On Tuesday afternoon, about 50 protesters gathered in front of the Orange County district attorney's office in Santa Ana to express their opposition to continued investigations of the Irvine 11, the group of students that made national headlines last year. Students, lawyers and community leaders held signs on the corner of Birch Street and Civic Center Drive as representatives from the various organizations present spoke against the grand jury investigation, which could result in criminal charges against the students.
The incident at the root of the protest is the Feb. 8 talk held by Michael Oren, an American-born Israeli scholar, author and Israeli ambassador to the United States. Oren was forced to pause his speech for 20 minutes as student protesters interrupted him one by one with accusations aimed at what they decried as Israel's crimes against humanity. UCI police officers arrested 11 students for the incident, and the university's Muslim Student Union, which claimed no part in the protest, was punished with one year of probation and 100 hours of community service.
At yesterday's protest, as cars sped by and two police officers lingered across the street, student leaders took turns voicing their solidarity with the subpoenaed students. Katy Escobar from Students for Justice in Palestine was among the first. “What is unfair is when racism is invited to speak at our university as an honored guest,” she said.
Students from UC Irvine's MEChA also came out to support their fellow anteaters. Jorge Moreno, a member of the organization, sees the DA's continued investigation as a symptom of greater problems. “This nation perpetuates and thrives off psychological terrorism,” he said. “What is happening to our brothers and sisters is unnecessary.”
Community leaders also worried that criminalizing the students might have the “chilling effect” of extinguishing student dissent and debate, an essential component to any college campus. Thomas Reinhart-Marean of the Progressive Interfaith Alliance wrote an open letter, later delivered to the DA's office, in which he cautioned against indicting students, stating it could lead to “violent forms of protest, since nonviolence results in such criminal prosecution.”
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, accused the DA of wasting the county's limited resources by reopening charges against the students.
Criminal defense attorney Mindy Gulati agreed. “The amount of resources being poured into this show that it is not a content-neutral,” she said. “We're here because people in the OC and the United States are hyper-sensitive to Islamophobia and are pretending not to have these racist thoughts.”
Hamza Siddiqui, a fourth-year UCI student and main organizer of the protest, remains optimistic. “We want to show there is a cross-coalition on our campus that stands in solidarity,” she said. “Within a day and a half, we were able to organize, and we'll continue to keep people informed.”