By: Allan Wolper
The students squeezed into the lobby of The Daily Californian. They chanted anti-racism slogans and banged their fists on the newsroom walls, their numbers growing through the evening hours until the entrance to the newspaper was sealed off.
They were there to bring American journalism to justice and force the independent student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley to apologize for running what they saw as a hate crime of a cartoon that indicted all Muslims and Arabs for the terrorist attacks
on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“It was frightening,” said Californian editor Janny Hu of the Sept. 18 siege of her office. “I wouldn’t have called campus police otherwise. They were trying to intimidate us. The only way we could clear them out was to have them arrested.”
But since this was Berkeley — where violent dissent is viewed as a civil right — university officials had the campus police only arrest the protesters who volunteered to be taken into custody and allowed the leaders of the wall bangers to leave.
The 17 who were charged were given desk citations for trespassing and sent home knowing that their behavior — scarily like the anti-American rallies in the Middle East — would not cost them a single night in jail.
Police sources concede the Alameda County district attorney’s office will dismiss the charges rather than be seen prosecuting students for anti-social political behavior.
With nothing to worry about, it was no wonder the protesters thought the paper would be terrorized into a published apology. They knew The Daily Californian had apologized the previous academic year after conservative columnist David Horowitz had argued in a paid ad that reparations for slavery in America was racist.
But the young journalists were not about to back down on their principles this time around. They now understood that news organizations don’t have to beg forgiveness for the opinions they publish. So even though they had to call the cops to keep the mob away, they refused to apologize.
It was obvious the cartoon was not an indictment of a people, but of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. The cartoon showed two turbaned followers of bin Laden in the devil’s palm, amid the flames of hell, a flight manual at their feet, celebrating the suicide missions that had taken so many lives.
“We made it to paradise,” said one. “Now we will meet Allah, and be fed grapes, and be serviced by 70 virgin women.”
Ironically, Darrin Bell, a 26-year-old African-American graduate of Berkeley who drew the bin Laden cartoon, is a favorite of the Muslim and Arab students who would have censored him.
“It’s usually white people who are offended by my cartoons,” Bell said. “I was proud of those kids at the Californian. They were faced with 100 people and didn’t back down. They learned a lot about free speech since the Horowitz ad.”
Even though The Daily Californian found its backbone, the wall-banging protesters seemed to have won the propaganda war, thanks to The Associated Press. The wire story of the protests emphasized the charge that the cartoon was racist, never reported the cartoonist was black, and minimized the assault on the paper. And the Muslim students acknowledged their newsroom invasion had gone over the line.
“They were scared,” admitted Basim Elkarra, the 22-year-old president of the Muslim Students Union. “They wouldn’t even come out to talk to us. Now they have a cop at their door. We were shocked that our own school newspaper would do this to us. You would never see them do that kind of thing to a Jewish group. That cartoon wasn’t an example of free speech. It is hate speech.”
The story of how university officials let Elkarra and the other leaders of the Arab student groups escape from The Daily Californian‘s lobby without paying even a minimal disciplinary price for their behavior has never been told.
“They said they were leaving because they felt it would be bad public relations for them to be arrested,” explained Janny Hu. “People around here love to talk about freedom and how we are so open. But if someone expresses an opinion that is different than their own we have problems.”
Still Hu understood her Arab student readers would recoil in shock to any picture that would connect them to the horrors of the Sept. 11 holocaust. “They felt we
were encouraging attacks against Arabs,” she said.
But Berkeley students — especially those on visas from countries with repressive regimes — must understand that America is not Iran or Saudi Arabia, where journalists are jailed for expressing an opinion.
This country thrives on assimilation. It is a place where African-American cartoonists like Darrin Bell are encouraged to express themselves in black and white without worrying about the consequences. It is not a training ground for First Amendment terrorists. And Berkeley, of all places, should know that.