Saturday’s commencement ceremony at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill could come with disruptions as the Students for Justice Palestine (SJP) group plans to demonstrate on campus to “take back the university.” 

The group is promoting “The People’s Graduation Ceremony,” in which they plan to gather to defend suspended students and community members arrested as a result of violating University policies during recent pro-Palestine campus demonstrations. 

“Amnesty for our students is tied to the steadfast struggle against the genocide in Palestine and we invite you to join us in taking back the university together,” the group posted to social media. 

Protestors plan to gather on campus beginning at 11 am, while the main commencement ceremony is scheduled to start at 7 pm.

SJP is also calling on keynote speaker Zena Cardman to opt out of her commencement speech. In a document, they provide drafted message templates for students to use to contact Cardman and ask her to cancel her appearance. Cardman, a NASA astronaut who received her BA and MS from UNC, has been planning to speak at the graduation since February.

The templates ask that she consider canceling her commencement speech as a show of solidarity with the students and in support of free speech. The activists argue that police enforcement of laws and campus assembly policies – and suspensions or arrests of those explicitly violating those policies – represented a stifling of the protestors’ “free speech.”

“Let’s make it abundantly clear that THE STUDENTS HAVE THE POWER HERE,” a draft states. “UNC is silencing and assaulting its students for practicing free speech and peacefully protesting. Please cancel your commencement speech in protest of UNC’s actions.”

While respecting the rights of peaceful protestors, UNC noted in a statement ahead of the graduation ceremony that school policies prohibit significant disruption of University operations. The notice said a range of possible disciplinary actions are available for those who substantially interfere with another person’s protected free speech rights. 

“This includes protests that limit the ability of others to hear a speaker,” the University stated. “We expect all campus community members to comply, and those who do not will be subject to arrest.”

A new policy requires graduates to present their UNC One Card to enter the seating area in Kenan Stadium. Non-student activists have made up large portions of previous disruptive protests, according to arrest records.

Not only is SJP encouraging attendees to bring head coverings, but it also says to wear ‘bloc,’ a tactic used in protests to conceal one’s identity by wearing all black, masks, scarves, and other clothing to hide behind. 

In a related story, the North Carolina General Assembly could soon take action on House Bill 237, which would enhance a defendant’s sentence if they are convicted of committing a misdemeanor or felony while wearing a mask, hood, or other clothing or device to conceal or attempt to conceal the defendant’s identity. It passed the House last year and is waiting for action in the Senate. Similar anti-mask laws were in place prior to COVID-era policy adjustments.

Who is behind it?

While many may wonder who is truly behind the organized, pro-Palestine student protests taking place on campuses nationwide, the leadership is more clear at the local level. Elyse Crystall of Durham, North Carolina, is the UNC faculty sponsor of Students for Justice Palestine. A teaching associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, Crystall has a long history of working against Israel with far-left groups funded through George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the Rockefellers Brothers Fund.  

“Elyse Crystall is an anti-Israel activist who has promoted campus anti-Israel activism, supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and demonized Israel,” says Canary Mission, an organization that documents individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the US, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses and beyond. 

As the faculty sponsor, she’s a key leader behind the pro-Palestinian displays currently taking place on campus. Crystall has been involved in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. The movement’s founder, Omar Barghouti, has explicitly stated (05:53) that the goal of BDS is to end the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

revoking finacnial aid

At the federal level, North Carolina’s US Sen. Thom Tillis introduced legislation on Thursday in direct response to the “unlawful antisemitic, pro-Hamas encampments and riots that have taken place across the nation, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” The bill would revoke federal student financial assistance for students who are convicted of trespassing, rioting, or damaging property while protesting at a higher education institution. Students convicted would lose their eligibility for any federal grant, loan, or work assistance.

When pro-Palestine demonstrations in Chapel Hill recently turned forceful, Carolina Journal conducted polling to gauge public sentiment regarding the protestors’ cause and actions. The data shows 40% of North Carolinians neither support the cause nor the actions of the protestors at UNC. Just 13% support the cause and their actions, and one-third support the cause but believe protestors should be charged with a crime when they break the law. 

“When people are saying they support the cause, are they really supporting the anti-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-Hamas cause, or are they really just supporting students being able to get out there and protest and hold signs, and chant,” questioned John Locke Foundation senior policy analyst Mitch Kokai during a Thursday episode of The Debrief. “Some of those folks I think are in that.”