What was Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas thinking? Pressing criminal charges against the students who disrupted an invited talk by Israel ambassador Michael Oren gives them a political opportunity that they were completely unable to create for themselves.
Recall that the Irvine 11 (as we’ve discussed) staged a “popcorn” protest during Ambassador Oren’s talk, as one student after another stood and yelled at predetermined intervals, before being escorted out. The students faced discipline from the University of California, Irvine (details of which are not public), and the Muslim Student Union was temporarily banned from recognition as an official organization.
The DA’s public pondering and then pursuit of criminal charges has, predictably, opened a large window for debate through which many people have jumped:
A group of 100 UCI faculty signed a letter urging the DA to drop the charges, arguing that further prosecution will do more harm than good to dialogue and civility on campus–and elsewhere. Organizers gathered signatures hastily through odd email networks; I’m sure many more faculty would like to have signed. (You’ll find my name among the list of signatories.)
Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal activist group based in San Francisco, says the charges are racist. They report that they have staged identical protests against Israeli officials and not faced criminal prosecution. According to Rachel Roberts, a Southern California member of the group:
We did exactly what the Irvine kids did. We criticized Israeli policy…We did it as part of like a popcorn action with one person disrupting, then another person disrupting to emphasize our outrage and we were escorted out. And then nothing happened.
Expect more groups to weigh in on both sides as this case develops.
And local activists have started a new group, Stand with the Irvine 11, with the express goal of supporting the students. Expect petitions, protests, public education, and–if a trial actually takes place–fund raising.
The first thing to remember is that the initial protest was incredibly unsuccessful. Ambassador Oren gave his speech; all the media coverage emphasized the rudeness of the protesters, not their political concerns–or even the content of Oren’s talk. Assume that the protesters made their own sense of the event as they faced sanctions against themselves and their group. While some surely were fortified in their convictions, others turned their attention to other issues, including their educations.
District Attorney Rackaukas’s prosecution flattened out their individual concerns and turned them into a group, the Irvine 11. Supporters and opponents have rallied around, turning them into heroic martyrs or intolerant thugs. And people with very different views about Israel/Palestine have rallied around their cause; in political rhetoric, they have become the victims, rather than the violators, of intolerance of free speech. The individuals can’t now escape the cause.
And if DA Rackaukas allows the case to come to trial, the defendants will have a chance to project their political views to a broader audience. Certainly, they will prepare some version of a “necessity defense,” focusing on the greater harms they see Israel committing. I don’t expect an Orange County judge to allow such a defense in Court, but I’m confident that the defendants will find an outlet in the media coverage of the trial.
In effect, the students will get more coverage for their views by virtue of being criminal defendants than they did as disruptive activists.
If DA Rackaukas thinks this through, I expect he’ll want to negotiate plea bargains quickly to make the issue go away. But if he had thought it through, he probably wouldn’t have charged the students in the first place.
Repression doesn’t always work the way those who use it expect. I believe the sage, Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”