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Graduating students in gowns at Black Lives Matter protests
Adedotun AdeyemoVia Instagram @legendbybirth

Why students are wearing their graduation gowns to BLM protests

After losing their end-of-year ceremonies due to the coronavirus, the class of 2020 are marking two monumental occasions in one

In the middle of a road in New Jersey, with protesters marching all around him, Adedotun Adeyemo stands stoic. He’s dressed in a red graduation gown and cap, looking directly into the camera with his left hand raised into a fist in the air, and he’s posing for a photo that will forever mark two historical moments in his life.

The class of 2020 has had a turbulent year. Not only were their end-of-year exams and celebrations cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but their planned graduation dates have aligned with the biggest civil uprising in the US in over half a century.

Demonstrators across all 50 states have been on the streets for 13 consecutive nights, protesting against police brutality and systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement two weeks ago (May 25). Protests have since spread across the world, with activists in London, Berlin, Sydney, and more, marching for equality. 

For graduates, these are the biggest demonstrations they’ve seen in their lifetime. By wearing graduation gowns to the protests, students are reminding the police, government, and public of their power, resilience, and – most importantly – of the importance of their futures.

“I had to wear the cap and gown,” Adeyemo tells Dazed, “because the media isn’t showing all traits of Black excellence on the news. We need people to represent: the doctors, celebrities, citizens, kids, teens, graduates. Everyone. We need it for the culture.”

Adeyemo was disappointed and annoyed when the pandemic forced the closure of schools and universities, “because four years of hard work and no celebration”, but was determined to take it in his stride and “keep moving”. 

And Adeyemo isn’t alone. In another image taken by photographer Nathan Aguirre, 17-year-old Deveonte Joseph poses in his blue graduation gown and cap on a street corner in St. Paul, Minnesota, as red lights and police riot vans light up the background.

“I was devastated once I got the news about not being able to graduate the way every other class did,” Joseph tells Dazed. “I decided to go (to the protests in my gown) because I simply want to spread positivity. The protests mean a lot to me – I hope one day we settle this and rise and shine as a bright country.”

22-year-old Louis Michael, who’s graduating from university in Kansas, was captured protesting in San Francisco, by photographer Sarahbeth Maney, with a Black Lives Matter t-shirt visible under his graduation gown. Speaking to Dazed, Michael says he was especially disappointed that his end-of-year celebrations were cancelled because he’s the first in his family to graduate from college.

“I decided to wear my cap and gown to the protest because I wanted to make a statement,” he explains. “I also carried a sign that read: ‘Young, black, college grad. Which part is threatening?’ The system that has oppressed our people for so long does not want black men to graduate college – it has been made to keep us from living the ‘American Dream’.” Since his photo went viral, Michael has set up a GoFundMe in the hopes of raising money for grad school, where he aspires to become a clinical mental health counsellor.

Photographer David Guttenfelder captured three students in red graduation gowns – Datelle Straub, Avery Lewis, and Titan Harness-Reed – in Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was killed. In a quote accompanying his photo on Instagram, 18-year-old Straub said: “Because of COVID we couldn’t walk the stage, so we decided to put our robes on to show that there is black excellence in our community. We walked the streets as our stage and protested.” As police approached the group, Straub held up his diploma, telling Guttenfelder: “It’s just frustrating that they are OK with killing the future.”

Also in Minneapolis, 17-year-old Rachel Garrison commemorated her graduation, holding a sign that read: “No justice, no peace. Class of 2020.” In a photo shared on Twitter, Garrison can be seen posing outside of the Minnehaha Liquors store, which was burned down during protests.

For graduating students entering a new chapter in their lives, the protests also mark a seismic shift. “The protests are something that shows a voice that’s too overlooked in society,” Adeyemo continues. “We desperately need change. We have too many people for their own gain in this country. When you combine people not having anywhere to go with the sad deaths of black people, passion is going to come out. I’m glad people are trying to look at more than themselves – that’s how we progress.”

“George Floyd was not the first case to show the true colours of the people behind those badges that should be protecting us,” concludes Michael. “This was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. When I have kids one day, I want to be able to tell them that during this time, I was not silent. I spoke up, and I took action. I’ve helped in planning three peaceful protests so far, and I plan on continuing in this fight until we get true change.”