Osama Shabaik
The Jerusalem Post
October 16, 2011 - 12:00am

I was the first student to protest Ambassador Michael Oren’s appearance at the University of California, Irvine in February, 2010. Minutes into the speech, I stood up and yelled, “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!”

I was moved to this simple act of protest after the devastation I witnessed in the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, which resulted in the deaths of over 1400 Palestinians, including more than 700 women and children, at the hands of the Israeli military. Months after the attacks, I visited Gaza to deliver medical aid. There, I met the Sammouni cousins, three young girls who were orphaned when an Israeli bomb fell on their home and killed 45 members of their family.

Many families still lived in the rubble of their destroyed homes, factories, work places, and schools. Those still lucky enough to have homes lived with clear remnants of the war. Besides the inability to rebuild due to the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip, virtually every home and building was riddled with bullet holes measuring inches in diameter.Those images compelled me to raise a voice against the abhorrent devastation and disregard for human life caused by the policies of Oren’s government.

Despite the fact that I acted in accordance with a long tradition of protest at American universities, I was arrested. The Orange County District Attorney eventually filed criminal charges against me and ten of my peers.The charges were unprecedented. Just a few months before our protest, thousands of students at UC Irvine undertook an aggressive protest against tuition increases. Demonstrators entered large, 500-person lecture halls chanting “walk out!” to urge students to leave their classes and demonstrate.

At that time, senior UCI administrators and police officers followed the demonstrators as they moved through every major lecture hall on campus. Despite these interruptions (and even a shoving match between one student and a professor), no arrests were made or threatened. No disciplinary action was taken against the students who disrupted the classes or the campus organizations that endorsed the protest.

In contrast, our protest, which, totaled just seven minutes over the course of a 90 minute lecture, was met with the full force of the law. After I spoke up, I began to make my way to the exit. I was immediately met by police and escorted to a storage room. There, I was placed in front of a table stacked with dozens of handcuffs, searched and arrested.

After protests by nine more students and a large walkout where an eleventh student was arrested, Oren completed his prepared remarks and was left with nearly 15 minutes to answer questions from the audience. Instead of fielding questions, however, he left early to attend a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game and to meet their star player, Kobe Bryant.

In an editorial earlier this month, this newspaper wrote that we were eventually charged with a misdemeanor “for planning to trample and then trampling the freedom of speech of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.” In reality we were charged with disturbance of a public meeting and of conspiracy to do so. We have appealed our conviction and are hopeful the court will overturn the decision.

Some people claim that our First Amendment right to free speech does not include the right to block someone else from exercising his right to speak. But rights can only be trampled upon and censored by the government, not by individuals. Furthermore, although our protest was mundane compared to other acts of protest in the university’s history, the Orange County District Attorney has managed to delude even The Jerusalem Post into believing that the charges were fair and justified. This newspaper claimed that both sides, the Israeli government and American protesters, must be protected from interruption, as if the parties are on an equal playing field. Rather than “trample” Oren’s freedom of speech, said the paper, we should have voiced our opposition during the question & answer session.

But that argument fails to realize that questions and answers are not an effective form of protest against states, especially those engaged in war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. States enhance their power by creating a framework within which non-state players can challenge state policies. Due to an imbalance of power, to effect real change ordinary citizens must challenge state power outside of this framework. We did not wish to politely ask questions but rather to make a poignant statement. We came to protest Israel’s actions, and a Q & A session was not the means through which we wanted to act. An effective protest must voice its opposition in a manner that challenges the policies Oren represents and the framework through which those policies are propagated. Protesters who threw tea into the Boston Harbor, who sat-in at segregated lunch counters, who marched against South African apartheid, and who are now protesting for their basic human rights across the Arab world all understood this crucial distinction.

Acts of protest must be judged by their ability to empower marginalized voices to speak out and demand their basic human rights, whether in Iran or Irvine. The First Amendment has long recognized the importance of that value, despite the district attorney's attempt to chip away at this protection. Only by upholding this right can we protect the free exchange of ideas and the potential for social change.

Israeli officials will continue to meet protests in the United States and around the world as long as they uphold unjust policies like the ones that caused three young girls to be orphaned. Of all institutions, I would expect a newspaper to support our right to free speech and to protest injustice loudly.


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