One Campus Divisible: UCI Torn Over US Flag

IMG_4735

Patrick Herrin | New University

A resolution that passed in Legislative Council on Thursday prohibited the flags of any nation from being hung on the walls of ASUCI’s lobby.

ASUCI’s Executive Cabinet vetoed the Council’s decision Saturday afternoon, overturning the legislation.

R50-70, which passed 6-4-2, aimed to make the space, which is shared by six branches of the undergraduate student government, more inclusive for all the students who used it.

Matthew Guevara, a Social Ecology representative the author of the legislation, said that the issue at hand is one regarding making the shared space inclusive for all students who use it.

“The reason I wrote this is because there was a flag hanging in the lobby space and students weren’t comfortable with that space because of the flag and they came to me,” he said during the Council meeting.

Responses to the resolution have been largely been opposed; what many are viewing as an infringement upon freedoms of speech as well as anti-American behavior. Students, alumni and people from across the nation have weighed in, largely against the passage of the legislation.

A Flag Hung

ASUCI’s shared lobby is tucked deep within the southwest portion of Student Center across from the Terrace ATMs. It is dedicated to housing various student government and student media organizations, including the offices of the Associated Graduate Students and Anthology, the campus yearbook. The offices of the different branches, including one for each member of the executive cabinet create the walls of the shared lobby.

In January, a member of the Office of Student Services hung up an American flag, which also belonged to Student Services, on the wall adjacent to the door of the branch’s office.

According to Student Services Vice President Josh Nguyen, the flag was put up merely as a decoration.

Students who disagreed with the flag’s posting, folded it and put on ASUCI President Reza Zomorrodian’s desk with an anonymous note.

According to the student body president, the students’ effort in properly folding it, even as they disagreed with its meaning, was carried out with respect for the significance of the flag.

Once the matter had been brought Zomorrodian’s attention, the Executive Cabinet decided to keep the flag up. The flag was reposted, along with multiple copies of a statement from the Zomorrodian.

“Neither I nor the Executive Cabinet support the use of the flag to divide and oppress; however, we do not think the display of the flag is inextricably tied to a hateful message,” the statement read.

For Zomorrodian, the ideals that the flag represents are what allow students at the university to question the flag itself as well as American policies that have been destructive to countries abroad and exclusionary to domestic communities that students may identify with.

“For me, the flag transcends policy and it comes down to a representation of ideals that collectively as a society we agree on,” he said. “I just simply see the flag as a symbol of inclusion.”

According to Zomorrodian, this very ideal of inclusion was contradictory to the desire to take down the flag.

“I don’t understand what gives them, then, the ability to nullify people’s views based on their feelings of exclusion from the flag,” he said.

A Flag Fraught

However, for a handful of students, the flag’s symbolism is inextricable from and irreconcilable with histories of exclusion and violence committed on behalf of the United States.

Khaalidah Sidney, Humanities Representative and co-author of the legislation, said that the flag served as a reminder for her DREAMer friends of their constant battle of obtaining citizenship.

Representative Naty Rico, At-Large Representative and a member of the International Students Committee, said that the issue was a concern for her constituents as well.

Despite representing the concerns of their constituents, Guevara said that the representatives also understand the freedoms that are associated with the flag.

“We all wholeheartedly agree with the meanings of the flag,” he said. “It stands for freedom. It’s highly regarded by the military and veterans.”

However, he emphasized that the focus of the issue isn’t necessarily the flag, but the space in which it was present.

“A space that has never had any flag, has never had any ideology associated with it,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a space where everyone is included and for everyone to be heard.” According to him, the presence of the flag in the common space alienated those students who did not agree with some of the things it stands for.

The legislation lists over two dozen reasons as to why flags should not be posted in the lobby. Specifically, it refers to histories of American colonialism and imperialism as reasons why some students object to the presence of the US flag in the shared space.

For Zomorrodian, the ideal situation would have been for the students who objected to certain ideas regarding the flag to confidentially meet with him and the executive cabinet in order to find a course of action that could have possibly reconciled their opposing views. He also knew, though, students would have been hesitant to do so due to the fear of having their anonymity compromised and being labelled as anti-American.

However, in between the flag repeatedly being reposted and taken down, the students who objected to the flag heeded one of the suggestions listed in the cabinet’s statement.

“If any community members are intent on changing this practice or having executives police the decor of the communal space, please encourage your representatives to pass appropriate legislation, to which we as a cabinet can consider a potential course of action.”

A Council Divided

Alvin Phan, the Speaker of Legislative Council, warned that deciding upon the issue would be a slippery slope. He abstained, saying that he didn’t want to influence the final vote.

Negar Fatahi, a Social Ecology Representative, said that removing the flag would be an effort to prevent the ASUCI space from being exclusive. She voted in favor of the resolution.

Jeremy Arkules, representative for the School of Business, questioned the specificity of the legislation.

“Why can’t everyone freely add flags to the room?” he asked during deliberation. He voted against the resolution.

Tin Hong, the Engineering Representative, said afterwards that although the resolution was made with the best of intentions, and that the US has done bad things, he could not approve of a legislation that the majority of his constituents did not support. He voted against the resolution.

A member of the public not associated with Legislative Council said that the presence of the flag stresses the mental health of those in the space whose histories conflict with various American policies. The individual said that in this case when the flag causes undue distress, according to the US Constitution, its freedom of speech is not protected.

