UT goes after an immigrant rights activist

October 3, 2017

Charles Holm and Danny Katch report on the case of Eric Nava-Perez and what it says about the double standard of campus discipline against right and left.

AT A time when far-right hate groups--some of which proudly promote their use of violence--are being given free reign to organize at universities under the banner of "free speech," one of the biggest universities in the country has banned from campus an immigrant activist for an altercation with a journalist while he was trying to protect a protest from harassment.

The sanctions against Eric Nava-Perez, a University of Texas (UT) graduate student, is part of a disturbing double standard of enforcement taking place on college campuses across the country.

For the past year, university administrators have taken little action in response to the growing wave of racist flyers, nooses and active recruitment efforts by neo-Nazi organizations--even after the murder last May of Richard Collins III by a white supremacist student at the University of Maryland (UMD).

Last week, the University of California at Berkeley spent over a million dollars to provide security--also known as a police occupation of the campus--for a motley crew of right-wing provocateurs and actual fascists with only the most tenuous connections to any actual Berkeley student organizations.

Immigrant rights activist Eric Nava-Perez speaks at a protest in Texas
Immigrant rights activist Eric Nava-Perez speaks at a protest in Texas

Even after the event was revealed to be a publicity scam, roving gangs of far-right agitators--including Kyle "Based Stick Man" Chapman, whose nickname comes from his history of assaulting opponents with a stick--were still able to roam around campus all week, intimidating and harassing leftists and students of color.

Yet at colleges across the country, left-wing student activists--whose political agenda just happens to pose a challenge to the corporate education model preferred in the offices of most university presidents--are facing a steady stream of bureaucratic obstacles to their ability to hold meetings on campus and draconian enforcement of disciplinary codes.

Now this chilling climate for progressive campus politics is set to get even chillier if UT is able to carry out its semester-long ban against Eric Nava-Perez, who was arrested at a September 1 protest against the implementation of the radically anti-immigrant legislation known as Senate Bill 4 (SB 4).

The small protest quickly faced intimidation from both campus police and right-wing hecklers, and Eric spent much of the protest defusing confrontations and keeping demonstrators safe.

What you can do

Sign this petition demanding that the University of Texas lift the interim sanction and drop any consideration of imposing future sanctions on Nava-Perez that restrict his access to campus."

Make a donation here to help cover Eric's legal expenses, and support his family.

In this tense atmosphere, Nava-Perez misunderstood the intentions of student journalist Chase Karacostas, who was aggressively trying to get Eric's information, and in the resulting confrontation, the reporter suffered minor injuries.

The incident was clearly regrettable, but UT wildly overreacted by suspending Nava-Perez, banning him from campus and absurdly claiming that he "poses a threat of disruption to the academic process on the UT-Austin campus."

Far from protecting its students, this action by the UT administration will only further embolden the right-wing forces that are the true campus threats--and further marginalize immigrant students already feeling vulnerable.

"TEXAS HAS never felt like a safe place for immigrants," says Nava-Perez, a member of the International Socialist Organization and Sanctuary UT who is working on a dual master's program in Latin American Studies and Community and Regional Planning.

Things got worse following the election of Donald Trump--and then worse again with the passage of SB 4. "With this law," he says, "feelings around being vulnerable and susceptible to deportations have increased."

Signed into law last May, SB 4 would ban "sanctuary" cities and campuses, punish elected officials for not enforcing federal immigration law and effectively deputize as federal immigration agents all state, county, city and other "peace" officers in Texas. It would also empower non-federal law enforcement--including university police officers--to question just about anyone about their nationality and immigration status.

Even before the law was set to take effect on September 1, The Intercept reported on the impact it was having among Texas' immigrant population, documented and undocumented. The Houston Police Department, for example, "saw a nearly 43 percent decrease in the number of Hispanic victims reporting rape, even as rapes reported by non-Hispanics increased by 8 percent" in the same time period.

Meanwhile, the UT campus has seen an increased presence of extreme right-wing propaganda, including flyers attacking Muslims and immigrants and a racist flyer featuring a gross caricature of an African American alongside the slogan "Around Blacks, Never Relax."

Eric says that while the UT administration puts itself forward as supporting "diversity" and "multiculturalism," its enforcement actions tell a different story. "We don't hear of the right wing being caught or disciplined for these actions," he says. "We only tend to hear about people being disciplined for doing stuff against racism on campus."

On April 23, for example, fascists inspired by or belonging to American Vanguard--the group that posted white supremacist flyers at UMD months before Richard Collins' murder--were spotted on campus by anti-fascist activists.

