Why the Irvine 11 are true American heroes

26 September 2011

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The guilty verdicts in the Irvine 11 trial may chill campus activism.

(ZUMA Press/Newscom)

For centuries, the philosophy behind higher education has encouraged both students and professors to freely exchange ideas and embark on a quest for truth and a better understanding of the world. Historically, movements which have brought about greater social justice have been grounded in college campuses. Protesting the speeches of Israeli diplomats and political leaders like Michael Oren and Ehud Olmert serve as two more additions to America’s rich history of campus protest.

This philosophy, however, seems to be withering away in American universities, where a student’s ability to express herself or himself, and a professor’s right to academic freedom, have at times been ferociously attacked.

This is exemplified most clearly with regard to speech and expression about Palestine, whether it be professors and students facing backlash for speaking on the displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians during the Nakba (the wave of ethnic cleansing ahead of Israel’s foundation in the late 1940s); universities and other fora refusing to host conferences or events centered around Palestine, due to pressure from Zionist lobby groups; the retaliation that many have been subjected to after comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa; academic departments opting out of hosting events which offer the Palestinian narrative or denounce Israel’s illegal and immoral conduct; and cases (which go unreported out of fear of academic consequences) in which university professors either advise against or refuse to accept papers written from the Palestinian perspective.

Criminalizing dissent

As was true during the McCarthy era and that of the civil rights movement, it is becoming increasingly clear that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment may no longer apply to those fighting for social justice and civil rights. Like the communists and African-American leaders of those eras, Arab and Muslim activists in the West have been approached with an increasing sense of distrust and fear.

The conviction of the Irvine 11 is a testament to the degree that Islamophobia has grown in the West. Moreover, it is a testament to how unwilling the United States has become to question its relationship with Israel. Any means can be used to silence such questioning — even the criminalization of free speech.

The Israel lobby and the US government are working hand-in-hand against efforts to raise awareness about the occupation and human rights abuses perpetrated against the Palestinians. This trial, the FBI raids on Palestine solidarity activists in the Midwest and the undermining of the UN Palestinian statehood bid show it.

What are the implications of the conviction of the Irvine 11 for Palestine solidarity student activists? One can only imagine the worries that now must run through the minds of these young students: Will I be seen as a criminal? Will the Israeli authorities deny me entry to Palestine next year due to my activism, when a cursory Google search can easily show that connection? Am I jeopardizing my future job opportunities as a result of my activism? Am I being, or am I going to be, investigated or targeted by the FBI?

One must keep in mind that these students now living in fear are Americans. Their intentions and passion for social justice is an American value. Yet student activists are now vulnerable to being criminalized This fear of criminalization may even echo into social justice movements which have yet to form, so essentially what the Irvine 11 conviction represents is a campaign to instill fear in anyone seeking to challenge the status quo in American politics.

When I served as president of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I had the fortunate opportunity to be one of the 25 or so persons who protested Ehud Olmert’s speech at the University of Chicago on 15 October 2009. As we thought about and then carried out the protest, we realized that what we were doing was monumental. We likened our protest to the marches and sit-ins in the 1960s, and felt honored to be able to give a voice to the thousands of people whose voices were stolen at the command of this man.

It could have been me

The feelings and reasoning behind our protest in Chicago are echoed in the statements from the Irvine 11 given after their conviction and sentencing. For me, and other students who have protested in a similar manner, this case is much closer to the heart; the events at the University of Chicago initiated this style of protest, and our actions and motives are no different from those of the Irvine 11. I could have been in the same position, sitting in a court room as a defendant. The level of injustice that Orange County has subjected these youth to is disturbing. This style of protest has since been repeated on a plethora of other campuses and fora nationwide and beyond. None of those protests were deemed illegal, and none of them resulted in protesters on trial.

And now members and alumni of SJP chapters nationwide are organizing, and holding a national conference at Columbia University in less than a month. Rather than giving in to the difficulties posed and obvious attempts to stifle and silence the Palestinian narrative, we are now organizing and connecting more than ever before, making our activism more visible, and voicing our support for the Irvine 11.

The justice system in the US seems to be constructing a strategic precedent with regard to their preferred legal approach to Palestinian solidarity speech and actions that seek to raise awareness of the injustices committed by the Israeli government. The stakes are higher, the consequences apparent, and though we realize that, we will push on, recognizing the importance and the need for the work we do.

