in Harvard Yard, just steps away from the site of the encampment.

HOOP says it will not end the occupation until the University divests from Israel. Garber insists Harvard “will not entertain” divestment and that the encampment must end for Commencement to proceed as planned.

Both sides have also escalated their actions in recent days. Administrators placed 22 students on involuntary leave from their schools. A day later, protesters used bolt cutters to break a lock securing Harvard Yard’s Johnston Gate as 150 protesters rallied outside the gate.

Harvard University Police Department officers responded by photographing members of the encampment inside their tents Monday afternoon, the first time police have entered the encampment itself since it began and the clearest indication to date that a police response is likely.

HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano wrote in a statement that “several HUPD members walked in and around the encampment to monitor the situation.”

“Some pictures were taken documenting the activity and persons involved in the encampment,” he added. “None of these pictures will be posted publicly.”

For the last 20 days, pro-Palestine protesters have occupied the Yard in an attempt to pressure Harvard into divesting from Israel amid its brutal assault on Gaza. While the University has not yet deployed police to remove the encampment, and Garber himself insisted there was a “high bar” for doing so, it is increasingly unclear how else administrators could clear the encampment without negotiating with HOOP.

A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment on the University’s next steps.

Though Harvard has employed a range of disciplinary and administrative actions, they have not attempted to physically remove the encampment itself. But as graduation ceremonies rapidly approach, administrators have learned that their strategy comes with a time limit.

While the disciplinary actions have outraged many faculty, HOOP has repeatedly stated that they plan to remain in the yard until Harvard meets their demands.

In an 11th-hour pseudo-negotiation between Garber and the encampment members, he offered HOOP “a conversation about endowment-related questions” if the encampment was taken down.

HOOP countered with modified demands that sought the establishment of a public records request model for investment information, a phase out of direct investments in “illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories,” a dedicated center for Palestinian studies, and a commitment to decline gifts from donors involved in Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

HOOP claimed its counterproposal “represented a compromise.” Garber said the counterproposal amounted to a rejection of the initial off-ramp he offered protesters to end the encampment.

HOOP’s persistence likely ended any hope from within the University of simply waiting for the protest to run its course. Still, it is unclear whether Garber is willing to let the encampment derail Harvard’s Commencement, despite specifically invoking the possibility in a May 6 email to affiliates.

“The members of the Class of 2024 deserve to enjoy this milestone uninterrupted and unimpeded,” Garber wrote.

“It would be especially painful if students who graduated from high school or college during the pandemic were denied a full graduation ceremony for a second time,” he added.

Especially after the damaging effects of the fall semester on fundraising and confidence in University leadership, Commencement is likely a greater priority this year to project confidence to donors and alumni.

Directly following Commencement, Harvard will also host thousands of alumni for reunions in the Yard – events that have taken on increased importance as the University attempts to repair ties with alumni frustrated with Harvard’s initial response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and broader concerns of antisemitism on campus.

It appears Garber would not want to follow in Columbia University’s footsteps by canceling the main Commencement ceremony, and would instead prefer to remove the encampment by force.

And because the encampment remains on private University property without permission, Harvard could charge the protesters with trespassing, a claim that is bolstered by the fact that students on involuntary leave are violating the terms of their leave by remaining on campus property.

Despite widespread backlash, at least 64 other colleges and universities across the country have asked local authorities to arrest or detain student protesters.

HOOP has made it clear they only leave the encampment with their demands met or if escorted by police.

“Harvard won’t negotiate; we don’t care we’re here to stay,” HOOP wrote in an Instragram post.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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