But that day, the campus police department (UTPD) was busy harassing student activists promoting a multiracial, anti-sexist, pro-immigrant day of action against SB 4. Incredibly, officers who stopped these activists cited UT's recently implemented Hate and Bias Incidents policy, which was ostensibly created to respond to racist incidents and activity on campus, but more often has been used to police and rein in anti-racist speech and organizing on campus.

ON SEPTEMBER 1, UTPD officers--who it's worth remembering are set to become empowered as de facto immigration police by the same law that students were protesting that day--played a major role is making an already tense atmosphere even more so.

When protest organizers arrived at their meeting point at the Cesar Chavez statue in UT's West Mall, "there was already a police presence waiting for us," Eric says.

The UTPD said they were there to protect the First Amendment rights of protesters--to which one activist responded that they hadn't asked for their protection. "Mind you," Eric says, "[the activist] wasn't being rude or anything, just stated a fact that we didn't ask for the police to be there."

A campus cop replied that the activist was being "confrontational," and things turned more hostile from there. Twenty minutes into the speak-out, Eric says, "it seemed like there were more cops, more of an active police presence...We had chanting, different slogans, and people were kind of having fun but it seemed like the over-policing that took place prohibited others from joining the rally.

The intimidating presence of the police, he added, created "some hesitancy among students to join the protest even though it felt like for the most part, students were receptive about what we were saying about SB 4."

Before the planned march that followed the speak-out began, Eric announced over the megaphone to the crowd, "I don't know what the cops are doing here. These are peaceful protesters, and we have the legal right to assemble. I don't know why they are going to follow us. I feel harassed."

UTPD officers weren't the only ones creating a climate of intimidation. During the speak-out, a right-wing heckler seemed to be harassing a young woman at the protest with persistent questioning.

"I had the bullhorn and called him out," Eric says. "I said something like, 'Hey, look, she doesn't have to answer you, and you should leave her alone. You aren't entitled to a response, and if she doesn't want to speak with you, she doesn't have to."

At another point, Eric says another person "was just passing by the rally, and he basically just shoved the megaphone in my face, and I just basically had to not do anything about it and just keep myself cool," Eric says.

This incident happened in plain sight, but UTPD officers did nothing to carry out their stated mission of "keeping the protest safe" following this physical harassment.

THE ALTERCATION between Nava-Perez and Karacostas began when Eric's partner told him that someone had been repeatedly asking her for his information in front of the couple's young son and not leaving her alone even after she said no to him several times.

"He was asking for my name, my full name, whether I was an organizer, and if I was a student," Eric recalls. "When my partner told him he could ask me after I was done speaking, he told her, 'Or you could just let me know right now.'"

It wasn't clear that Karacostas was a reporter with the Daily Texan because he wasn't wearing press credentials. Karacostas may have just been trying to be a dogged reporter, but Eric was concerned he might be a right-wing pseudo-journalist whose real aim was to gain information about him and other protesters in order to "dox" them later with a campaign of online harassment.

"Immediately, a red flag went up in my mind about them trying to get information on me and compromise me online, and I was concerned for other individuals," he says. "The fact that he was asking my partner, and then I saw him talking with the right-wing heckler, I became alarmed."

Although Eric and other activists regret that the student journalist Karacostas was injured, and it's important for activists to learn from this incident, nothing justifies the draconian response of the UT administration. From the beginning, it seems to have relied solely on the reports of campus officers, who unsurprisingly painted Eric's actions in the harshest possible light.

It's no surprise that right-wing media outlets have used this incident as evidence of left-wing protesters run amok. More disappointing--and dangerous--has been the response of progressive organizations like the Student Press Law Center, which ran a story framing the incident as part of a larger trend of anti-media sentiment.

That's absurd. Nava-Perez didn't confront Karacostas because he's against the media, but because he was justifiably concerned about being targeted by right-wing trolls posing as the media--a very real concern for activists who have the courage to step away from their laptops and organize for immigrants and racial justice in the Trump era.

Eric Nava-Perez is the first person in his family to graduate from college, a working-class student and father who has put in countless hours to build protests and organizations that can help protect the rights of immigrants in the heart of Texas.

If his ban from campus is upheld, it won't just delay his higher education, but put it in jeopardy, because it will cost him the income from his campus-based job that he needs to save money for future semesters.

The fight for real free speech on campus--where students of all races and backgrounds are able to express their views--will require more protests against anti-immigrant laws and more courageous organizers. The University of Texas needs to drop its sanctions against Eric Nava-Perez.

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