Student Activists Face Charges

Ten months ago, Aldrich Hall was the scene of a sit-in and protest that resulted in 17 arrests. Now, almost a year after the event, those 17, along with two others, are facing charges from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office with possible sentences ranging from probation to one year in jail.

The Feb. 24 sit-in and protest demanded an end to outsourced labor at UCI, and was also a response to recent incidents of racism among the UC system, accusations of suppression of free speech due to the arrests of the “Irvine 11,” the group of students who were arrested earlier in February for protesting a lecture by Ambassador Michael Oren, budget cuts and fee increases and equality for AB540 students.

The sit-in was accompanied by a group of approximately 50 protesters who picketed outside of the building and held up signs reading, “Protect Student Services! Layoff Yudof!” and “Don’t Privatize UC!” In addition to their chants of “Real pain, real action!” the group had a list of 12 demands to the UCI administration that included financial aid for AB540 students, the direct hiring of all outsourced ABM workers, gender-neutral bathrooms, an end to UCI’s contracts with military and Homeland Security that aided the war in the Middle East, an end to contracts with Motorola, Dell, IBM and Texas Instruments — companies that utilize prison labor and therefore feed the prison-industrial complex and that no disciplinary action be taken against the Irvine 11.

Seventeen people – 14 students and three union organizers – were arrested during the sit-in. When word of the arrests inside Aldrich Hall spread to the protesters outside, several students dragged dumpsters down Pereira Drive and used them to block the entrances to the building in order to prevent the police from removing the 17 from the building.

Two of the students involved with moving the dumpsters, grad student John Bruning and recent UCI graduate James Lagergren, are now being charged with misdemeanors for false imprisonment and obstruction of a public place.

“It seems clear that the charges against me and James aren’t intended to seek justice for the university or bring everyone to account for the dumpster incident, but to use the incident as an excuse to punish two organizers,” Bruning said.

He believes this is just another move to silence politically active students across college campuses.

“There were allegedly about 30-some people involved in pushing the dumpsters, so they are already singling out me and James,” Bruning said.

The Dec. 9 press release from the Orange County DA lists an additional charge against Lagergren for “being a public nuisance.” The press release also names the 17 students arrested for the sit-in. Of the 17, 16 are being charged with one misdemeanor count each of trespassing, disturbing the peace and refusal to disperse; one, Eric Kitayama, is being charged with two misdemeanor counts of trespassing and one misdemeanor count each of disturbing the peace and refusal to disperse.

The press release describes the events of Feb. 24 and accuses the defendants of “chanting, yelling slogans from their various protest groups, blowing whistles and pounding on the walls and floors.” Officials say that approximately 400 people were evacuated from Aldrich Hall that day. There were no injuries reported.

It is unclear whether those of the 19 who are currently UCI students will face additional disciplinary action from the university itself, which acts separately from the District Attorney’s Office. In November 2009, Bruning was also arrested at a protest on campus and was later charged by the Orange County DA – a case that was dismissed last January. But Bruning received a letter in April with charges from the University.

“It’s hard to tell what to really make of it,” Bruning told the New University last May. “[These charges are] coming at a weird time, about six weeks after the second incident and almost six months after the first one.”

Similar to Bruning’s case last year, the activists are receiving charges months later – a move that the website “Those Who Use It” are calling “the greatest intensification of political repression coming from the UCI administration yet” as well as “a deliberate attempt to disrupt the course work and family lives of students involved in dissent.”

An arraignment was scheduled for Dec. 29, but has been postponed until Jan. 21. Due to issues related to legality and confidentiality, no further information has been released at this time.