Irvine 11, FBI raids, and the end of a civil rights era in America

On September 24, 2010, the FBI raided the homes of almost two dozen activists in Chicago and Minneapolis as part of an investigation into alleged links to terrorist groups in the Middle East and South America. Needless to say, most of the suspected activists were involved in prominent grassroots campaigns for Palestinian rights.

Almost an entire year later, on September 23, 2011, an Orange County court in Southern California found ten more activists guilty of conspiring to disrupt and then disrupting a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California – Irvine a year before. After months of disputing the undisputable right to free speech, the Irvine 11, as the students are popularly called, were each sentenced to three years of probation, 56 hours of community service, and an assortment of fines.

Although the two cases appear at face value to differ in magnitude — one being a federal terrorism case and the other being a misdemeanor case of sustained verbal interruptions — they share a common thread: the strategy to silence those brave enough to overturn the establishments that legitimize injustices abroad, nonviolently of course.

There is no need to play the victim card when there can be absolutely no doubt that Palestine, its supporters, and the very essence of justice are all under siege in the United States. Solidarity workers for a free and secure Palestine are typically demonized as rogue, reactionary, and ill-intentioned “activists”. Campaigns for Palestinian rights and liberties are regularly perceived as institutionalized attempts at destroying any hope for Jewish existence. Within the context of American foreign (and now domestic) policy, being pro-Palestine has become synonymous with being anti-Israel — or worse, being anti-humanity.

This is the framework of understanding currently redesigning the Constitution’s definition of civil liberty, the way it is implemented, and to whom it is implemented. Coupled with Washington’s unwavering support for Israel, employing one’s civil liberties to promote justice in Palestine is all too commonly viewed as a threat to the authority of the government of the United States as well as the autonomy of those who share America’s support for Israeli policy in the Middle East.

From this develops a vicious cycle wherein the government feels compelled to intervene on behalf of itself and its most prioritized constituents. The FBI raids and the Irvine 11 indictments are two case examples of just how far this vicious cycle has gone. In other words, we are living in a time when the rights guaranteed to us as citizens of the United States are more valid for some, less valid for others, and entirely nonexistent for the few willing to challenge this downwards trend.

At the present time, the twenty-three activists subpoenaed during the FBI raids await the grand jury trial assigned to determine if they exercised the right to self expression for the wrong thing. With hundreds of thousands of tax-payer dollars at its disposal, the government will continue to fund this intimidation tactic in the hopes of silencing any further progress towards the establishment of a self-sovereign Palestinian state. One year into this modern day witch-hunt, not a single shred of evidence has yet to be produced to legitimize the charges pressed against the targeted activists, specifically the ones involved with pro-Palestine campaigns. This is clearly a misappropriation of justice that would never have occurred had the United States recognized the importance of security for Palestinians and not just Israelis.

But the stark reality of this country’s impaired sense of justice is best witnessed through the doorways of the Santa Ana courtroom in which the District Attorney and his backers heaved a sigh of relief and cracked toothful smiles as ten bright American college students were handed guilty verdicts for supposedly censoring Oren’s pro-Israel message.

Although Oren completed his speech and even expressed a desire to have the ejected students hear him out, the prosecution insisted that the Irvine 11’s scheduled interruptions kept Oren from engaging in a question-and-answer session and consequently denied him his right to freely express himself.

However, there is no reason to believe that any question-and-answer session moderated by Oren would have afforded the audience the rights he claims he was denied. Months earlier, in October 2009, former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert addressed students at the University of Chicago on the issues of leadership and responsibility. After over a dozen interruptions by activists in the crowd, Olmert finally cut his speech short and moved on to the question-and-answer session in which questions had to be pre-written, verified, and approved by Olmert and his assistants. Questions critical of him or his role in planning the twenty-two day assault on Gaza that left over 1400 dead were screened. Olmert himself interrupted at least one questioner before ending the session prematurely and effectually censoring any further pro-Palestine discourse. Oren’s session would likely have followed the same route.

Nevertheless, the Irvine 11 received serious reprimands by campus authorities for their actions. They were told not to meet as a group for at least one year. They were then scrutinized by local community groups, many of which using the situation to catalyze anti-Islam sentiment in California and throughout the nation. But even after all that, the government chose to find the students guilty of criminal offenses, to reinforce the concept of justice currently working against pro-Palestine activists, and to criminalize the tactic of civil disobedience championed by the great Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.

Civil liberties have always been at the heart of America’s most important domestic conflicts. Each era is defined by a state-sponsored attempt to silence a group of Americans for being a certain color, for practicing a certain religion, or for supporting a certain political movement. Today’s era of civil rights abuses is defined by the FBI raids and the Irvine 11 case. Activism for Palestine is officially regarded as a hostile threat that does not have a spot in the American ethic of personal liberty.

It is time to challenge the established lobbies that exist to marginalize the Palestinian voice. It is time to do away with the hypocrisy and the double standards that provide support for Israel’s backers at the expense of the American public. It is time to put an end to this era of injustice once and for all.

Sami Kishawi

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