San Diego After graduating from Southwest High School in South San Diego in 1997, Roberto Hernandez went off to study at UC Berkeley, where a successful undergraduate career has led to his acceptance into the school's Ph.D. program in ethnic studies. But last spring Hernandez ran afoul of campus administrators when he participated in a demonstration against University of California investments in companies doing business in Israel. The conflict prompted Berkeley to withhold Hernandez's diploma, preventing him from embarking on his graduate studies and collecting the fellowship with which he planned to pay for his tuition and living expenses. The university took action against 31 other students who participated in the demonstration as well.
In the San Francisco Chronicle's November 18, 2001, edition, reporter Tanya Schevitz brought Hernandez's case to statewide attention. She describes the situation as "a battle that students characterize as a free-speech issue but one that the university considers a simple matter of protecting other students' rights to an education." Complicating matters was the decision of the Alameda County district attorney, after college police arrested the students for trespassing in Wheeler Hall on the Berkeley campus, to drop criminal charges against them.
In addition, said Hernandez in a phone interview, the court responded to the charges by issuing the students a "factual finding of innocence," a ruling that prevents their arrests from being used as evidence in any further action against them. Yet the university has gone ahead in pressing "student conduct" charges. "It gets back to the fact that we're questioning the university's financial investments in Israel, which total $6.4 million. And for that reason we feel they're coming down harder on us than on any student group in the last 30 years," said Hernandez. "During the Free Speech Movement, they came down on some students pretty heavy-handedly, but ever since then there have been a number of issues that have occurred on this campus, including the divestment from South Africa. Even then, or during protests against Prop 209, affirmative action more recently, and cutbacks to ethnic studies in '99, even among all these protests they have not come down on students as hard as they've been trying to come down on us. What they're doing is pursuing a year's suspension for all involved."
In defense of last spring's student protests, Hernandez cites the university's investments in the Caterpillar Corporation, "which are the ones who do all the tractors, the demolition equipment that is being used to tear down houses in Palestine. And there are financial ties via research, the research of military technology that is being used upon Palestinian citizens. We always deal with this question: What about the suicide bombers? Well, it's not just about suicide bombers, but Palestinians who are also at the losing end from this violence of the Israeli state."
The headline over Tanya Schevitz's article in the Chronicle reads, "My Life Is Shaped by the Border." In it she writes, "Roberto Hernandez remembers looking out the window of his San Ysidro school classroom and seeing the Border Patrol chasing people 'who look like me' across the playground." The experience is one of the reasons Hernandez, a Mexican citizen until his naturalization proceeding two years ago, compares the Latino situation on the U.S.-Mexico border with the situation of Palestinians in Israel.
Over the phone he elaborates, starting with a comparison to Israel's use of checkpoints to help screen for Palestinians suspected of planning terrorist acts. "Even though it's not with the same severity," he says, "we also have to deal with checkpoints like the ones [on I-15] near Temecula and on the 5 [near San Onofre]. But, aside from the actual checkpoints that are up, the Border Patrol does go around stopping people and checking for papers. Oftentimes, whether it be legal residents or even U.S. citizens, they see brown faces and they stop them to check for papers.
"More recently Israel is drawing from the U.S.-Mexico border by their laying out of a wall around the West Bank. This new wall -- a lot of similarities are there in terms of the type of military technology being increasingly used on the U.S.-Mexico border, the type of technology they're using, heat sensors, motion sensors. The wall over there is actually twice as big, though; it's about 25 feet. I believe the one we have is only about 15.
"Then people literally have to live under the fear of even going out to the streets. Over there it's much more extreme in terms of the possibility of military violence, whereas here it's a calmer, what we call 'low-intensity' conflict, low-intensity violence, where the violence is not as prevalent, yet it's there."
In Berkeley this fall, Hernandez has been attending classes in which he cannot yet enroll, so that he will not lag behind when his suspension runs its course or is lifted, as he is confident that it will be. He is also doing research on the U.S.-Mexico border region. Since the start of Operation Gatekeeper in 1995, "There have been over 2000 people accounted for that have died," he says, "and we're looking at these numbers to keep increasing." But Latino deaths on the border didn't suddenly start then. As part of his research, Hernandez has been looking into the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald's massacre by James Huberty.
"At the time, the Border Patrol was starting to use military technology, but it's not just about the use of technology but this whole rhetoric of the border as a war zone and how that instills in people's minds that it is, in fact, a war zone and, as a war zone, it needs to be defended. That's why we have the vigilante types -- most prevalent in Arizona right now, the Barnett brothers, but also there in San Diego. So it becomes a question of whether this guy Huberty was also, in a sense, thinking in a militaristic way -- I believe he was a Vietnam vet -- and whether the war on drugs and defending the border had already been in his mind prior to the shooting and affected the motives as to why he went and shot. I mean, of the 21 killed, [most] were Mexican [or] Mexican nationals.