Commentary: USC campus police abet anti-Israel propagandists
By Roz Rothstein
LOS ANGELES — Along with many others, I received an internet notice about a September 19th meeting for people interested in promoting a state ballot initiative to divest state retirement funds from some companies that do business with Israel.
The notice was entitled “Los Angeles Campaign Kick off and Petition Circulator Training to Qualify the Israel Divestment Initiative for the California Ballot.” The event was to be held at USC where the USC Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP] had rented a room. Judging from the notice, this was a general event for people interested in the divestment initiative. It was not limited to any particular group, students or otherwise. Community members were also invited to attend.
In fact, despite its billing, this event was not open to the public—certainly not to those whom the organizers thought might not agree with the proposal, as StandWithUs rudely learned.
As the CEO of StandWithUs, I felt it was important that someone attend the event to learn more about the divestment effort. I headed down to the meeting with StandWithUs Senior Developer Gary Ratner. We had no intention of speaking or disrupting the event in any way. Our goal was simply to learn more about the divestment initiative and campaign strategies.
At first, everything seemed fine. About 20 people were there when we arrived. As we walked in, a woman sitting near a table of handouts greeted us just as she apparently had greeted the others. But as we reached over to pick up some of the campaign’s literature, a woman already seated in the room suddenly stood up and loudly cried out, “NO. NO. They cannot be here.”
She quickly walked toward us with an angry and challenging demeanor. It was Yael Korin, a leader of the Los Angeles Woman in Black chapter and a member of the Israel Divestment Campaign [IDC]. She came close to me and asked for my name. When I politely told her, she told me I could not remain in the room.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I don’t think you are permitted to ask people to leave. You chose to hold this event at a University with a student organization (Students for Justice in Palestine) renting the room for you. I don’t believe you can simply tell people they can’t stay with no reason for the exclusion, and we only here to listen.”
Her answer was that our very presence was a disruption. “If you stay, none of us will speak or we will move the event to another room.”
I remained calm but firmly told her that we planned to stay. I believed that she had no right to ask us to leave because the event notice appeared to be a general invitation and it was sponsored by SJP, a student organization on campus that had not indicated that only members were welcome or that it was a private event. Korin had somehow managed to “move me” outside the door, and the woman who had greeted us at the table of materials followed us out. Gary stayed with me.
Yael again told us we had to leave, and I again told her we intended to stay, and that she could call the campus police if she wished. I stressed to her that we had not come to disrupt the event—and hadn’t disrupted it. We were there simply to listen.
The other woman actually grabbed my arm and told me that I could not go back in.
Listen,” I responded, “you cannot touch me like that, and you need to move because we are going inside.”
I opened the door and the woman holding my arm pulled me back but had to let me go because I walked forward.
Yael followed us and announced to the audience that no one should speak in front of me because I am from StandWithUs which opposes divestment. “They are the exact opposite of what we want to do here.”
I looked at the audience and said, “I assure you that we are just here to listen, and we will not disrupt the meeting.”
Gary and I took our seats while Yael went to call the campus police.
We sat quietly and listened for the next 15 minutes when Yael returned with the campus police who asked me and Gary to join them outside the room. We complied and followed them.
Two police officers, Officer Ayala and Officer Clayton, separated me and Gary. One spoke to Gary, the other to me.
I begged Officer Ayala and later Officer Clayton to check the university’s policy because they would probably find that the SJP cannot just pick and choose who can be seated in a University room after they had publicized an open meeting.
I repeatedly urged the officers to realize that they were likely violating university policy, and to please check. I told them that similar incidents had occurred at UC Irvine when the Muslim Student Union [MSU] tried to tell people they had to segregate according to gender, and took upon itself the right to decide who could or could not tape their events. In those incidents, the campus police had told the MSU that they are not allowed to issue such dictates on that University campus. I thought the same policy would certainly apply at USC. I also asked officer Ayala to come back in the room with me and sit with me as I listen to the lecture. I said he could then see that we mean no harm, that we would sit quietly, that we are simply there to listen. But he said he couldn’t or wouldn’t do that, no reason given.
Gary asked Officer Clayton if he would also enforce a similarly arbitrary decision if the SJP and IDC had said gays or blacks or others were not welcome at their event.
On this day, however, the policemen took the side of the Women in Black and the SJP…. and asked us to leave. Although we were extremely disappointed, we of course complied with the police directive and left. But make no mistake, this was not our choice. They made it very clear that they would not let us return to the room.
As we walked away, we met a young woman who was so upset and frightened by the treatment we had received that she had also decided to leave. She was mortified and said that she would be notifying the student community as well as the campus administration. She said that she was fearful of going back in the room.
On the way home, Gary and I called the head of USC’s Department of Public Safety. We spoke to the Watch Commander, Officer Sandell, who already knew what had happened. She said she stood by the officers’ decision to force us to leave. I urged her to investigate USC’s policy regarding groups like SJP and Women in Black that don’t allow people whose opinions they don’t like to attend an event being held on campus. She promised to get back to me by Thursday, September 23 after she will have had an opportunity to look into the policy.
Officer Sandell kept repeating that we were asked to leave to “keep the peace.”
I explained that we were absolutely peaceful, just sitting quietly and listening. I repeated that I was physically stopped from moving by an elderly woman and that the organizers were the ones who had caused a disruption and were not “keeping the peace,” not us.
I regret that Women in Black and SJP were permitted to violate our right to listen to their presentation even though the event was held at a prestigious University, and particularly saddened that they were aided by the police.
I strongly believe that there is something wrong with their decision to force us to leave. After all, by any definition, Gary and I are part of the “public.” However, I am willing to accept the possibility that SJP had a right to select who on the campus and in the wider community would be permitted to attend because they paid to rent the room and therefore were able to discriminate against us… but it’s hard to believe that such tactics are permitted at USC, especially given there was no disruption except the one caused by SJP and IDC who object to StandWithUs and anyone else who disagrees with them.
Below, please read the announcement that was sent out about the event. At no point does it state that this was a private event, and that attendees would be screened to approve their opinions and political views.
A disturbing aspect of this episode is that anti-Israel activists seem more than willing to violate fundamental American civil rights and University standards to further their cause (as we have seen happen at UC Irvine, San Jose State University, De Paul University, and far too many more campuses). At USC, they did so not just with the acquiescence, but even the complicity of USC police. It is not surprising that a young woman who attended wrote an article denouncing the IDC-SJP and USC police actions
This is not the America these young women or we know, but it seems to be the kind of America that anti-Israel activists wish to impose on “the public.”
Here is the announcement that we responded to:
SUNDAY: Los Angeles Campaign Kick off and Petition Circulator Training to Qualify the Israel Divestment Initiative for the California Ballot
Posted by uscsjp on September 18, 2010
Join the California Israel Divestment Campaign
Israel Divestment Campaign To Train Petition Circulators this Sunday, 9/19
Event: Los Angeles Campaign Kick off and Petition Circulator Training to Qualify the
Israel Divestment Initiative for the California Ballot
Date/Time: Sunday, September 19, 1 PM
Location: University of Southern California
Taper Hall 212 (THH212);
Rothstein is the cofounder and CEO of Stand With Us, a pro-Israel advocacy group.