An Update on the Irvine 11

The 11 students who interrupted an event featuring Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010 have been given their court summons to appear before a grand jury on March 11 on charges of conspiracy. The jury has been convened by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

On Feb. 8, members of the UC Irvine community supporting the 11 students organized a protest in front of the District Attorney’s office. An advertisement for the event stated “our judicial system should not be used to criminalize peaceful student protests.”

“Our goal was to show that what’s happening to [the students who interrupted the event] through the DA is completely unnecessary, it’s unprecedented,” said Hamza Sidduiqi, a fourth-year political science major and main organizer of the protest. “Never in recent memory have students been faced with criminal charges for non-violent civil disobedience where the speaker was even allowed to finish his speech. These students have already faced disciplinary action.”

Approximately 75 people attended the protest on the corner of Birch Street and Civic Center Drive. Many held signs opposing the DA’s actions and demanding that it “Drop All Charges Against the Irvine 11.” Representatives from MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan; translated, Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), the Islamic Shura Council, Progressive Christians Uniting, Answer Coalition and Students for Justice in Palestine spoke against the grand jury investigation, which could result in criminal charges against the students.

“My thoughts coincide with what everyone who is against the DA’s decision believes; these charges are unwarranted, excessive and will create a chilling effect on non-violent campus protests,” Siddiqui said. “The university has already taken sufficient action and there is no need for the DA to step in.”

Katy Escobar, a fourth year urban studies major and member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said “These criminal charges smack of Islamophobia because hecklers at all other UCI events have been allowed to make disruptions.” Escobar was present at the protests in front of the DA’s office.

“Last year at the flagpoles, speakers Norman Finkelstein and Hedy Epstein were interrupted by people hurling personal insults at them in the middle of their speeches, yet police did nothing,” said Escobar. “Cynthia McKinney’s talk in Crystal Cove was interrupted in 2009 while police looked on.”

President of Anteaters for Israel and third-year psychology and social behavior major Akiba Chonoles refrained from commenting directly on the situation.

“Many people in the UCI community, Jewish and non-Jewish, were upset that fellow students disrupted Ambassador Oren last year and tried to prevent him from speaking,” Chonoles said. “But I don’t know any details about the DA’s investigation. What I can tell you is that our group is committed to building community and civil discourse on campus.”

Over 100 UCI faculty members signed a letter urging Tony Rackauckas to dismiss the case, including 14 Chancellor’s Professors and Distinguished Professors, as well as Founding Dean of UCI School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky.

In the letter, faculty members assert that although the 11 students were wrong to prevent a speaker invited to UCI from being heard, the University has already taken sufficient disciplinary measures and further punishment is unwarranted. The letter also stated the threat criminal punishment could pose to the University:

“The use of the criminal justice system will be detrimental to our campus as it will inherently be divisive and risk undoing the healing processes which has occurred over the last year. It also sets a dangerous precedent for the use of criminal law against non-violent protests on campus.”

The Muslim Student Union, Students for Justice in Palestine were contacted for comment, but did not respond. The Orange County DA was not available for comment.