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UCLA students file criminal complaints against anti-Israel disruptors

A protester steps on an Israeli flag during a demonstration against President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Disruptions of pro-Israel events by anti-Israel groups has moved Jewish and pro-Israel groups to start exploring the criminal aspects of such incidents. (Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

Criminal complaints are now being filed by students following the belligerent disruption of a  Students Supporting Israel event on May 17 at University of California, Los Angeles.

At least a half-dozen students announced they would visit the UCLA police department to file formal complaints reporting criminal disruption of a meeting, as well as disturbing the peace and conspiracy.

The move follows media disclosures that UCLA was reneging on the public pledge by two chancellors in the Daily Bruin — bolstered by a statement for the record by a university spokesman — to refer the May 17 incident to prosecutors.

What's the history behind this?

The disruption and nose-to-nose intimidation of the students attending the SSI event on May 17 was documented in a video, beginning at minute 41. Disruptors suddenly and loudly stormed into the room in the middle of the session. One person tore down a flag, demonstratively pulled away a desk placard, and cursed threateningly close to the face of a panelist. With bullhorns, whistles, staged dancing, and slogan shouting, the event was shut down.

The Louis Brandeis D. Center, led by attorney Alyza Lewin, along with Aviva Vogelstein, director of Legal Initiatives, and three law students in the UCLA Brandeis chapter, dispatched a letter to the university asserting that the disruption crossed the line into misdemeanor violations of the California criminal code.

They cited Title 11, section 403 (which covers deliberate disruption of a public meeting — successfully used to convict the so-called Irvine 11), section 415 (which covers malicious disturbance of the peace), and section 182 (which forbids any conspiracy to violate the other sections).

At the same time, two UCLA chancellors, Jerry Kang and Monroe Gorden, penned an official denunciation of the incident that was published in the Daily Bruin campus newspaper.

Their statement promised, “For those outsiders who disrupted the event, we will refer all evidence of wrongdoing to local prosecutors to determine whether they have broken the law.”

Bolstering the chancellors, university spokesman Tad Tamberg confirmed, “the off-campus people who have been identified … have been arrested previously and are known to the police here and have been referred to the prosecutor’s office.”

He added, that a proper police investigation had already been done.

“You don’t send something to the prosecutor’s office without first investigating it,” he said.

The involved UCLA students were to be referred to university discipline rather than prosecutors, the university said.

It was not clear why UCLA students, who potentially broke the law, would not receive the same referral to prosecutors as outsiders for the same conduct.

Why was there no investigation?

The case then took a strange and unexplained twist. Three weeks after the event, in an email, Tamberg clarified, “There were no arrests, nor did anyone file a police report or complaint regarding the May 17 disruption, hence there was no police investigation.”

Tamberg explained his prior assurance about a referral to prosecutors actually involved the disruption of an earlier, completely unrelated Feb. 26 event with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Prosecutors and police assert that without the filing of actual police complaints, no investigation or referral to the prosecutor can take place. None of the disrupted students contacted said they had filed a report, with two saying they did not even know they had the right to file such a complaint. Hence, no action could be taken.

After the media disclosure, numerous students stepped forward to file complaints. The first was Justin Feldman, president of the SSI chapter at Santa Monica College, enrolled at UCLA for the fall semester. Feldman said he feared for his personal safety during the incident.

On June 11, Feldman, who had previously completed a StandWithUs [SWU] high school training program, appeared at the UCLA police department accompanied by Yael Lerman, SWU legal director, to formally file his complaint.

More than a few of the students harassed during the May 17 event were trepidatious about filing a police report. But, according to Lerman, the police made the whole process “comfortable,” acting “helpful and respectful.”

After a short wait at the station, officers Robert Chavez and Lowell Rose escorted Feldman into a small room where his report was taken during an hourlong interview in what Lerman described as an “unrushed” session.

Lerman credited Feldman for his actions. “What Justin did in filing was critical in moving the process forward. The [UCLA] administration has known about this for weeks and has chosen not to move this forward. So now the students have to.”

After emerging from the police station, Feldman said, “I feel empowered. ... I feel it is so important for students to take matters into our own hands, and not leave them to bureaucratic measures.”

Feldman said that “most students simply do not know about the process and what measures can be taken to hold people accountable.”

"Justin's courage will serve to empower other students at universities across the country who will realize that students can help move justice forward when administrations can’t or won’t,” added Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs.

What's next?

A campus police spokesperson assured that the department would investigate all complaints in the matter. Feldman’s complaint is just the beginning.

At press time, Lewin, COO of Louis D. Brandeis Center in Washington, D.C., had dispatched Vogelstein, and a law clerk to fly to Los Angeles to meet with other students who are scheduled to file complaints. Law students in the UCLA Brandeis chapter will observe the process.

The police currently are reviewing a list of 10 individuals who allegedly perpetrated the disruption, along with screen captures of their text messages and social media statements. One such message urged disruptors “to shut it down.”

Within 24 hours of Feldman’s complaint, UCLA confirmed that the matter would indeed be referred to prosecutors.

“UCPD has reviewed the video of the May 17 disruption, and is investigating the information in the incident report for any new evidence about the disruption that it may contain,” university spokesman Tamberg said.  “UCPD will forward the incident report to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.”

A prosecutor has already been assigned. Tamberg said UCPD “will discuss both the report and the video with the prosecuting attorney in July, when that person returns from leave.”

“This case is a turning point for all students across the country,” said SWU’s Rothstein.

Lewin, of the Brandeis Center agreed. “Students across the country now recognize the importance of promptly reporting incidents like these to the police,” she said.

Edwin Black is the New York Times best-selling author of "IBM and the Holocaust" and "Financing the Flames."

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