Our actions are legal, our motivations moral and our goal is to support greater justice and human rights. The Irvine 11 have only strengthened our resolve, and for that, they are our heroes.

Sanah Yassin serves on the board of recently-established Coalition for Palestinian Rights, based in Chicago, and testified during the Irvine 11 trial. She is an alumni of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is an aspiring law student currently teaching high school history.

Comments

In the best of all possible worlds Michael Oren should have had his chance to speak. The Muslim students should have been given equal time and Michael Oren should have been obliged to sit and listen. If that is denied by the school, what options are open to the students?

I do not like to be gagged. I also have problems in forcing another to be gagged.

It is time for students to negotiate with the schools before such an antagonistic and divisive element is permitted on campus. The same goes for the other side. Norman Finkelstein spoke at Santa Clara U to an attentive audience. No problems. Was there discussion with the school administration before he came?
Suppose that in order for us to hear Finkelstein, we would have to have Allen Dershowitz (sp) I would agree to that and listen to Dershowitz. I might even gain a greater understanding of his rigid views. It would not be a loss for me.

Since I do not know what went on prior to Oren's coming to the campus I cannot criticize the students even though I wish there was another way than to prevent a speaker from speaking Betsy

The comments by this author speak to the point of ensuring dialogue so that perhaps everyone becomes more knowledgeable.
The students here need to recognize other speaker's rights no matter how distasteful or oppositional to their views the effect of those rights might be.
I've commented elsewhere: http://www.allwhowonderarenotl...

The students were wrong to prevent a speaker invited to the campus from speaking and being heard. And the Muslim Student Union acted inappropriately in coordinating this and in misrepresenting its involvement to University officials.

If Jewish students used these antics when the MSU invited Norman Finkelstein, Goerge Galloway, Cynthia McKinney, Pappe or whoever else the MSU invited to speak, the those student disrupters would be wrong to prevent the MSU invited speaker from being heard.

I think you and a lot of the student supporters of these students leave out a lot in these types of article. They don't include what was said in the emalis. Their actions were not an example of protected free speech.

I have gone to Stanford University and listened to pro-Palestinian speakers, Hanan Ashrawi, comes to mind. No one interrupted her. No one shouted her down. There were many pro-Israel people in the audience. They did not demand equal time. Some asked some pointed questions, but Ashrawi was given the right to speak and the audience was granted the right to listen to her. This is what free speech is all about. Sanah Yassin simply does not get it.

There is a different between bringing in a speaker with critical political views and bringing in a speaker advocating for a state that commits human rights violations on a daily basis. The students simply showed that they do not tolerate such inhumanity. The total amount of time of interruption was one minute. One minute of interrupting an advocate for occupation and oppression. If these students were protesting something other than Israel's aggression (and they weren't Muslim) this would never have been an issue. Heroes indeed.

The highest officials in the world felt the need to protest Ahmedinejad at the recent United Nations General Assembly. In the middle of his speech a coordinated and deliberate attempt at disrupting his speech was conducted by representatives of the nations of the world. He was effectively gagged.
Agreeing with the practice is separate from whether or not the practice is right/warranted.

Ahmadinejad's right to speak was not abridged. Those who chose to walked out on the speech. If the students at UCI wanted to walk out to show their disagreement/disgust/whatever, then that would have been right and proper. Those who disagreed with Ahmadinejad did not shout him down and did not prevent him from continuing with his anti-American, anti-Israel diatribe. If the author and you do not understand the difference, then I suggest that you just think about it a bit more.

When Daniel Pipes came to speak at UC Irvine, the MSU made one loud disruption and left. They made their point and allowed people to hear his lecture. The univeristy did not punish them and no charges were filed.

The Oren incident was very different. There was a clear intent to shutdown the lecture with interuptions. And their game plan never was just to stand up and say a statement.

I won't go into too many details but one thing was they went with the goal of having their supporters cheer after every statement.

Their emails also said they would be staying for the majority of the program and disrupting the entire time.

