Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Eager for closure": Nearing a verdict in the Irvine 11 trial

The defense team for the Irvine 11 rested their case on Thursday afternoon at the Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, after nearly a dozen pieces of evidence — ranging from emails to a video made by The Electronic Intifada — were offered to the jury during the last two weeks of trial hearings.

The students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside, who nonviolently protested a speech given by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010, are being charged by the Orange County District Attorney’s office with two misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to disrupt a meeting and disruption of a meeting. If convicted, each student could face up to a year in jail for each charge.

Several witnesses concluded their testimonies on Thursday, including a professor of sociology at UCLA who is an expert on audience behavior during speeches, and a former student at UC Irvine who witnessed an on-campus demonstration by college Republicans attempting to shut down a speech by a Muslim activist in 2001.

The student, Kareem Elsayed, said that the university administration had not made any preliminary rules to which the audience should abide, and did not intervene when the speaker was repeatedly drowned out. No one was arrested or led away, he added. But the event inspired him to become involved in student activism, and he stressed the point that although he didn’t approve of the disruption, he thought it was an acceptable form of protest.

The professor, Steven Clayman, testified that the protest against Oren was “an unavoidable feature” due to the nature of the speech, given what Oren represents as an Israeli official. When examined by attorneys, Clayman stated that “it was not possible to prevent audience disapproval” and “[the university administration] can’t force audience members to comply with the rules.”

Dan Stormer, a defense attorney for the Irvine 11, pointed out several facts during Clayman’s testimony that he wanted the jury to remember, including the fact that there was no publicized question and answer period on the event flier. The prosecution has built a major part of its case against the students based on the fact that Oren allegedly had no time for a question and answer period, and therefore the students had “shut down” the event, leading to the misdemeanor charge.

However, Stormer reminded the jury that the ambassador had tickets to an LA Lakers game that night (the jury knew about Oren’s basketball game plans, but were not allowed to see the photo of his meeting with Laker star Kobe Bryant), and the speech itself started 30 minutes late due to problems with seating inside the ballroom. Finally, Stormer said that the university administration spent more time berating the student protesters than was probably necessary, which led to further delay in Oren’s speech, which the professor agreed with.

The prosecution’s rebuttal included showing the jury a video — recorded and produced by The Electronic Intifada — of the protest of a speech given by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Chicago in October 2009. A pared-down version of the video was shown earlier in the trial by the defense. The point in showing a longer part of the video, the prosecution asserted, was that there is a mention of EI’s cameraman who was threatened with arrest by security when it was discovered that we had been filming the protest. The attorneys’ intent in showing EI’s video was to establish the “state of mind” of the Irvine 11 protesters, who they claim could have known that they were facing possible arrest by protesting Oren.

However, upon the recitation of various email threads between the defendants and others in the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine, it was clear that the students intended to do the very opposite — “we won’t lead anyone into getting arrested,” stated one person’s email. “It’s not part of the plan … that’s why we need to write down exactly what we’re going to say.” In the email, the discussion for a plan to protest during Oren’s speech included a link to EI’s video, which had been making the rounds not only online, but in Palestine solidarity communities worldwide — leading to other similar protests in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Scotland (in neither place no one was ever arrested or prosecuted).

The email continued: “The point of the video is to prove how extremely careful we have to be with how things go … We ARE the voice of the Palestinian people, and we have to make sure we’re not just trying to be disruptive. People need to take us seriously and we need to show them how passionate we are about what we are doing.”

Clearly, the plan by the students was to obey the law — and, explicitly, not to violate it. And as Stormer said earlier in the trial, “You cannot have a conspiracy to commit an unlawful act if there is not an unlawful act that has been committed.”

Community reaction, community support

Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said he attended “nearly every other day” of the trial hearings over the past few weeks, and told The Electronic Intifada that he has faith in the jury and in the process. “Hopefully this will come to an end,” he said.

He added:

In the Muslim community, there has been a lot of anxiety and concern, but the community has extended its unconditional support to the students and their families. We’re committed to supporting them in any which way possible, but we’re all eager to bring this to a closure.

The de-politicization process is the most concerning. As taxpayers of this county, once this comes to a close we have to ask ourselves what options and recourse we have after witnessing this political theater. Was this the most prudent way to use our resources, and if not, how do we address the judgment of the DA’s office? This is not the first time that the DA’s judgment has been questioned. There was the killing of the man in Fullerton recently by police officers, and we stand in solidarity with the deceased.

In this UCI case, Arabs and Muslims are not alone. Many other communities of different ethnicities and faith backgrounds are in solidarity with us and are of equal concern. There are Japanese-American and Jewish community leaders among us today. It’s a collective concern for all of us.

Raihan Dakhil, a graduate of UCI in political science, said that she was attending the trial to support her fellow students. “It’s ridiculous that they’re on trial for a simple protest,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

She continued:

They were definitely selectively targeted for standing up on Palestine issues. And being Muslim is an easy target. What they’ve done is an act of courage, and it will inspire others to stand up. Some people could be intimidated by this process, but it’s about standing up for what’s right.

This has inspired me. It’s made me proud of standing up for the truth. It’s made me more firm in my beliefs, my political beliefs in justice.

I hope they’re found not guilty. So many other protests have happened. Even President Obama was protested recently, and he thanked them and said that this is what our country is all about. The Irvine 11 students’ protest was a peaceful protest.

The closing arguments will begin on Monday, 19 September, and the verdict will follow soon afterwards. For more information on the solidarity group, Stand With The Eleven, visit their website at

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