Tyranny of the majority, UCSA style

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Your UC Student Association took a match and lit democracy on fire. Not only did it trample on your ability to assemble, but it also deprived you of your own voice in your own backyard.

Remember that intense meeting held by the UCSA — which current ASUC External Affairs Vice President Shahryar Abbasi sits on — last week?

The UCSA board brought in scores of students from diverse communities, and intense debate ensued.  What was being discussed? A bill introduced by members of UCSA containing two major components. Firstly, the bill condemns California Assembly House Resolution 35, which calls on academic institutions to condemn anti-Semitism on campus and equates certain anti-Israel speech as anti-Semitic speech. This assertion can hold true in certain scenarios, but HR 35 goes too far in some of its classifications. Free speech must be cherished; let people form their opinions.

In addition to talking about HR 35, the UCSA bill also calls on higher education institutions — UC Berkeley included — to stop profiting from human rights violations. However, the only country with such human rights violations listed in the bill is Israel. Not Saudi Arabia. Not China. Not any other country. This unfair singling out of Israel strikes a particularly controversial chord at Berkeley, where divestment ran rampant in spring 2010.

But wait, it’s difficult to remember last week’s meeting, which was coincidentally held on the Jewish Sabbath, because almost no one except the board and some supporters knew this UCSA bill was being discussed until after voting finished. But where was the opposition? Not there. No agenda was published online saying this item would be discussed, mainly because no agenda was published online for the UCSA meeting at all until after it occurred. Furthermore, the exact meeting location was unavailable to the average student — the only information to be found on the UCSA website was that it was occurring somewhere on UC Berkeley’s not-so-tiny campus. The opposition was deliberately shut out by certain members of our campus community. Innocence before proving guilt is generally a fun concept, so until seeing the email acquired below, extreme negligence by the UCSA board seemed the likely culprit.

Flashback to 2010 and ASUC Senate Bill 118. Hundreds of students packed MLK for a senate meeting to debate the merits of divesting from American companies General Electric and United Technologies, accused of aiding Israeli human rights violations. One student broke down in tears at the podium, lamenting the divide the bill had created between her and her friends. Others cried about family members trapped in the whirlwind of violence common to the region. In the end, the bill failed to garner the votes to overturn the ASUC presidential veto, and that was that.

The UCSA bill’s similarities to SB 118 are apparent, and just as apparent are the immoralities attached with having no Facebook event, no timely agenda and no mass email explaining and inviting students to discuss this subject. The board voted overwhelmingly in support of the bill, with twelve votes in favor and two abstentions, the former of which included current Abbasi.

The absence of an opposing voice — considering the vote count and attendance — on such a controversial topic strips the body of its legitimacy and transparency. This was not spontaneous, according to UC San Diego External Affairs Vice President Olamide Noah, who said the UCSA board had been working on the resolution since its congress in August. Abbasi’s lack of outside input, not necessarily his choice in voting, undermines the trust promised during his campaign last spring.

An email sent out by Luma Haddad, a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine, to core members in the organization reveals the most shocking part of this lack of transparency. Haddad explains to the members why “there was not much word spread about this in the last few days that led up to the meeting.” She then establishes that this was done “in order to prevent unwanted lobbying/intimidation tactics.”

When you lower a basketball hoop and dunk, you do not accomplish the same feat as doing so at its normal height. If you cheat on a test, you do not morally earn that A. When an opposing voice is actively neglected from a major debate on legislation, that body and that legislation becomes permanently tainted.  Whether or not members of the UCSA board purposely committed this withholding of information is unclear, but the fact that that sentiment explicitly existed by some of its key supporters destroys the democratic process supposedly involved in the vote.

In a time where higher education begs for our undivided attention, UCSA has great potential. But a body that acts without publicized agendas, without disclosed meeting locations and without transparency loses credibility.

This systemwide representative body and our EAVP failed in their responsibilities to both proponents and opponents of this bill. For the opponents, this silenced their voice. For the proponents, this cheapened their victory. When we work to fight for higher education this November, how will UCSA have any clout if it continues shutting out the opposition?

Contact Noah Ickowitz at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter @noahickowitz.