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New Narratives Attracts Student Activists and Protests

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UCI Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham and Student Affairs hosted the first New Narratives event of the year last Thursday, Nov. 16, inviting Orange County leaders to discuss recent social conflicts and community healing. The event also attracted groups of students who demanded UCI administration do more to support students.

The event began with a presentation by Vice Chancellor Parham on the need to address social justice issues using “a new narrative.” He showed video and news clips of national incidents like Charleston and Charlottesville, as well as campus incidents like ASUCI’s flag ban controversy that occurred in 2015 and the protests sparked by Milo Yiannopoulos’s two visits to UCI last year. Vice Chancellor Parham stressed the dangers of staying silent on social and political issues before inviting the first panelists onstage.

The first panel included Matt Murphy, senior deputy district attorney of Orange County; Mike Hamel, chief of police for the Irvine Police Department; and Reverend Mark E. Whitlock, COR Church pastor. With Vice Chancellor Parham as moderator, the panelists discussed their anger and sadness over seeing tragic events in the news, specifically mentioning Dylann Roof and the Charleston church shooting in 2015. Rev. Whitlock said that as much as he wanted to hate Roof, his interactions with Chief Hamel and other white officers in the Irvine Police Department influenced his opinion.

“All white folk ain’t bad folk,” said Rev. Whitlock, “and we cannot allow ourselves to live and harbor hate against people we don’t know.”

The panelists continued to talk about what can be done to educate people on social issues in their community, advocating for integrated worship and increased outreach in minority communities.

Vice Chancellor Parham then introduced the speakers for the second panel, which included Alison Edwards, deputy director of Orange County Human Relations; Rabbi Peter S. Levi, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League of OC and Long Beach; and Manuel Gomez, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of UCI Student Affairs.

Before these panelists could take their seats onstage, a student in the audience called out, “If black lives matter to UCI, why have you ignored every instance of police brutality that students have filed?” Soon, more students from the Black Student Union and Student Activists at UCI stood up to voice their opinions, criticizing Vice Chancellor Parham and UCI administration for allowing speakers like Yiannopoulos on campus. Students also shared frustrations with the university’s decision to allow far-right political activist Lauren Southern to speak at a College Republican-hosted event occurring at about the same time as the panel discussion, in another room in the Student Center.

Members of the Student Activists at UCI came to question Vice Chancellor Parham about the university’s inadequate support for UC service workers and Palestinian students. Students also wanted their administration to take a more direct stance against speakers like Southern. Undergraduate Matthew Downing said that events such as New Narratives are not enough.

“The topics of the events, while broadly political, are unrelated to the views of alt-lite speakers who come to campus,” said Downing. “The speakers at these events talk primarily in platitudes and denouncements of things that everyone already agrees are bad, like the events at Charlottesville, and focus on vague national trends rather than our unique position as a university in the OC. They avoid any engagement with current, local, violence-supporting political views that require nuanced inspection.”

“UCI’s refusal to engage critically and intelligently with white-nationalist and alt-lite views fails to support students who are targeted by alt-right-leaning ideologies,” continued Downing. “Parham, tonight’s presenter, prevented the creation of a space for undocumented students at our Cross Cultural Center, there is blatant harassment and mistreatment of workers in Arroyo Vista and current contract negotiations have the UC trying to cut benefits to university workers—even though the UCs have hidden $175 million, are raising tuition fees and are increasing the Chancellors’ salaries.”

Both the Student Activists and the Black Student Union left the room after announcing their demands. Vice Chancellor Parham continued on with the program and the panelists discussed ways to disrupt implicit biases and normalization of hate. Gomez stressed the importance of having intergenerational exchanges and stated that the real problem is division.

“We’re divided between students and faculty, between students and administration, we’re divided between here and the broader community,” said Gomez. “All of these divisions are the problem. We’re divided and we’re oppressed. That’s how we’re conquered, that’s how we’re manipulated. So what’s our strategy? Unite and resist.”

The conversation circled back to discussion of the student activists a few times with Rev. Whitlock praising Vice Chancellor Parham’s handling of the situation. A few panelists acknowledged the students’ courage to speak up but wished they had stayed for the rest of the talk.                                   

“It takes courage to stand up and they had it,” said Gomez. “They didn’t have a deeper understanding of what free speech is and what a forum is and how to participate in a forum. They could have asked all those key, beautiful questions had they remained here. We would have gotten into some deep stuff together because these individuals here have perspective and experiences and ideas.”

Vice Chancellor Parham defended UCI administration’s actions and called attention to demands that were already resolved.

“All those demands we addressed,” said Vice Chancellor Parham. “They wanted a new Cultural Center, we did. A new director for the Cultural Center, we put in place. Internships for students, we put in place. We wanted to modify the curriculum so that the academics could actually look at black studies and turn it from a program to a department, the campus did.”  

Vice Chancellor Parham also stated that this event’s speakers are all activists in their own right.

“This is a generation who taught that generation how to struggle and fight, but now you want to question whether or not our hearts are still in the right place… The answer to hate speech is not oppression of it, but more speech.”

Student activists, however, including Downing, were left disappointed.

“We got what we expected from the administration,” said Downing. “A refusal to answer our questions, even though those questions were about the purpose of the event and the university’s framing of the event.  But we’re optimistic, too.  This was only a first step towards a more supportive university administration, and we look forward to working with them to shift campus discussion away from banal political platitudes and towards nuanced, critical, intelligent examination of the hateful white-nationalist and alt-lite ideologies that are currently being realized on our campus.”