Pro-Palestinian protesters shut down Amherst College Alumni Weekend keystone

A screenshot from a video of the disruption of an Alumni Weekend event at the Johnson Chapel Saturday morning shows protesters on stage with Palestinian flags, their identities obscured.

A screenshot from a video of the disruption of an Alumni Weekend event at the Johnson Chapel Saturday morning shows protesters on stage with Palestinian flags, their identities obscured. SCREENSHOT

A screenshot from a video of the disruption of an Alumni Weekend event at the Johnson Chapel Saturday morning shows protesters on stage with Palestinian flags, their identities obscured.

A screenshot from a video of the disruption of an Alumni Weekend event at the Johnson Chapel Saturday morning shows protesters on stage with Palestinian flags, their identities obscured. SCREENSHOT

A screenshot from a video of the disruption of an Alumni Weekend event at the Johnson Chapel Saturday morning shows Amherst College President Michael A. Elliot in the foreground and protesters on stage with Palestinian flags, their identities obscured.

A screenshot from a video of the disruption of an Alumni Weekend event at the Johnson Chapel Saturday morning shows Amherst College President Michael A. Elliot in the foreground and protesters on stage with Palestinian flags, their identities obscured. SCREENSHOT

MICHAEL A. ELLIOTT

MICHAEL A. ELLIOTT

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-06-2024 7:34 PM

AMHERST — Alumni Weekend at Amherst College, typically a celebratory occasion for members of classes marking milestone anniversaries, featured two pro-Palestinian demonstrations, including one that shut down the annual Conversation with the President at Johnson Chapel on Saturday morning.

With hundreds of people gathered on campus for the traditional reunions a week after the college’s commencement, with large tents set up outside dormitories and residence halls, protesters disrupted a signature event meeting of the Alumni Council & Society of Alumni. That event was have included a vote on placing $10 million into the Amherst Fund, along with a conversation between President Michael A. Elliott and Chantal Kordula, who serves on the board of trustees.

The protesters calling for divestment from corporations that support Israel caused the program to end prematurely when people took the stage and chanted “disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest” and held a sign and a Palestinian flag.

On Monday afternoon, Elliott sent an email to students, faculty and staff about what happened.

“After they refused multiple requests to cease their activity and engage in dialogue, we determined that the safest course of action was an immediate end the event,” Elliott wrote. “The protest then proceeded to other places on campus before finally dispersing.”

Elliott noted that freedom of expression is fundamental to the college’s academic mission and that preventing an open forum from going forward restricted the exchange of ideas.

“We are still determining who was involved, including individuals without an affiliation to the college,” Elliott wrote. “We will take appropriate steps to address any violations of our policies.”

The protest had support from Amherst College Alumni for Palestine, which has also created the Amherst Alumni Divestment Sign-on Letter, a petition calling on the college to divest its endowment from companies “perpetrating and enabling Israel’s ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people and occupation of Palestinian lands.”

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“President Elliott and trustees, in recent months you have demonstrated what many of us as alumni already understood from our time on campus: Amherst College’s leadership cannot be swayed by cogent arguments and heartfelt moral appeals. Amherst College’s leadership can be swayed only by threats to your institution’s image and bottom line.”

The group contends that the college’s support of weapons manufacturers and military contractors, like Boeing and General Motors, helps enable Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

The Association of Amherst Students, the college’s student government, passed a resolution earlier this year “to divest from multinational companies that facilitate Israel’s occupations and blockades of Occupied Palestinian Territories, unlawful settlements in the West Bank, and systemic displacement and widespread violence against Palestinians.”

A divestment appeal by the Amherst College Faculty & Staff for Justice in Palestine also won the support of nearly two-thirds of faculty voting at a special faculty meeting.

Video provided by Amherst College Alumni for Palestine shows the encounter at Johnson Chapel and, while not taking credit, praises it.

Elliott letter to alumni

On Saturday afternoon, Elliott sent a letter to alumni calling the protest an “unfortunate episode” in part because it prevented him from talking about life on campus and from hearing perspectives and answering questions. He also cited discrimination and harassment as never acceptable and said officials will investigate what happened and whether further action is appropriate.

After the demonstration at Johnson Chapel, those involved then went to the Valentine Quad, where an alumni luncheon was happening, and continued chanting for divestment and publicizing the petition.

On Sunday, Amherst College Alumni for Palestine issued statements on behalf of some of those who returned for the reunion and supported or participated, including Crysta Song, on campus for a 10th anniversary.

“Alumni are a core part of the Amherst College community, and the college needs our support and donations to function,” Song said. “We organized this action to demonstrate that we will not support a college whose endowment is stained with Palestinian blood.”

“The board claims that it is still considering divestment despite overwhelming agreement from students and faculty that divestment is possible, since it has precedent, and morally imperative,” said Kelley Baumann, a member of the class of 2019. “As an alumna, it was important for me to participate in this action and we sent a clear message to the board and administration that they must commit to divestment immediately.”

“Student groups representing Amherst College students from a wide array of backgrounds and experiences are all in favor of divestment, including Amherst Jews for Ceasefire, the Muslim Student Association, the Black Student Union, and the African & Caribbean Students’ Union,” said William Ruhm, class of 2014. “The board and administration must act now to join the wider community on the right side of history by divesting from genocide.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.