Ariel Barnoy, an At-Large Representative, said that that argument is ridiculous. He voted against the resolution.

Gregory Delon, a Social Sciences Representative, declined to comment. He also voted against the resolution.

As the discussion dragged on, At-Large Representative John Salazar moved to end discussion. His motion was denied and discussion was extended for another 20 minutes. He voted in favor of the resolution.

Representative Rico, in an interview afterwards, said that the all-flags idea would not only be cumbersome, it could allow for problematic flags, such as the Confederate flag, to be hung. She voted in favor of the resolution.

Matthew Tsai, a Biological Sciences Representative, said that the ASUCI space should be one where different voices and biases should be respected. He voted in favor of the resolution.

James Louie, the Information and Computer Sciences Representative, abstained.

After the resolution passed the first time, it was motioned and approved for reconsideration. The vote remained the same.

A Campus and a Nation Respond

The approval of the resolution drew an outpour of backlash against it.

Claims currently range from infringing upon freedoms of speech to the fact that the university is an American university that receives federal funding.

Zomorrodian also vocalized his disagreement with the legislation shortly after it passed.

“Though I understand the authors’ intent and supporters’ intent, I disagree with the solution Council has come to,” he said on a Facebook post.

He worried that the legislation would lower people’s confidence in the university and damage the reputation it has built for itself.

State Sen. Janet Nguyen, who is an alumna of UCI, said late Friday that she and other legislators may introduce a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit “state-funded universities and college campuses from banning the United States flag.”

Some students are worried that the national attention UCI has drawn for this controversy might hurt their chances at getting a job. Zomorrodian assured that “any good employer” would not consider the situation in the hiring process.

“Especially if you’re a student who had nothing to do with the situation,” he said.

Campus administration released two statements in response to the legislation.

In a general statement released on Saturday, the administration condemned the legislation, distancing themselves from it and calling it misguided.

On Sunday, Chancellor Howard Gillman weighed in, calling the views expressed in the legislation, “unconventional and even outrageous.” He emphasized that the resulting controversy was solely due to the decisions of the six students who voted to approve it.

Gillman ended his statement by saying that campus will add additional flagpoles near the Bison entrance to campus.

According to ASUCI Executive Vice President Sanaa Khan, the campus administration is primarily worried that the blowback of the legislation will compromise the alumni donor base as well as cause potential incoming students who are given acceptances to enroll elsewhere.

For Khan, the campus statement encouraging the Cabinet to veto was actually an attempt to help redeem the public image of the university.

“I think they were clinging to executive cabinet to do what would benefit them,” she said.

“Legislative council was, again, dismissed and it wasn’t fair to legislative council that it happened to them,” said Khan, who was afraid of the microscopic attention thrown onto the six representatives who passed the legislation.

“I think Legislative Council got pushed under a bus. It puts them in danger.”

Representative Sidney agreed with Khan on the matter, adding that administration’s sweeping condemnation undermined the very nature of student government.

“I feel like that is extremely inappropriate and it’s basically throwing student government under the bus to save the image of the campus and their financial sponsorships,” she said.

For her, the purpose of representation through council is so that students can have their concerns heard.

“Yeah it doesn’t reflect the broader student body, but the broader student body didn’t come to us,” she said.

“These individuals did and as elected officials we’re supposed to represent those bodies that did approach us.”

Hate Comments and Death Threats

Despite the legislation being overturned by the executive cabinet, Sidney and the other representatives who passed it are still receiving significant backlash from the campus and broader community, much of which has gone beyond civil disagreement.

Derogatory comments, many of which were racialized, as well as threats of physical violence have made their way into the inboxes of the six representatives who voted in favor of the legislation.

A Change.org petition has been made in an effort to remove Guevara from his position.

“I’ve got a lot of emails. A lot of death threats. A lot of people telling me to go back across the border, that I don’t belong. A lot of my friends, or people who I thought were my friends, have been calling me un-American and that I don’t belong here,” he said.

Sidney has received threats of a lynch mob as well as being called the n-word.

Despite not having a say in the final vote of the legislation, Khan has also been the recipient of Islamophobic comments.

Public misunderstanding of the structure of ASUCI has resulted in even Zomorrodian, despite his public opposition to the resolution, being the target of similar comments.

Khan, who was the sole dissenter against the veto, expressed severe regret regarding the cabinet’s course of action.

“Now those students and their representatives have been targeted because they did what was suggested by the executive cabinet letter,” she said.

According to Sidney, aside from ASUCI’s Assistant Director Mark Deppe, Khan has been the only one on Executive Cabinet to reach out to the six representatives in order to check up on their safety.

Meanwhile, campus administration has taken a more forceful stance with the students.

According to Representative Rico, the apology statement released by her, as well as representatives Tsai and Fatahi, late Sunday night was pressed upon them by campus officials.

Sidney said that in a meeting with Student Affairs, administrators told the representatives that they would only assist in the protection and well-being of the students if they released an apology.

Because Rico, Tsai and Fatahi aren’t graduating like the other three representatives, they were put in a vulnerable position. Despite not being guaranteed specific protections, the three agreed to release the statement.

“They never said what they would do,” she said. “At this point, we’re just tired of this whole thing and we’re scared so we released it hoping for the best.”