Last November, UC Irvine undergrad Lisa Lei joined what she thought would be just another rally for striking workers. Members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 3299, the union that represents the school's service and patient-care employees, gathered with their supporters, all wearing identical green T-shirts, to march around the campus, stopping at a small courtyard in front of the Mesa Court housing community's dining hall. There, they chanted slogans for a fair contract from the University of California, confusing unwitting freshmen looking for lunch.
UCI staff members looked on warily through the glass doors. Then, with little warning, one tall, dark-haired marcher emerged from the crowd and tried to make his way toward the door, prompting a blockade, some yelling and a small shoving match. That's when the 22-year-old Lei, who had until that point trailed slightly behind the march's vanguard, rushed up to separate the two belligerent parties.
The strikers eventually moved on, ringing parts of the campus, and briefly shutting down the intersection of Campus and West Peltason drives. By the end of the day, no one was arrested, no one was injured, and everyone went home. But nearly three months later, Lei received a letter from the UC Irvine Office of Student Conduct claiming her activism had violated the school's code of student conduct, with possible sanctions that could range from a written warning and community service to suspension and expulsion.
Lei also found out the Orange County district attorney's (OCDA) office was charging her with two misdemeanors for battery against and obstructing a peace officer connected to an earlier protest.
"I was suspicious, and I was definitely surprised," Lei says.
Lei's predicament has become a cause célèbre across the University of California system, even nationwide, as students see her case as further evidence of a crackdown on student activism. "Brocious [Jordan, a UCI graduate student also facing conduct charges] and Lei are being targeted because they are visible campus activists who have been vocal in supporting workers' rights," reads a petition circulated by the UCI chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops that has been signed by more than 1,800 individuals. "Student concerns regarding increased policing and surveillance under [UC System President Janet Napolitano's] leadership are solidified by these charges, as they reflect the unjust suppression of student activism."
The second-generation Chinese American is a regular at campus demonstrations and protests; her lucid, righteous quotes inevitably make their way into the press releases of labor unions and protest groups. A former member of the Associated Students of UC Irvine's legislative council, Lei is currently an intern for AFSCME 3299, which is scheduled to strike next week. It's because of her union work that Lei is facing three student-conduct charges, connected to two separate actions last fall. She faces one charge of failing to comply with a university official during an Oct. 30, 2013, strike vote at UCI's Gottschalk Medical Plaza, where she and others passed out thank-you cards and candy to university employees as part of her duties as an AFSCME intern. According to Lei, university officials asked her to leave the area. Labor organizers claim she had a right to be there, as set forth in the university's agreement with labor unions to allow employees to organize. But when she didn't depart, UCI police officers followed her to the employee break room.
"It's obvious from the police report that they showed me that they singled me out specifically," Lei says. "Police actually followed me around the building, even though I was working for AFSCME."
The two other UCI conduct charges are related to the November AFSCME strike and march. For that day, Lei is charged with failure to comply with a university official and physical abuse of an officer by, as a police report alleges, "[pushing] a UCI PD officer twice with [her] open right hand on their right shoulder."
Last week, Lei and Brocious, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who is facing two conduct charges related to his alleged taping of locks during Napolitano's campus visit in October, both had hearings before one of UCI's student-conduct officers. During such meetings, the university's officer outlines the charges and evidence against students and asks them about their version of the events. For Lei and Brocious' hearings, dozens of supportive students staged a sit-in, in conjunction with the circulated petition. The students will learn their verdicts by mail in the coming weeks.
"I felt pretty confident during the entire thing," Lei says. "[The hearing] started well, and the guy was friendly enough, but he did start asking me some incriminating questions."
Next up is a court date at Harbor Justice Center for the two misdemeanor charges she faces. "There was a guest speaker at UC Irvine, and [Lei] is accused of pushing an officer," says OCDA spokesperson Farrah Emmai. "He sustained a minor injury." Lei declined to discuss the criminal charges, but she is fighting them; the case is currently in pretrial motions and meetings. "In cases where a suspect is not in custody, the police department has more time to present their case," Emmai explains.
Though it may be Lei's first time through the student-conduct gauntlet, she's no rookie to the activist world. She began being politically active while a student at San Diego's Helix High School, rallying against Proposition 8. In 2009, Lei was part of the glut of students protesting the UC system's 32 percent fee increase and traveled to Los Angeles, where the UC Regents were meeting to vote on the fee hike. Afterward, she was elected to UCI's student legislative council on a platform of keeping fees low and increasing student involvement. In her fourth year at the university, Lei joined the Asian Pacific Student Association in time to witness students from Asian fraternity Lambda Theta Delta come under fire for recording a video while wearing blackface. She has since become involved in labor issues, she says, because of her mother and grandmother.
"My mom works at 99 Ranch, and when she's done there, she works in a restaurant. My grandmother was a domestic worker until she had a stroke," Lei says. "I'm just taking advantage of my role—my youth and education—to bring justice into homes, into people's lives."