Irvine 11 Verdict Sparks Debate

Courtesy of Rhonda Ragab

An Orange County jury found 10 UC Irvine students of the “Irvine 11” guilty on Friday, Sept. 23, of both misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to disrupt a meeting and disrupting a meeting. Each defendant was sentenced in Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson’s courtroom to three years of probation and 56 hours of community service.

Within minutes of the announcement, the controversial decision on the high-profile case sparked widespread shock and indignation in communities throughout the state.

“Despite the prejudicial nature of the charges filed against us, and the actions of the University administration, I want to say that I respect the court’s decision,” said defendant Shaheen Nassar. “However, I would like to emphasize how proud I am of my actions on February 8. I intend to continue my activism, to give voice to the voiceless. Including my cousins, who died during the Gaza Massacre and the 1,400 other civilians who lost their lives during that massacre as well.”

Social activists, attorneys and community leaders attributed the verdict to selective enforcement, citing the fact that similar incidences of organized protest did not elicit this type of treatment or attention from law enforcement officials. Shouting dissenters at speeches delivered by President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, for instance, were escorted off the premises but did not face any investigations or criminal charges.

“Today is a tragic and disgraceful day in the history of Orange County,” said Reverend Wilfredo Benitez, Rector of Saint Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church. “The kind of thing we cannot allow and cannot ignore. Making a career on the back of persecution sends the wrong message from the District Attorney’s office.”

Supporters of the 11 maintained that the legal consequences stemmed from the identity of the protestors and the content of the protest rather than the manner in which the protest was conducted.

On Feb. 8, 2010, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was invited by the UC Irvine Law School and Political Science Department to discuss American-Israeli Relations. Referring to Ambassador Oren’s support of Operation Cast Lead, a 2009 military campaign condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Council,  students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside interrupted his speech with shouts of “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!” and “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!” Nearly one year later, the Orange County District Attorney’s office announced its intent to press charges against the students.

“The only reason the University and the DA’s office have spent time and taxpayer resources in conducting administrative and criminal proceedings against [the Irvine 11] is because these students are Muslim, and therefore an easy target in a growing anti-Muslim society,” said Ameena Mirza Qazi, Deputy Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

“Today a precedent has been set,” Qazi continued, “and it is that the President of  the United States, Mr. Barack Obama himself, can be interrupted anytime and anywhere but an Israeli diplomat cannot be by Muslim students because he is holier than the rest of the nation, and therefore, above the law.”

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA), denied allegations of bias. According to the OCDA, the freedom of speech of Ambassador Oren and his audience had been compromised.

“This is not Islamophobic; this is not against or for any particular group. This is strictly about the rule of law and not allowing one group to shut down another,” said District Attorney Toney Rackauckas. “We can’t allow them to use the heckler’s veto to stop an important speech, or even an unimportant speech for that matter.”

The OCDA went on to defend the use of electronic correspondence from an anonymous source in the prosecution’s argument and the university’s probation of the Muslim Student Union.

“I thought it was important for them to take responsibility,” said Rackauckas regarding the sanction against UCI’s congregation of Muslim students. “I thought it was very important for the law to be recognized in this case and not just for them to do a little community service and then come out and say that they never did anything wrong.”

Perhaps what ignited the most debate, however, was the OCDA’s decision to label the prior coordination to protest a criminal conspiracy. Supporters of the 11 challenged the OCDA’s criminalization of the plan to protest, contending that prior arrangements are an integral part of any demonstration.

“Even when Japanese Americans were behind barbed wire, they protested,” said Kathy Masaoka of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress. “Even in the worst conditions of World War II, Japanese Americans protested. I hope we’re not there yet. I hope were not at this point, behind barbed wire but it’s starting to feel that way.”

According to the Stand with the 11 movement, the issue is far from over. Already, defense attorneys are making preparations to appeal the verdict.

“There is already a movement which has developed in just the minutes since we left court — a movement of people who are pledging to do volunteer work alongside these young men,” said Defense attorney Dan Mayfield. “So when they do their 56 hours of volunteer work, they will bring other people with them to do volunteer work in our community. I’m very, very proud to be part of this group.”