Tuesday, April 7

Protesters at UC Irvine were ineffective, but not criminal

Despite nonviolent actions, grand jury convened for eleven students charged with disrupting speech

From decrying the Vietnam War to condemning the recent fee hikes, protesting has been a vital part of the University of California.

Too bad it’s now considered criminal activity.

Eleven students at UC Irvine are facing misdemeanor counts of conspiracy and disrupting a meeting, fines and up to six months in jail for disrupting Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech last year. According to the Orange County district attorney, the case was filed because it was an “organized attempt to squelch the speaker.” A grand jury was even convened to investigate the matter, something usually reserved for felony charges.

Although arrests frequently take place at college protests, charges have never escalated to this scale.

Maybe I’m interpreting the Constitution too liberally, but since when is organized protest considered a conspiracy? Were the organized protests against the fee hikes, which delayed the UC Board of Regents’ meeting, also a conspiracy?

It seems that university officials and law enforcement have not been consistent in their sanctions ““ pro-Palestinian speaker Hedy Epstein was not only disrupted, but called a “self-hating Jew” by a woman who was led off the premises. But that woman didn’t have to deal with any policemen, said Hamza Siddiqui, a fourth-year political science student and Muslim Student Union communications coordinator.

During Oren’s speech ““ of which I have only watched YouTube videos ““ students took turns standing up and shouting phrases such as “propagating murder is not an expression of free speech” and “Israel is guilty of 101 war crimes.”

As far as protests go, I’d call this mild, and, given the terse relationship Israel has with a number of countries in the Middle East, expected. Oren was even able to finish his speech.

Dozens of students brought a former congressman’s speech against illegal immigration to a halt at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

These protesters broke a window, yet the students did not face any criminal charges.

I’m not endorsing the students’ behaviors. Although it made a statement, it wasn’t effective in producing dialogue between two opposing parties and has further antagonized Muslims.

But the sad ““ and frightening ““ reality is that there is no precedence for the charges the students are currently facing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said in a statement that it does not know of any case in which a district attorney prosecuted nonviolent student protesters with criminal charges.

One can only wonder why these students have been targeted, but all signs point to minority discrimination, especially given that the entire Muslim Student Union at UCI was suspended for a quarter ““ a punishment previously used only for groups engaged in hazing or alcohol abuse ““ and is on probation for two years. These disciplinary actions imply that the union is as dangerous as groups which could have killed students, a preposterous suggestion, to say the least.

The group must also complete 100 hours of community service, which should be easy, since one of the basic tenets of the group is to serve the community.

Siddiqui says it isn’t the campus climate that is unfriendly to Muslims, but the Orange County community, which is “very hostile” and known for its conservatism.

The district attorney’s charges against the students are misguided at best and racist at worst. The university should intervene on behalf of the students, who are worried about the impact of the charges on their futures. This, however, is unlikely, since the reaction from administrators (including the chancellor) at Oren’s speech was one of deep embarrassment. One administrator even repeatedly shouted, “Shame on you!” as the protesters walked out.

Instead of being embarrassed about what happened, administrators should understand that these students risked their reputations to take a stand against what they feel is deep-seated injustice.

Instead of punishing the Muslim Student Union, a move which is just begging for increased tension and backlash, the university should engage in conversation with group members to better understand the issues they face, resolve conflict and move forward.

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