More than fifty pro-Palestine students gathered outside the Social and Behavioral Sciences Gateway Wednesday night to protest a film screening and panel held by Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a pro-Israel campus organization. The heated protest drew several UCIPD officers, and elicited a response from Chancellor Howard Gillman, who is considering disciplinary action after claiming that protesters “crossed the line of civility.”
Wednesday evening’s SSI event featured a film screening of “Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front,” a 2014 documentary profiling five Israeli students inducted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The film screening was followed by a panel featuring IDF representatives.
Upon hearing of the event shortly before its planned start time, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) contacted members of the Muslim Student Union (MSU), Black Student Union (BSU) and other affiliates of the Cross-Cultural Center to stage a protest in front of the meeting room, using posters and chants from previous protests.
Among the prepared chants were “Displacing people since ‘48, there’s nothing here to celebrate,” “When people are occupied, resistance is justified” and “IDF, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”
SJP asserts that IDF forces “enforce Zionist settler colonialism and military occupation of Palestinian land by the Israeli nation-state” and that “not only does [the IDF] commit murders and several violences against the Palestinian people … but it enforces militarization and policing around the world.”
An SJP representative who declined to be named added that the group felt it was “important to speak up because having Israeli defense forces on campus threatens student safety.”
According to SJP representatives, the protest was confined to outside the film screening building, as protesters were not permitted to enter the event.
However, two legal observers from UCI Law School’s National Lawyers Guild, whom SJP had invited to “ensure that [their] right to free speech is not infringed,” ensured them that they had permission to enter such an event, as it was open to the public. One of the legal observers added that protesters complied with all UCIPD instructions and were not disruptive.
“The First Amendment protects exactly what happened last night,” said one of legal observers who declined to be named. “The protesters made no threats, destroyed no property, and listened to UCIPD when they said they needed an unobstructed exit.”
SSI, however, said they felt threatened by the protesters, as they stated that more than 50 protesters attempted to enter the room populated by only about a dozen attendees.
“When we denied them entry they demanded to be let in and tried to open the door forcefully,” said SSI member Shirelle Chalamish. “They proceeded to block the exits so the students inside the room could not leave.”
SSI members also felt threatened by the protesters’ chants, reporting that protesters shouted “Intifada, Intifada, long live the Intifada” and “All white people need to die.” SSI subsequently called UCIPD, who promptly arrived at the scene.
Having prepared a list of approved chants beforehand, SJP denied they violated university hate speech policy by chanting “All white people need to die.” According to SJP, the only chant they added to their usual list of chants was “Abolish UCIPD,” as a result of several officers’ appearances, and because, they argued, the “United States sends delegations of police forces to train in Israel” including “LAPD and NYPD.”
SJP states that they complied with the request of UCIPD and the National Lawyers Guild to provide an exit pathway for SSI members on the ramp in front of SBSG, where they were protesting.
“[UCIPD Lieutenant Anthony Frisbee] made it clear that if the protesters tried to block the rear exit, there would be arrests,” said the legal observer. “The protesters made no attempt to block the rear exit, and stayed in the same place the entire protest.”
However, Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International, an organization for Jewish students whose members were present at the screening, believes that the safety of Jewish students in attendance was threatened. He asserted that the protesters “physically intimidated at least one Jewish student who was attempting to enter the building where the program was held.”
“Hillel is committed to freedom of speech and freedom of expression for all students,” said Fingerhut. “This includes the students who peacefully gathered to watch a film.”
Shortly after UCIPD arrived at the scene, College Republicans at UCI (CRUCI), who had just concluded their weekly meeting, arrived. A few members including CRUCI President Ariana Rowlands began to counter-protest, bringing posters stating “Blue Lives Matter, Too.”
While a proponent of free speech, Rowlands is critical of the protesters, stating that “what these protesters were doing was not protected speech and constitutes harassment.”
“The protesters were screaming hate in an angry way that made people fear their safety,” said Rowlands. “These same students are the ones saying that they’re triggered and feel unsafe on campus by words and ideas – but they are the ones actually contributing to a physically unsafe environment by hatefully protesting, physically intimidating, harassing and calling for the death of white people and Jews.”
Following CRUCI and UCIPD, UCI Dean of Students Rameen Talesh arrived to quell tensions at the scene.
Talesh told the New University that is is “inappropriate for me to comment at this stage given possible allegations of policy violations and my role in the conduct process.”
However, in a campus wide email sent on Thursday, after the protest dissolved, Chancellor Howard Gillman openly criticized the protest, stating that it “crossed the line of civility” and that “harassment, incitement and and defamatory speech are not protected.”
Gillman also stated that administration is “investigating whether disciplinary or legal actions are appropriate.”
Cathy Lawhon, Senior Director of Media Relations & Publications at UCI, said that the “Office of Student Conduct is in charge of investigating the events of Wednesday night’s demonstration.”
Lawhon added that the Office of Student Conduct will determine whether the demonstration violated the UC Regents Statement of Principles Against Intolerance after the investigation is complete.
In March, UC Regents accepted a new Statement of Principles Against Intolerance, which specifically condemns “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”
In the statement, the Regents accepted that “where investigation establishes that such unlawful conduct [i.e. harassment and threats] was targeted at an individual or individuals based on discrimination prohibited by University policy, University administrators should consider discipline that includes enhanced sanctions.”
However, Kurt Horner, trustee of the UC Student-Workers Union, who also spoke out for Palestinian rights during several UC Regents meetings, does not believe the protesters violated the Regents’ statement, as the most recent statement “differentiates anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.” Horner believes the protest was legitimate, and not anti-Semitic.
“SSI invited members of an occupying army to frame their participation in that army as the ‘defense’ of Israeli citizens,” said Horner. “The protesters, some of whom are from Palestine, objected to this disgusting whitewash of ongoing human rights violence.”
Horner added that “UCI police took no action against the protesters and simply escorted the SSI members out. If the protesters were violent in any way, you would think they would have made some arrests.” UCIPD declined to comment.
Horner argues that Chancellor Gillman’s condemnation of the protest was unfair and uninformed.
“UCI administration should take action – to have Chancellor Gillman retract his recent one-sided statement to the UCI community,” Horner said. “Gillman admits that administration does not have all the facts and does not know whether disciplinary action is appropriate, yet he felt the need to chide the protesters anyway. The Chancellor’s statement blatantly takes sides and undermines Constitutionally protected speech.”
SSI, however, hopes that UCI administration will do more in investigating and responding to the incident.
“Currently we are seeking legal actions if the University turns a blind eye to this incident,” said an SSI representative. “Then, we are in talks with other national organizations on possible legal action against the University.”