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Students Rally at MSU Event to Discuss Police Brutality, Islamophobia

By Jeanine Erikat

As part of their annual Towards Understanding Islam initiative that aims to educate the student body about Islam and promote a dialogue, the Muslim Student Union held a talk titled “Don’t NUMBer Your Senses” in the Cross Cultural Center on Feb. 16, addressing four crucial social justice issues: police brutality, Islamophobia, the challenges faced by undocumented students and food insecurity.

Tamara Austin
At the MSU talk, Tamara Austin, Director of Gender Education Student Affairs, addresses how staggering statistics on racial violence and inequality translate into real-life struggles. (Courtesy of Selma Hassane)

Maria Khan, one of the event’s organizers, explained that the event was titled “Don’t NUMBer Your Senses” to show that students should not be desensitized to the statistics that often surround these issues, but should seek to spread awareness instead.

“We constantly hear these alarming numbers, but they can often desensitize us to the reality of the situation. They numb our senses,” said Khan, a fourth-year international studies major. “It’s not to say that the numbers are not important. It’s to say that we have to remember that there’s a story behind each number.”

During the event, Tamara Austin, Director of Gender Education Student Affairs, discussed the rise of police brutality. She pointed out to the audience of over 50 students that police departments typically have white officers, while the communities affected are people of color. She explained that African American girls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.

Austin also addressed the significance of the Fourth Amendment, which includes the right of any American to refuse being searched by law enforcement, unless there is probable cause. She stressed that probable cause should not be associated with an inherent racial, religious, or ethnic bias.  

Austin even described her personal experience with her 19-year-old son, in which she placed a note in his car about the steps he should take in the event he gets pulled over by a cop.

“I would like to be sure that my sons  will outlive me and not precede me, but I am not sure of that,” said Austin. “You don’t even have to be out for violence to affect you, you just have to be where it comes to you so you can’t even avoid it. You’re just in a situation sometimes where you’ll walk right into it.”

On the notion of being marginalized due to outward appearance, Aminah Galal, a UCI alumna, educator and writer, spoke about her own experience with Islamophobia. Galal mentioned that Islamophobia began long before 9/11 and recounted her own stories of experiencing Islamophobia.

In one vivid incident, a classmate told Galal in elementary school to go back to where she came from, in which Galal jokingly replied, “it’s logistically impossible cause I don’t think Kaiser [the medical center] can take anyone back.”

Galal’s main advice to Muslims and anyone dealing with racism is to “love yourself and come to terms with the fact that there is nothing wrong with who you are.”

Oscar Hernandez, a UCI medical student, spoke about his experience as the first undocumented medical student at UCI.

Hernandez shared his difficulties with paying for college without qualifying for financial aid and with finding work without a Social Security card or driver’s license.

More than 50 students and faculty members gathered in UCI's Cross Cultural Center last Tuesday to discuss social justice issues with a panel organized by the Muslim Student Union.
More than 50 students and faculty members gathered in UCI’s Cross Cultural Center last Tuesday to discuss social justice issues with a panel organized by the Muslim Student Union.

Despite these obstacles, Hernandez was able to succeed by reaching out to the right resources, and he encourages all undocumented students to do the same.

“You have to not be afraid to speak your mind or speak for yourself, because there were people willing to help me and if I wouldn’t have spoken out and sought that help, they wouldn’t have helped,” said Hernandez.

Christopher Tafoya, a second-year undergraduate and a SOAR Food Pantry volunteer, spoke about his own experience with dealing with food insecurity, and how the food pantry was a key milestone in his personal struggle against the injustices of food insecurity.

Tafoya also provided a statistic from a recent survey conducted at UCI, which found that households with an income of over $100,000 are also experiencing food insecurity, and thus, food security is not just an issue constrained to the lower-class bracket.

“The first time I came in [to the on campus food pantry] I had $10 for the rest of the two-week period to make ends meet, and it wasn’t enough, because I live on-campus and the rent gets higher every single year,” said Tafoya. “When I showed up at the food pantry, there was already a bag of food there for me, including non-perishables and boxed potatoes and canned goods, and I was so thankful. So I want all the students at UCI to know about the food pantry because I don’t think anybody should have to go hungry.”

Attendees of this event found the panelists’ discussion to be very useful in understanding the social justice issues faced by the campus community.  

“Ideas central to each group’s crises were shared among all groups, transcending boundaries of race, religion, gender and age; the profiled African American males’ struggle becomes relatable to the head-scarf observing Muslim woman who has obscenities shouted at her; the undocumented immigrant’s struggle to register for college without a social security number becomes relatable to the college student’s who cannot find enough to eat around finals week,” said Natasha Khokhar, a fourth-year public health science major.

“I believe that this event was able to positively inspire attendees like myself to view the world from the eyes of those who have contributed to society despite social injustices committed against their representative groups.”