So, the now infamous “Irvine 11” have been found guilty.
I first heard of this case while I was living/working abroad and far removed from the ongoings at home, where the anti-Muslim sentiment was starting to take a more concrete and rather unattractive shape. Dealing with my own form of racism where instead of my Muslim identity, my South Asian background was creating problems for me in the far reaches of a desert island, I didn’t have the luxury of rising to (an emotional) reaction over this case. I had my own problems. But curious, I was. And I soon began inquiring about it.
The case in question involved 11 students from two UC campuses (UC Irvine, my alma matter, and UC Riverside) who planned and, to some extent, succeeded in disrupting a speech at UCI on US-Israel relations by Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren. Every time Oren attempted to speak, one student would stand up to state a fact about Israel and its occupation/oppression of Palestine — and each time, the Men-In-Blue would sail in to handcuff the offender and escort him out with the backdrop of resounding applause from an eager and irritated audience. Eventually Mr. Oren cut his speech short and left, for a plethora of different reasons, and the 11 students were charged by the district attorney for conspiracy and disruption of a meeting.
Having been a part of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at UCI during my undergraduate and graduate years, it came as no surprise to me that Mr. Oren’s presence on campus would cause problems in the achingly young, angst-filled, and extremely reactionary college-going youth.
College campuses have always been fertile ground for discussion, argument, protest, chaos, and sometimes even change. In many ways they’ve managed to succeed in things that are just beginning to rumble in the country, and lent credence and encouragement to dissent on some level — dissent that has, often times, been cause for change. We haven’t always agreed with the issues that a group, often a minority that has grown into a majority, has brought forth — but we’ve recognized them, and years after the wounds have healed and the chaos has passed to reveal a new calm, we’ve even applauded them, albeit at times grudgingly and whether we agreed with them or not, for having the gumption to do what most “adults” simply don’t have the gall to do. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have reached the heights it did to achieve what it did, had it not been, in large part, for the same fiery, hot-blooded, challenging youth and its unrelenting objections to the thoughts and actions of the oppressive status-quo.
Yes, on a personal level, I never subscribed to the protesting ways of my college-going brethren (during my own UCI days), simply because despite being of extreme emotional character, I preferred a friendly game of dialogue and discourse with Wit and Intellect across a neutral table. The idea of holding a sign or shouting a slogan to make a point seemed as alien to me in those days as parading around in the mall in my underpants. Very purposefully, though not antagonistically, I chose to keep away from MSU activities that involved such overt opposition to the issues that concerned us a community — often to the chagrin and annoyance of my fellow MSU-ers. So, of course, upon listening to the Irvine 11 story, I immediately cringed at what led to such absurdity (as the arrest and prosecution of the 11). But at the end of the day, as opposed as I am to reactionary activism, the reality is that what these 11 students did was not wise… and very typical of college-going 20-somethings who need a purpose in life, and find it on campus alongside their own generation who is equally filled with the restlessness, the heat, the obstinate defiance, and sometimes, the earnest folly of youth — which can (and do) lead to serious clashes in convictions. I may not have protested outwardly over things I found unjust and so directly opposed to my very humanity, but I was not innocent of my own clashes — many of which resulted in loss of friendships and misrepresentations, and all of which I grew to regret as I stepped outside the halo of university life where reality had not quite made its mostly unwelcome debut.
One of the weightiest lessons I learned (and continue to learn) through my life experiences was that whatever one’s mode of communication and protestation, one had to take consider one’s audience. Public objections and outcries at dinners or conferences would be as distasteful as they would be pointless, in environments where etiquette and structure presided over conversation. Pointing out an elder’s faux pas in the presence of his/her counterparts, in a culture where elders are revered, would perhaps be a bigger blunder on the one behind the point. So, I imagine that a country, which was smarting from near financial ruin, drowning in its own McDonald’s and reality TV culture, and banking on social and network media to stay “informed” while its literacy rate hangs precariously on the lowest rungs of the educational ladder, would welcome balmy conversation over irreverant confrontation — specifically by an entity that has suddenly become indistinguisable, disquieted and, by that token, feared — if for nothing else but the removal of the iron-clad barriers that stand in the way of basic humanness, and a willingness to acknowledge it, no matter the difference in thought.
In any case, the Irvine 11 ended up making it to grand jury, and after months of deliberation and baited breath, the verdict was issued earlier today — to an awestruck public. The word, “guilty,” has never before reverberated so explosively in a community as it did, particularly over social media like Facebook and Twitter, as it did this morning when I clocked in. For a good hour, I was without words — and that is seldom known to happen. The ludicrousness of the verdict left me stammering, and though I have long since parted ways with the communal parties that be, the blow felt frighteningly personal.
Then I had a think…
And in spite of my initial knee-jerk reaction of “What the he…?!”, I came to the startling realization that watching the world succumb to the anti-Muslim/fundamentalist/terrorist/islamist/ jihadist/911-ist/etc. rigmarole had prepared me, in some small way, for such a verdict. Though my heart goes out to the kids’ (for that is who they are) predicament, to lay it very mildly, after tossing it around in my mind a bit, I think I’m slightly more surprised that the Muslim community is as shocked at the outcome as they are — particularly in Orange County, where not too long ago there was another incident that had grown men shaking in their boots (and me in my four-year-old comfortugly flip-flops). Confronting the venomous hatred of a group of Tea Party-esque, right wingers who stood outside a fundraiser for battered women with their intellectually-challenged signs and slogans and screamed like uncouth savages at the Muslims (yes, children included), was a cold reminder of the state of this nation. And in many ways, it was a preview of what was to come.
This isn’t to say that the injustices inflicted upon us, or any other group of people for that matter, should be taken lying down. But, perhaps, this should compel us to step back and retrace our steps, take a moment to regroup and think about where we are going and where we want to go, what is a battle worth fighting and what is better left alone. Is it better to jump from our battered boats into choppy waters in our bravado, sincere as it may be, or to wait for the sun to come out and wade in gently before we swim to shore?
There is little doubt in my mind that the boys in question will come out of this stronger and wiser, but I wonder… will we?