Mounting Repression Against UC Activists

Even the most cynical observer might have been surprised by the Orange County District Attorney’s decision to press charges against the 19 students and workers who, directly or indirectly, participated in the Feb. 24, 2010 sit-in on the fifth floor of Aldrich Hall. This might only be because the district attorney’s office decided to inform the students of the charges through an online press release, publishing each student’s full name and location (forever linking each of them, via Google, to a criminal case) on the Thursday of finals week, with an arraignment scheduled during Winter Break, and a full six months after UC Irvine itself completed disciplinary proceedings against the students involved.

Why, one might ask, would the DA’s office go so far to harass a group of student-activists who have already been punished, especially since its press release primarily cites that the students were allegedly violating University policy, rather than state law?

Then, when the arraignment day arrived on Dec. 29, the whole affair turned farcical, as Deputy District Attorney Lynda Fernandez called in sick and skipped the whole thing, pushing the arraignment date back to Jan. 21, 2011. By that time, it is hoped, the Deputy District Attorney will find a moment to retrieve the prosecution’s evidence from her car’s trunk and provide it, as per constitutional mandate (whatever that’s worth), to the defense.

The entire case — from the announcement during finals week to the decision to prosecute in the first place (which does nothing but threaten some of UCI’s top students with a potentially damaging criminal record) — reeks of state repression against student-activists, carried out by glorified bureaucrats, and it must be understood within a broader context.

We need only to consider the ongoing case of UC Merced undergraduate Peter Howell, who is facing felony and misdemeanor charges stemming from the November Regents meeting at UCSF-Mission Bay. In what appears to be a pattern of harassing students during finals week, the UCPD organized a 24-hour manhunt of Howell, harassing his roommates, searching the campus coffeehouse and watching over him as he took a final exam after he had arranged, through his attorney, to appear in court. Howell was arraigned on Dec. 28, handcuffed and dressed in an orange jumpsuit and forced to pay $15,000 bail. All of this is because he allegedly attempted to grab Officer Jared Kemper’s baton during the Nov. 17 protest.

If you happened to see the video of the incident in question, which is available online, you may remember Officer Kemper as being the perfect combination of scared little boy (in his oversized riot uniform) and dullard that so many of our campus police morph into at Regents meetings. Or, you’ll remember him simply as the cop who tripped over his own feet, dropped his baton and pulled a gun on a group of student-activists armed only with signs and bongos.

At any rate, these actions do not bode well for activism on campus — prematurely eulogized several times by now in the campus newspaper — which is attacked on one side by repression from the state and the administration, and on the other by the Herculean (or Sisyphean) effort required to build and sustain a protest movement.

Especially disconcerting for many student-activists is that two of the UCI students being charged were neither directly involved with the protest nor arrested on the day of the protest. It is enough to be present at a protest to face trumped-up charges.

What we need, as we enter a new year and new fee hikes, is for our campus leaders to take a firm stand against the state’s involvement with student-activism. Our administration must make it clear that students will not be punished multiple times for the same “crime” — understanding, of course, that any punishment for standing up for the rights of students and workers is excessive. Likewise, students ought to be able to count on the support of faculty and staff, too many of whom seem wholly disengaged from the issues affecting students. Finally, student representatives and leaders (from the student regent to ASUCI to the New University) must take a firm and open stand in support of the 15 students and four workers being charged.
The University of California must understand that student activism is here to stay and will not be waylaid into submission by overzealous cops and prosecutors. And UC students must realize that students around the world, from California to Puerto Rico, from the United Kingdom to Italy to Pakistan, are fighting pitched battles for the future of public education and there is no time, and no excuse, for passivity — if we fight, we will win.

James Bliss is a fifth-year political science, women’s studies and African-American studies triple major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu.