Dystopian View of VCU’s Graduation Walkout


The Greater Richmond Convention Center has undoubtedly experienced more prosperous times. The recent walkout by Virginia Commonwealth University graduates highlighted a series of declining events in Richmond, marked by police confrontations during protests and the Governor’s contentious measures on education.

Before entering the building, a sign warned that wearing masks to conceal identity was prohibited, and non-compliance would result in arrest. Friends and families of the graduates, numbering in the thousands, had to pass through metal detectors. The theme of security theater persisted throughout my time at the convention center.

When I made my way to the linoleum convention floor, I heard a stern warning announcement and saw it displayed on a screen that disruptions would not be tolerated. I went to buy a five-dollar sports drink from the concession stand and was not allowed to have a bottle cap for security reasons. For the custodial staff, I’m sorry for spilling my blue sports drink. A water bottle is perceived as the most dangerous weapon on campus by law enforcement after water bottles were thrown at police as they raided a protest less than two weeks before.

Dystopian View of VCU's Graduation Walkout_Goad Gatsby_RVA Magazine 2024
Sign declaring that bottle tops will be removed at Greater Richmond Convention Center on May 11, 2024.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin served as the commencement speaker. Before the campus raid, Youngkin declared that he would not permit encampments on Virginia campuses. Subsequently, VCU Police, Richmond Police Department, and Virginia State Police dispersed a protest and arrested 13 individuals for trespassing and unlawful assembly for allegedly violating school regulations.

These strict stance against unlawful protests are inconsistent. Youngkin said the state should stop enforcing COVID-19 violations after law enforcement raided the restaurant of Republican State Senate candidate Matt Strickland. Last September, Youngkin issued an absolute pardon to Scott Smith who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct during a Loudoun County School Board meeting in 2021. 

“WHEREAS, upon careful deliberation and review of the circumstances of the matter, I have decided it is just and appropriate to grant this ABSOLUTE PARDON, which reflects Scott Thomas Smith’s factual innocence of Disorderly Conduct, for which he was convicted on August 17, 2021.”

Selective enforcement is crucial to the application of rules and regulations. The leniency granted to Republican politicians is unlikely to be extended to those arrested for protesting Virginia Commonwealth University’s ties to Israel as it slaughters civilians.

Dystopian View of VCU's Graduation Walkout_Goad Gatsby_RVA Magazine 2024
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (center, tall) stands before VCU graduates, May 11, 2024.

Governor Youngkin was introduced by VCU’s President Michael Rao but was mistakenly referred to as President Ryan, confusing him with University of Virginia President Jim Ryan. Additionally, that campus is grappling with the repercussions of the Virginia State Police’s forceful dispersal of another encampment.

Governor Youngkin was not greeted with a roar of jeers and boos. Instead, during the graduation ceremony, some students chose to walk out approximately 15 minutes after it began, when Youngkin started his speech. The majority simply headed straight for the exit, while a few displayed signs or waved keffiyehs. A few audience members applauded as these students exited. Of the approximately 4,700 VCU graduates eligible to participate in the commencement, only 1,200 attended, with about 200 choosing to walk out.

The students exited the convention center, passing signs on the doors indicating that reentry was prohibited. However, the display of security measures extended beyond the center, as across the street lay the old Richmond Coliseum site. Amidst the decaying structure, the new graduates saw a line of Richmond Police officers stationed beside their vehicles.

Dystopian View of VCU's Graduation Walkout_Goad Gatsby_RVA Magazine 2024
Richmond Police officers standing outside of the Richmond Coliseum, May 11, 2024.

The recent graduates of VCU did not merely linger in front of the convention center. As a procession of protesters appeared, the class of 2024 joined in, adorned in their caps and gowns. They proceeded to Abner Clay Park, distancing themselves from the watchful eyes of law enforcement, to conduct their own commencement ceremony.

Upon arriving at the park, the graduates received a megaphone to pass around. One member of the class of 2024, Siatta Kaba from the Department of African American Studies—a department that she says rose up as a result of protests—spoke to the crowd, saying, “The reason I walked out today is because I find it very hypocritical that a university that puts us through 4 years of education tries to suppress our freedom of speech on a regular basis.”

Opposition from Youngkin towards African American studies predate his time in office. From running on a platform against Critical Race Theory, to his opposition for Diversity Equity and Inclusion and examining and revising education content. On the week before the graduation ceremony, VCU’s NAACP chapter sent a request to the VCU Board of Visitors to rescind the invitation to Youngkin. 

ed. note: Read more Unpacking VCU’s Decision to Reject Racial Literacy in Curriculum

Progress that had been fought for can be quickly removed. On Saturday, Kaba spoke into her megaphone, “I find it interesting how we literally come to these universities with these politics and the universities will prop us up and use it for representation on their own behalf. But the moment we start to speak out about the things we believe in, we’re repressed.” She took off her cap and gown and began her life as a college graduate.

Dystopian View of VCU's Graduation Walkout_Goad Gatsby_RVA Magazine 2024
Siatta Kaba speaking at Abner Clay Park. May 11, 2024.

After the ceremony, the University put out a bland press release saying that Youngkin told the class of 2024 that “the world needs your music.” Ignoring that most graduates did not attend the ceremony and that many walked out. VCU Board of Visitors member Rooz Dababhoy took to Twitter to trash students that walked out. “Who cares? If they’re too close-minded to listen to people they disagree with, they’ve learned nothing the last four years.” She posted, perhaps with zero awareness on why those students walked out.

Goad Gatsby

Goad Gatsby

A journalist from Richmond and contributor on Open Source RVA on WRIR 97.3FM.

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