As last year's surge of student activism fades from the public eye, the
memory remains fresh among those who participated on the UC Irvine
campus, as they prepare for their upcoming court hearings, more than a
year after the actions for which they are being charged.
Campus activism has kept Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas busy.
The bulk of the media and online attention has been focused on the so-called “Irvine 11,” who interrupted a speech on campus last year by Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States. The students, who face misdemeanor charges, had their early March arraignment postponed to this Friday, April 15.
But 19 UCI students, workers and supporters were also arrested last year for a campus demonstration. All have pleaded not guilty and face a pre-trial court hearing that has been moved from March 7 to May 6.
On Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010, 17 students, workers and supporters entered Aldrich Hall, UCI's administration building, and held a nearly two-hour sit-in along the fifth-floor hallway leading to Chancellor Michael Drake's office. Although Drake was not present, the protesters refused to leave, chanting phrases such as “Drake's University? Our university!” until campus police arrested them one by one. Two other activists were arrested at a concurrent protest outside Aldrich Hall.
The demonstrators–who have been dubbed the “Irvine 17,” “Irvine 19” or “Irvine 17+2”–said at the time they were lashing out against a 32 percent fee increase, “exploitative” subcontracting of custodial workers and “persistent” racism in the UC system, where several campuses have reported low enrollment numbers for African-American students, offensive racially themed parties and nooses in public areas.
Participants were released the same day as their arrests. The dean of students placed the students on academic probation for a year and ordered each one to perform 30 hours of community service and write a five-page reflection letter and 10-page paper on the First Amendment.
As they completed their punishments, the students were informed on Dec. 9, 2010, the last day of the academic quarter, that the Orange County District Attorney had decided to press criminal charges against them for disorderly conduct. Some have speculated the timing of announcing charges was intended to lessen the likelihood for students to organize any sort of rally against the DA heading into winter break.
In the months since the charges were filed, there has been chatter on campus about the DA's office subpoenaing student academic records and UCI email accounts,
including communications between them and their
academic advisers and, for defendants who have taught, them and their own
students. There has also been talk of a deal defendants have rejected: three years formal probation with no jail time.
University spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon declined to comment on the DA's decision to press charges, but she stood behind the university's student discipline process.
"At UCI, we are committed to providing an academic environment in which many viewpoints-including dissent and activism-can be safely heard,” Lawhon said. "When asked to ban or condemn speakers, we have responded that the antidote to free speech you don't like is more free speech you do like, not suppression of free speech. But when dissenters and activists break laws, they are not protected.”
Many have come out in support of the 19, including several UCI faculty members who wrote an open petition to Drake in mid-February, pressing the chancellor to stand behind his students and ask the DA to drop the charges. The petition generated 108 signatures.
In addition to giving credence to the issues raised by the protest and sit in, the petition calls attention to the fact that campus police apparently acted without the participation of UCI's Office of Student Conduct office. The faculty members also took note that the DA's charges came 10 months after the initial incident–and two months before the statute of limitations would have prevented the filing of charges.
Graduate student Dennis López, who is one of the 19 up on charges, tells the Weekly he believes there are hidden motives behind the punishment he and others have received.
"There's been a long history on campus of targeting certain groups and issues as needing to be monitored and surveilled, not only by the dean of students but also by the police. The organizations that are raising the issue of racism on campus, of the university's responsibility to both end racist subcontracting and directly employ campus workers, of the ethics of military research on college campuses, these groups are the ones who constantly have the police at their events and administrators from the dean of students [office] watching them.”
López received 70 hours of community service, as opposed to the 30 hours imposed on the rest of the group. Initially suspended, Student Conduct placed him on academic probation indefinitely after he appealed the suspension before a university judicial review board. He believes his past history in student activism might have played a part in his receiving harsher sanctions.
“I think part of it is that I've been politically active for a number of years,” he says. “There was a visibility to my politics and activism at UCI. This might be an attempt to instill fear among student activists and silence student dissent on campus, by making an example of someone who's been visibly vocal about local campuses struggles and broader political issues.”
Indeed, López sees a link between the criminal charges filed against the Irvine 19 and the Irvine 11, calling them “clear attempts to undermine future militant activism and political dissent on campuses.”
Many of the 19 plan to graduate from UCI this June, taking with them their diplomas and their rap sheets.