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The Irvine 11: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

The sentencing of the Irvine 11 demonstrates how voicing Palestinian solidarity is becoming more risky for activists.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

 by Al-Jazeera English

On Friday, Shaheen Nassar addressed a crowd of reporters and community members outside the Orange County Superior Courthouse in Santa Ana, California, less than 30 minutes after the presiding judge in the Irvine 11 trial sentenced Nassar and his co-defendants to community service and informal probation. The judge declared, to his credit, that jail time would be "inappropriate" due to the fact that the defendants were motivated by their personal beliefs, that they had clean records, and were productive members of the community.

"I intend to continue my activism, to give voice to the voiceless, including [those of] my cousins who died during the Gaza massacre. And the 1,400 other civilians who lost their lives during that massacre as well," said Nassar.

The Irvine 11, as they have come to be known, acted in the finest tradition of civil rights leaders when they non-violently spoke out in opposition to Israeli policies during a speech delivered by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010. Oren had come to UC Irvine as a guest of the university administration, on a speaking tour planned by the Israeli government to boost Israel's image in response to global criticism of its wanton attacks on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09, and the apartheid policies on the ground in occupied Palestine.

The sentencing followed a jury's decision to convict the students on two misdemeanour counts of "conspiracy to disrupt a public meeting" and "disruption of a public meeting" after weeks of aggressive courtroom theatrics by the District Attorney's prosecution team, which intended to criminalise the student's acts of dissent and protest.

Found guilty of the charges, ten students of UC Irvine and UC Riverside, their families, their attorneys and countless supporters who watched this trial closely, were shocked that a jury could return guilty verdicts against the students who honoured the dictum of the first amendment of the US Constitution - freedom of speech. "There is no justice," one woman said as she left the courtroom following the guilty verdict. And one defendant's mother told me as her voice shook, "us Palestinians always lose".

Indeed, the general demoralisation and the absence of justice in this high-profile trial was illuminated not only by the selective and discriminatory nature of the case itself - in which courageous Muslim students spoke out in defence of the Palestinian people during an Israeli official's speech in an ultra-conservative, right-wing area of California - but by the fact that, day after day, Palestinians under siege and brutal military occupation continue to have no voice. And those who dare to speak out against Israel's colonial project in Palestine cannot take the right to free speech for granted anymore; but rather have to fight tooth and nail to keep it safe.

One of the 11 students had his charges dropped several months ago when it was revealed that members of the prosecution team had unlawfully accessed confidential correspondences between that student and his attorney. Just how far was this prosecution team willing to go to build their case?

Much effort was spent to criminalise the students' actions. The obscure California penal code used to level misdemeanour charges was last mentioned in court only twice in the past century. The prosecution in the Irvine 11 case spent eighteen months and hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars building their charges with the intention of putting the students behind bars. The District Attorney himself is seeking re-election, leading many to assume that this case was simply a career move as Islamophobia continues to grow in US socio-political popularity.

Whatever the motivations were for bringing this case as far as it went, it is clear that the attempt by the District Attorney - and the University of California - to instil fear and threat of legal consequence for young people of conscience speaking out and protesting has fallen flat on its face.

Taher Herzallah, another one of the Irvine 11 defendants, spoke passionately outside the courtroom on Friday, specifically addressing solidarity activists around the US.

"My message is to all those activists who have been watching this story closely," he said. "To all of those who speak truth to power, and all of those who challenge the status quo. Do not let this case deter you. Do not let this case falter your activism. Make this the platform to intensify activism on the Palestine issue in this country."

Already, a movement is building that will honour and build on of Nassar's and Herzallah's continued activism, determination to speak truth to power, and refusal to not let a discriminatory district attorney's office intimidate them into submission and silence.

Within minutes of the sentences being read - and quickly disseminated by text message, Twitter and Facebook - many of those in solidarity with the Irvine 11 in southern California committed to work side-by-side with the convicted students as volunteers as they complete their community service obligations.

Meanwhile, the convictions of the Irvine 11 have given their defence team impetus to immediately file an appeal - which they say they will take all the way to the Supreme Court - in order to directly challenge the law "that does not allow for dissent", as attorney Lisa Holder stated. This is a significant silver lining in a case so fraught with shocking discrimination and absurd selective protection of the right to free speech: the attorneys and their clients could effectively change the laws and protect protest for future generations.

In an increasingly cynical world, where Palestinians continue to lose so much and those who speak or act on their behalf face criminalisation, it should give us hope that these students have not traded their courage for fear. Instead, they have pledged to keep giving voice to those who have been silenced, and to inspire countless others to do the same.

© 2021 Al-Jazeera English
Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of "In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine" (Just World Books, 2014).

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