March 9th, 2010
“Stand with the Irvine 11!” blared the email in my inbox this morning. “OK,” I thought groggily, “but which one of the dozens of activists sending me email are you and why are you appropriating the jargon of Sixties activism?”
As I read the bold type and caps-filled missive it turned out that the Irvine 11 are some of the students, the ones who were actually arrested, a few weeks ago at the University of California, Irvine campus when they refused to let an audience of nearly 500 hear Israeli ambassador Michael Oren deliver a speech.
The young activists used a tactic I’d never seen before, one that can superficially represent it self as “vocalizing dissent” in a “non-violent and non-threatening manner” (as their press release puts it) but actually works quite effectively to silence.
Oren had just began his lecture when a solitary student popped out of the crowd and began yelling (”killer”, “war criminal” etc.). Eventually an obsequious campus officials persuaded him to leave the room. Oren resumed, but then another howler sprung to his feet from a different part of the room. Calm was restored – for a second. And then, again: a man, popping throat veins, pumping fist, screaming, unintelligibly but very loud.
It was a particularly nerve-jangling tactic because one had no idea when and where the next screamer would pop up, if the disruption was really over or just on hiatus. This tension alone was enough to thoroughly shift the focus away from Oren even when the room seemed to be under control. The activists had, in effect, made themselves the subject. There was, of course (due process and all) no way to remove them en bloc, so the audience had to wait till each and every demonstrator had done his bit.
It happened about twelve times until Oren, who’d apparently had enough, left the stage. He was persuaded to come back when campus officials promised him they would threaten the students with the possibility of expulsion or suspension instead of their tactic till that point which had included a lot of hand wringing and arguments like “You’ve gotten it out of your system! Now would you just let him speak?”
Oren did eventually finish his program, but it was a much a shortened version because of time lost to the hecklers.
The Oren thing became world news because it followed a rash of similar incidents around the world. As it turned out, on the very same night, halfway round the globe, at Oxford University, Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon had hardly been able to get through his speech. The “high point” of the evening came when a young man charged the podium screaming something in Arabic which sounded to many witnesses like “It bah al Yahoud” (Kill the Jews). (The sophomore later told an Oxford student newspaper that he had merely used a classical Arabic chant “Khaybar ya Yahod” which commemorates a seventh-century battle between Arabs and Jews.)
When the names of the activists in the Oren incident were later published in a California newspaper I tracked them down through Facebook seeking a phone interview. “Given the very high volume of media requests that we are currently receiving, we ask that you send over any written questions you have to us,” was the rather imperious reply from Mohamed Abdelgany of the Muslim Student Union.
I can now see why Abdelgany and Co. didn’t have time for little ol’ me. The “11″ have indeed been busy since the big night. Press TV, the Iranian government-run network has done an admiring feature. There’ve been the obligatory rallies. Websites set up. Offers of legal help have poured in from the Council on Muslim American Relations, the Lawyers Guild, and a slew of campus groups.
The Irvine 11 are busy draping themselves in the rhetoric of 60s and 70s. One of their websites quotes Martin Luther King. A support group, something called ActLeft, sent an “urgent action” email to its members saying “Civil disobedience has historically played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement in America the eventually ensured equality and human rights for all minorities.”
The thing is, I seem to remember that the Freedom Marchers of the Sixties actually paid a personal price for their convictions. They didn’t quibble when they spent a night or two in jail. In fact, that was part of the point.
In the new soft version of civil disobedience you get to whinge it up without even setting foot in the joint.
The Los Angeles Times points out that the Irvine 11 students “were held by campus police only for the duration of the speech and never taken into custody”. The Orange County (California) district attorney’s office has not filed charges. As for campus penalties like suspension and the like, well, disciplinary action is “pending”. Obviously it can “pend” until the 11 have graduated from U of C, have Phds and are well on their way to inheriting the Edward Said endowed chair at Columbia University’s Institute of Mideast Studies.
Listening to the 11 and their supporters I actually find myself feeling nostalgic about morons like 70s radical Abbie Hoffman. Back in the day, members of the famed Chicago Seven actually used to compete with each other over who got leaned on heaviest by “the man”. “You got a subpoena?” Hoffman asked a fellow defendant. “I got subpoena envy!”
Those were the days – when radicals knew how to be radicals.
Meanwhile the 11 are coasting through life without learning about free speech or brave civil disobedience. Perhaps the the friendly reporters over at Tehran’s Press TV can introduce the Irvine 11 to some activists who know what it’s like to have free speech denied.