Sarah's larger point is the key: there is no concerted, well-funded effort to intimidate 'pro-Israel' views and supporters of Israel's continuing crimes against humanity. There is a blatant double standard at work here. Also, WDYGI makes a valid point: Michael Oren is a spokesman for an illegal and oppressive regime. If the Irvine 11 had stood to protest Ahmadinejad or the Iranian ambassador, they'd have been treated as heroes in Orange County. For that matter, Iranian statesmen would never have been invited or allowed to speak in Orange County, or in just about any other place in the U.S. The same is true of Palestinian statesmen-- oh, I forgot; Palestinians have until now been denied statehood, not to mention basic human rights under Israeli occupation, an illegal and immoral status quo that the U.S. supports.

So let's not pretend there's an equivalence between impassioned and confrontational activism aimed at an illegal occupation and its professional apologist on the one hand, and the professional apologist himself on the other. The professional apologist can say what he wants at any other time and place and the corporate media will relay his words without censorship or even question. Is there such an avenue for Palestinian voices, or for those who question the heavily pro-Israeli status quo?

Well done, Sarah Yassin.

Sorry, Sanah. I misspelled your name. It happens when I get carried away. I meant everything else I wrote, though.

The problem lies in the university's way of handling the MSA. They removed the students, and while it interrupted Oren's speech, that in and of itself, is not a crime. Criminalizing speech is never the answer. Removing people who interrupt is fine. Making statements dissenting from the students' actions are fine. Having closed sessions by invitation only with speakers, if you're concerned about interruption or protest, is fine. The administrators had other options to communicate their disagreement with the MSA, including having a campus forum after Oren's visit where issues of free speech on campus were discussed. After all, the incident occured on a university campus, not at a country club. Unfortunately, UC Irvine administrators opened the door to a politically ambitious DA thinking about his next campaign financing. Leadership starts at home, and UC Irvine administrators failed to exercise it and thus show how robust adults rather than scared children handle controversial speech in the US system of democracy.

I do not believe that the Irvine 11 are heroes. While they did pursue an unpopular action to assert their free speech rights, they did so in an illegal manner by not considering that their right to free speech does not trump another person's right to that same free speech.
Islamophobia is thrown around far too frequently in political discourse in the United States. It often replaces the so-called "race card" we so frequently hear. But it is a discussion closer often serving to put discussion off on a tangent.
While I understand and believe that Islam is not monolithic, it seems to me that much more needs to be done by Imams and other spokespersons for the faith to distant it from those who hijack it for terrorist purposes. The ordinary American is, I admit, grossly uneducated about this magnificent faith. Letting that same American sit with and be content in his/her stereotypical thinking does nothing to bring the faith to those who do not know but need to know.
Back to the Irvine 11, it must be said that they did not use other means at their disposal to assert their rights. They could have conducted informational picketing, scheduled a speaker to assert their message or participated in Mr. Oren's speech as respectful attendees. I do not subscribe to the belief that if I do not like your message I am free to use whatever means necessary to prevent your right of free speech. The US founding fathers were leaving a kingship that severely proscribed their rights. The US Constitution was not written to promote violence around the rights contained therein. What these student did was to foment a situation that brought forth a law enforcement response that would have been unnecessary had they recognized everyone's right to free speech.
Without a framework for civil discourse we might as well chuck the Constitution and revert to "Might is Right", a policy I find equally distasteful to the denial of anyone's rights.
Thank you for honoring my right of free speech.

Thank you Joe for setting forth the legal basis for this issue and for explaining why the UC Irvine 11 and not True American Heroes.

Howard: Don't know if your response is tongue in cheek or not.
I'm not a lawyer but is seems that the right of free speech does not allow my rights to trump yours. Seems common sense.

Joe, No I was being 100% earnest. I am not a lawyer and I do not believe that one needs to be a lawyer to understand the issues here. People here should realize that the civil disobediance of a Martin Luther King meant that King was willing to suffer the consequences when he broke what he considered an unjust law. Martin Luther King was a true American hero, although it took some time for many people to really understand that. I believe in the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution and the Right of Free Speech. Other commenters on this article believe that they have the answers and they feel that it was heroic to deny Oren's rights. I agree with you and disagree with the author.

Thanks for clarification Howard. It is sometimes difficult to discern intent with static postings.
What concerns me here is that these students and their supporters have chosen to blame the DA for prosecuting the case. Is that not his job?
The students may be applauded for their commitment to acting on their beliefs but that, as you said, involves willingness to accept consequences of their actions.
We live in a world where too many want to do what they believe is right but then refuse to accept or protest the consequences that befall them based upon their behavior.