The NLG and Main Campus Activism

Jeremy Cowan
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

On October 29, 2013, incoming UC President Janet Napolitano came to UC Irvine. The former head of the Department of Homeland Security was touring UC campuses to meet with both faculty and student leaders, and did so under limited circumstances. Initially the only two UCI students scheduled to meet with Ms. Napolitano were the UCI undergraduate and graduate student body presidents. However, the representatives of a handful of student groups were later invited to speak with the UC President under certain conditions. The Muslim Student Union was given notice that they would know the location of the meeting only 20 minutes beforehand. The MEChA (a Chicano student movement) representative had a scheduling conflict and Ms. Napolitano’s organizers refused to accept a substitute representative from the organization.

Secrecy has been a hallmark of this UC President’s career since the selection process. The UC Regents chose the public UC system’s new president while keeping the metrics and means used to make their decision private. The only show of dissatisfaction among the Regents during the selection process came from UCI Law student and Student Regent, Cinthia Flores, who was the lone vote against Ms. Napolitano’s appointment.

While the activists at UCI on October 29 felt that it was too late to protest the process that placed Ms. Napolitano at the helm of the UC system, the fear she inspired was a strong motivation to hold a demonstration. While at the Department of Homeland Security, Ms. Napolitano oversaw programs that deported roughly 400,000 immigrants annually. With that background, it is easy to understand why undocumented UC students are uncomfortable with her leading the UC system. The lack of transparency in the Regents’ selection process only heightens that worry when the machinery that moves this great public institution is hidden from the public.

This was the air of fear, insecurity, and unease as protestors organized. The Multicultural Student Coalition of UC Students, an alliance of students from across UC campuses, organized protests to coincide with Ms. Napolitano’s campus visits and listed demands including prohibiting the use of riot police on UC campuses, supporting California’s Trust Act, and establishing a fund for undocumented students. The October 29 protestors gathered as part of the Coalition’s efforts.

Protestors put up flyers and a few were propagated amongst law students. These posters prompted UCI Law students from the National Lawyers Guild to go and meet with the protestors on October 29. The NLG, the oldest non-issue specific association of lawyers and legal workers in the country, mostly focuses its efforts on social issues and saw this as an opportunity to help the UCI community at large. On the day of the protests, NLG members donned their trademark green hats and met with protestors to offer legal observing services. If violence erupted between police and protestors, the NLG would be there to help record it and gather victims’ information.

The protestors wanted to give Ms. Napolitano the meeting with students that she had failed to arrange herself. They wanted to make their voices and concerns heard in the only way that they could. When they heard that she was meeting with students at Donald Bren Hall, they marched.

While most of the protestors stayed in the foyer of Donald Bren Hall, the few who walked into the lobby were shoved back to the foyer by plainclothes police officers. Uniformed officers soon joined them. A few videos of this have made their way online[1]. While the protestors left enough room for staff and students to walk past and into the building, the police only briefly let some students and faculty into the building before restricting entry to everyone.

With all access to the building cut off, the protestors continued chanting and demonstrating, and tried to stay standing despite the officers physically pushing them. The only response from the faculty during the protest was a cry for a teach-in, a move that the protestors felt was irrelevant to their concerns.

There have been positive reactions to the students’ actions. It is Ms. Flores’ belief that UC “[s]tudents have successfully conveyed their discontent with [Ms. Napolitano’s] appointment, which has led to [a] concrete change of policy priorities.” Recent budget allocations have earmarked $10 million for graduate student support and $5 million for undocumented student support. While Ms. Flores continues to speak with other Regents about potentially letting students have more input in future selection processes, she is confident that the budget allocations show that Ms. Napolitano is receptive to student concerns.

While there may be some reaction at the top of the UC system, at UCI the attitude and behavior of the police remains an issue. Alexus Ortiz, Associated Students—UCI’s Local Liaison told me that despite noticing an increase of police on campus, “I feel less safe this year.” With plainclothes police officers pushing and shoving students out of public spaces that fear may not be unjustified. But aggravated police behavior is what the NLG wants to change.

Legal observing is meant to both curb police misconduct and to protect protestors. Activists are planning more demonstrations on campus and they will need more legal observers. UCI Law emphasizes both public service and community engagement and the larger UCI community needs both. The NLG chapter at UCI Law wants to provide this need and to that end will continue to assist UCI’s activists. The NLG regularly trains volunteers for legal observing and our chapter at UCI Law is committed to helping both the UCI and Orange County communities. The NLG is here to help students make a difference; we have reached out to grassroots organizations both on and off campus to offer legal observing services and any law student can attend our meetings, get training, and get involved.