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[Rappler’s Best] Welcome to the battlefield

Glenda M. Gloria

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[Rappler’s Best] Welcome to the battlefield

NOBEL LAUREATE. Rappler CEO Maria Ressa delivers a speech during the commencement exercises of Harvard University on May 23, 2024.

Jaemark Tordecilla

'The fiery speeches that were preceded by a walkout and chants of 'let them walk, let them walk,' were an impressive show of protest organizing skills. As a former campus activist myself, I couldn’t help but watch in awe.'

America’s top universities have been on fire over the war in Gaza, and we witnessed this first-hand on Thursday, May 23, at Harvard University, where Maria Ressa was commencement speaker. 

The skies threatened to rain that overcast morning as we drove past Harvard’s gates, where protesters lined up with their banners while graduates – glee evident in their strides – walked in their togas along with families and friends. Harvard has been through a rough patch. In January, its first black president, Claudine Gay, was forced to step down after allegations of plagiarism and in the wake of a congressional testimony where she displeased lawmakers with her failure to categorically state that calls for genocide of Jews on campus violated university policy.

It was Gay who had invited Maria to be this year’s commencement speaker. And when the Nobel Peace Prize laureate acknowledged this at the start of her speech, the graduates showed respect through a vigorous applause.

For a while, it did seem like the Yard would not be ready for the graduation rites. Pro-Palestinian students had set up tents inside, similar to the other student encampments in the US’ most elite schools. Successful negotiations between university officials and protest leaders yielded an agreement on May 14 to pull out the tents and for the administration to give due consideration to the protest leaders. However, Harvard’s College Administrative Board later issued an order that prevented 13 students from graduating, triggering hurt and claims of betrayal from hundreds of students and faculty. 

And so the die was cast. We went to the commencement grounds prepared for what we would see as the morning unfolded: the booing of Harvard’s interim president, a walkout by hundreds of students, and the chanting of slogans. The timing of the walkout was similar to what happened at Yale on May 20, when scores of graduates walked out of the commencement exercise as the university president started the college-by-college presentation of candidates for degrees (before the commencement address). 

The scene was too surreal for me (watch the entire ceremony here). 

Harvard is no stranger to protests, albeit not at this scale. In September 2017, just a month after arriving at Harvard for my Nieman fellowship, hundreds of university professors, students, and staff marched at the gates to denounce the Trump administration’s decision at the time to end an amnesty that protects young immigrants in the US. Boston police arrested the protest leaders. The fractures have been there – and deep. We wrote a story about the 2017 Harvard protests here.

As is the tradition in Harvard graduations, a representative from the college and graduate departments each gave a speech. Shruti Kumar, who made the senior English address, spoke with flair and fire, as she talked about being the eldest daughter of South Asian immigrants and the first in her family to make it to college, and how the “power of not knowing” shaped her formative years.

It was a smooth buildup to what came next, when she acknowledged the 13 seniors who were refused diplomas due to their involvement in the protests and blasted the university for its “intolerance for freedom of speech” and the right to “civil disobedience on campus.” She asked, passionately, “Over 1,500 students have petitioned [for the 13 seniors] and more than 500 have spoken. The students have spoken. The faculty have spoken. Harvard, do you hear us? Garber [Harvard interim president], do you hear us?”

The students cheered. The same message was carried by Robert Clinton IV, who made the graduate English address and who lamented “losing our right to free speech.” In a soothing baritone voice, he called for a ceasefire in Gaza – to thundering applause and from the students. (I checked to see if Harvard Magazine published the full text of both speeches, and it did. But the edited texts did not contain references to Gaza and the 13 seniors.)

The fiery speeches that were preceded by a walkout and chants of “let them walk, let them walk,” were an impressive show of protest organizing skills. As a former campus activist myself, I couldn’t help but watch in awe.

“Harvard,” quipped a smiling Maria when it was her turn to give the address, “you’re giving me a heart attack!” She praised the “incredible” speeches of the students. 

The thousands of students who stayed behind listened, laughed, applauded, and stood in ovation as the Rappler CEO railed against the impunity of big tech, governments, and companies; called on the US government to reform or revoke section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act; challenged the graduates to “fight for democracy right now” or there would be “little left for you to lead;” and asked them to have “the courage, the foresight to imagine – and create the world as it should be.” 

Read the full text of Maria’s speech here

  • Faculty who later approached Maria thanked her for a speech that, to one professor, had a “calming effect.” It touched all the right buttons, said a university official, because, while it said that protests “shouldn’t be silenced,” it also spelled out the need for both sides to lower their shields and “be vulnerable” so that they could craft a path forward away from the algorithms of hate.
  • A Filipino living in the US who watched Maria on the livestream said the address hit her in a “visceral manner” because as someone who has been a victim of cancel culture herself, she got reminded of the evils online, which at the same time, got her worried for Maria. She was telling it like it is with such courage, she said, that “I was at the same time afraid for her, that she again would be attacked for saying all these things after.”
  • Well, it didn’t take long. Reactions to Maria’s address reflected extreme sides of the spectrum: they called her anti-semitic on the one hand and, on the other hand, chastised her for supposedly not condemning the genocide in Gaza. Which just proves her point that technology has made “everything faster, meaner, more polarized.”
  • In a post on X, Maria said: “I hope that when people step away from anger & fear, they will understand the key message: the world is on fire. We all have a responsibility to make our voices heard, to listen, to defend democratic norms and principles, and to strive for a better world.”

Welcome to the battlefield. – Rappler.com

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Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria co-founded Rappler in July 2011 and is currently its executive editor.