ONCE YOU SAW THEM, NOW YOU DON’T (Jessica Taylor)
They decorated the atrium of the Irvine Valley College Student Services Center for more than 10 years, a silent, colorful tribute to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the central Orange County campus. One day they were gone. The only information given was a two-sentence press release:
“For over 10 years, Irvine Valley College has flown international flags approved by the United Nations as an expression of the college’s diverse student population,” the statement from Dana Oaks said. “The college has now removed the flags and is in the process of developing an alternate method of expression that will reflect the spirit, pride, and heritage of IVC’s diverse student population.”
The precipitous decision to remove the flags was a direct consequence of two encounters that occurred on Feb. 20 and 21 between college officials and a delegation of public and private leaders from the communities of Westminster and Garden Grove.
Whether the outcome resulted from an “attempt to educate the IVC administration on the history of the Vietnamese Freedom and Heritage Flag and its emotional symbolism for the Vietnamese-American community” or was canveyed as a warning of “an imminent threat to the public safety of the campus and students, it begs the question of how can a single interest group impose its will on an independent academic institution.
According to the Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, the first encounter was a meeting held between Oaks and a delegation which included Westminster Mayor Pro Tem Andy Quach, Garden Grove Councilwoman Dina Ngyuen and individuals considered to be community leaders.
At least two members of the delegation have been identified as being affiliated with the Committee for the Vietnamese Heritage Flag, by its Coordinator, Lan Quoc Ngyuen (no relation to Councilwoman Ngyuen) and Quach later identified others as having ties to the Vietnamese Cultural and Heritage Foundation of America.
Quach voiced the group’s objections to the display of the internationally recognized national flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and presented Oaks with a replacement flag, known in the Vietnamese-American community as the Freedom and Heritage Flag, the flag of the former government of South Vietnam.
The following day Roquemore, with IVC Academic Senate President Wendy Gabriella present, called Quach. Roquemore said Quach elaborated on the disruptions that erupted in Westminster in Jan. 1999 over the decision of a Vietnamese-American store owner to display the UN-recognized flag in his front store window. The protest lasted 49 days, involved upwards of 50,000 protestors and had numerous incidents of vandalism and small scale violence. Roquemore said Quach indicated that similar protests, initiated by unknown members of the Vietnamese-American community could immediately threaten the IVC campus if the flag remained hanging.
“[Quach] was conveying this information as a concerned citizen,” Roquemore said. “Under the circumstances, I had no choice but to immediately take action to remove the flags.”
Roquemore told Quach that all of the flags would be removed by the following day. Through Director of Student Affairs Helen Locke, ASIVC President Matthew Wechsler was instructed to remove the flags, which was done on the on the morning of Feb. 22.
Wechsler said that he was surprised that the decision had been made without prior ASIVC input, thinking it “awkward” and “weird”, but felt better about it when he and the other ASIVC members were apprised of the full circumstances.
“ASIVC fully supports the actions of the IVC Administration,” Wechsler said. When asked if he thought it appropriate that individuals with no ties to the IVC academic community could force such an action, he said “some people don’t respect the idea (of diversity) as much as others”.
Quach initially described his and Councilwoman Ngyuen’s involvement as that of “tagalongs”, who were merely responding to a request from their constituents; however, his actions and the statements of Roquemore, Oaks and Mr. Ngyuen flatly contradict this assertion. Both Quach and Councilwoman Ngyuen participated in the delegation in their official capacity as City Council members at the first meeting.
Oaks identified Quach as the group’s spokesperson, an impression reinforced when Quach made the introductions and indicated that he was to be the liaison between the delegation members and the IVC administration.
Oakes quoted Quach as being the individual who personally requested the removal. Only Quach and Councilwoman Ngyuen were quoted in a subsequent story in the Orange County Register and in the SBTN news. (Attempts over two weeks were made to Councilwoman Ngyuen to allow her to clarify her role, but none of those calls were returned.)
Although both Westminster and Garden Grove passed ordinances in 2003 designating the Freedom and Heritage Flag as the official flag, these ordinances have no standing outside of their communities. When interviewed, both Quach and Mr. Ngyuen referred to Executive Order S-14-06, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger on Aug. 5, 2006 as a basis for intervening in areas outside their communities.
However, the relevant section of the order does not sanction or encourage the replacement of the Freedom and Heritage Flag for the officially recognized, but states “The Vietnamese Freedom and Heritage Flag may be displayed on the premises of state buildings in connection with a state-sponsored Vietnamese-American ceremonial event, consistent with rules and protocol regarding the proper display of the United States and the State of California flags, including the provisions of title 4, chapter1 of the United States Code.”
All of the flags are recognized by the U.S. State Department and the United Nations as the legitimate flags of sovereign states. The insertion of a non-recognized flag invalidates the legitimacy of the entire display.
Neither Quach nor Lan Quoc Ngyuen could identify anyone from IVC or the City of Irvine as having requested their intervention, nor could they name a specific occurrence where a student, employee or faculty member of IVC who lives in the communities of Westminster or Garden Grove made a complaint. None of the delegation lives in the city of Irvine or has any known ties to IVC.
“We understand that IVC is a completely different jurisdiction”, said Quach. He also said that Roquemore’s belief that a threat to public safety was imminent could have been “a misunderstanding of language or culture.”
This understanding (or lack thereof) has not deterred similar groups from attempting to force the same changes at other schools. Most recently, the University of Southern California was approached to make similar changes to the display of flags surrounding the Von KleinSmid Center but was rebuffed. “We understand that there are different points of view,” said James Grant, USC Executive Director of University Relations. “These are the flags that are approved by the United Nations and The U.S. Department of State.”
Members of USC’s student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, said that student activists vow to continue to push for the flag’s removal, but quoted Hung Ngyuen, a member of the Union of Vietnamese Student Association (VSA), as affirming that “the issue should be resolved peacefully”. Chris Tran Co-President of the VSA was also quoted as stating that “they (VSA) not working together on this issue” with any non-USC affiliated group.