On the evening of November 13th, the University of California, Irvine made history by being the first UC to pass, unanimously!, the boycott, divestment, sanctions legislation against the apartheid state of Israel.
Given the history that UCI has in terms of Israel and Palestine, this thought crossed my mind, as I am sure it did for many others.
As Zahra Billoo, activist, attorney and head of CAIR’s Northern California chapter, so eloquently tweeted it
So, let’s ask ourselves this question. Is UCI’s divestment from Israel (BDS) redemption for the reactions to the Irvine 11 protest which happened 3 years earlier?
As a current UCI student, Muslim Student Union member, Irvine 11 campaign worker, and representative voice to the Academic Senate–I say: NO.
And here’s why.
The Student Body; The Administration
Firstly, ASUCI and Administration are not one in the same entity. The BDS passing was done by the student government of UCI, Associated Students of UCI (ASUCI), and not the university’s administration. The Administration officially divesting from Israel on their own accord is so ridiculous, it’s laughable. Likewise, it was Administration and the UCI PD who arrested the protesting students at the protest which occurred in February of 2010, not ASUCI.
As this momentous event shows us, the rift between the perspective of the student body and the perspective of the Administration is growing regarding activism and Israel/Palestine politics on campus. Administration’s wishy-washy approach to the Israel-Palestine debate on campus will not suffice the views and the voice of the student body.
The sin committed by Administration cannot be atoned for by ASUCI. They themselves are responsible for their actions and are the only ones who could ever redeem themselves, which is now too late.
The Implications of the Irvine 11 Protest on Campus and in Orange County
It is impossible to say that the student protest at the Ambassador Michael Oren event was contained to Pacific Ballroom on the UCI campus. The reactions that the Administration had against the students themselves and the Muslim Student Union as well as its inaction in the face of the District Attorney’s criminal prosecution of these students are all too blaring to ignore and too late to be repaired.
On the individual level for the students who participated in the protest, Administration met them with university disciplinary actions, which are pretty much only known to the staff and students involved. Punishments and measures taken ranged in severity between the individuals, some who were seen as having a bigger hand in the protest than others.
All of these students were Muslim, and most of these individuals were associated with the Muslim Student Union at UCI. So here came the hammer on the organization. Although it denied a role in the protest and distinguished between a group of members acting on their own accord and the organization as a whole, the MSU was penalized. At first sentenced with a year-long suspension, MSU’s punishment was later reduced to a quarter-long suspension followed by a subsequent 2 year probation. Just to put it in perspective, MSU at UCI has somewhere between 100-150 active members and offers many services to its members from academic to spiritual, let alone a place of belonging on campus. All current and future members of UCI who did not have an actual role in the protest underwent sanctions from the university.
To add fuel to the fire, the attitude that Administration had to the protest was highly publicized, creating a campus-wide stigma against anyone who identified with the protest, MSU (and more largely Muslim), or Palestine. Chancellor Michael Drake sent out emails to the whole campus about what had happened. In the email he sent the very next day February 8th, Chancellor Drake put the spotlight on the protesters, calling for a campus-wide condemnation of the protest and the 11 individuals. In an email sent out less than 2 weeks later on February 17, subject title “Values and Civility,” he denounced “the behavior of so many others” as “sinking backward” and called for participation in discussions hosted by those who agreed with the Administration’s official views. Then, on February 26th, he sent out another email, a “Statement on Recent Events,” equating the racist noose found in Geisel Library at sister-school UCSD to the Ambassador Oren protest. Chancellor Drake painted both as acts of bigotry and hatred, evoking the UCI “family” by stating, “we are all particularly offended (and astonished) when campus groups behave in ways that are harmful to other members of our community. On our own campus, we have unfortunately seen an increase in inflammatory rhetoric and actions, rather than an increase in problem solving efforts.” That is a total of 3 emails sent out to the whole campus demonizing the protest and the protesters—but it didn’t stop there.
Administration’s agenda wasn’t only restricted to discrete jabs at the MSU—they came out very vocally against the organization. As we saw in the Student Affair’s welcoming message sent out the next school year on September 3rd, 2010, it announced the suspension and probation of MSU for all to hear loud and clear. The damage that this email must have caused on the incoming class particularly is immeasurable. I can only imagine what it must have meant as incoming freshmen and transfers checked their emails and found this message waiting in their inboxes, separate implications for Muslim and non-Muslim students. In this email, the Administration makes a point to quell the fears of the UCI campus by ensuring us that the suspension/probation is in addition to the disciplinary action taken against the protesting students. “The sanctions described herein apply to the organization as a whole, and do not address disciplinary processes for individuals in this incident.” As stated, it became clear that MSU had its trip to the guillotine in order to serve as a symbolic example, to “[demonstrate] the University of California Irvine’s commitment to values, principles and tolerance.” How ironic.
Now moving into the larger Orange County scene, Administration’s attitude was even more publically put on display by Administration’s complete lack of action in the face of the District Attorney’s criminal prosecution against the student protesters. Administration had already punished these students individually and MSU as a whole at the campus level. Many, even those who disagreed with the students who protested and supported the Administration’s university discipline, saw this prosecution as thoroughly draconian and unnecessary. The Administration had the power to shut this case down, but its new found wordlessness left a resounding silence that the District Attorney took as silent approval. Not only did the prosecution carry on, but the final verdict was that the students were found guilty. This UCI protest was now displaced off-campus and shoved into the Orange County court room.
The Real Issue
In all of the hoopla that surrounded the Irvine 11, we lost sight of the real issue. It wasn’t about free speech. the 1st Amendment, and constitutional rights—but that was all we heard about. The conversation cleverly side-stepped the real issue: Israel’s systematic oppression of the Palestinian people and our responsibility as students regarding the issue.
So what does this mean for UCI, a hot bed of debate over Israel and Palestine? Let’s be clear: the Irvine Divestment is not redemption for the Irvine 11, to each is the accountability for his own action. It means the students have taken a momentous step forward and the Administration better keep up. Administration, as a bastion against student activism and pro-Palestinian sentiments, this message is to you from the students.
With BDS and the Irvine Divestment, it’s hard to avoid the topic of Israel/Palestine this time around. Yes, this is the chance to celebrate student activism and achievement in a period of unforeseen tuition hikes and university cut backs, but it’s much more than that. Let’s stay focused on the apartheid state of Israel and the suffering Palestinian people, and let us continue to work to bring justice and speak truth to power together as students.
May all of our activism always stay sincere and be accepted. I pray that UCI has opened the door for many other schools to pass BDS at their own campuses.