Members of the Ché Café Collective believe in free and open access to information. An ironic stance, because the collective is, for now, not talking.
The Ché Café is a leftist student-run co-op located on the University of California, San Diego campus in what was once shower stalls for military recruits. The café is nonprofit and hosts all-ages music shows, offers all-you-can-eat vegan food nights and on weekends feeds the homeless and working poor through the Food Not Bombs program. Harmless as they may seem, during the past few weeks, the group has garnered myriad media attention, spawned from allegations that a Web site it maintains provides communications support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Unarguably, college campuses are the breeding ground for political experimentation, where marginalized viewpoints have found legitimacy through academic rigor. But with the past year has come distrust for anything straying too far outside the box.
Early last month, a letter that university officials will only say came from the East Coast alleged that BURN!, a controversial Web site published by the Ché Café Collective, contained a link to the official Web site of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a radical Marxist group whose goal, like all radical Marxist groups, is to overthrow their homeland government. When the letter writer pointed out that the link might be in violation of federal law under the recently enacted USA Patriot Act, university officials scrambled and the media took notice. Article after article, however, has pointed out the same thing: no one from the Ché Café Collective will speak to the press.
In keeping with its anarchist bent, the group doesn't trust the corporate media and have declined to speak with anyone but independent journalists. They've ostensibly held up a mirror to CityBeat, ignoring three requests for an interview. Perhaps the alternative press is more corporate than its members want to admit. Or perhaps the Ché students fail to distinguish friends from foes.
What they will offer, however, to anyone who's got the time and interest, is a meticulous record of correspondence with university officials detailing what the collective claims is a pattern of “administrative harassment.” On Sept. 13, campus police entered the Ché Café building without just cause. On the same day a letter sent by campus event organizers claimed that the group was holding live music shows at the café without liability insurance. Three days later came a letter asserting that Ché members were, in claiming responsibility for the BURN! site and its contents, violating federal law. A Sept. 16 letter from University Centers Director Gary Ratcliff couldn't have put it plainer:
“This letter will serve to inform you,” Ratcliff wrote, “that the Ché Café is in violation of UCSD policies and Federal law by maintaining the burn.ucsd.edu website and using computer network resources to provide access to a terrorist organization.”
Ratcliff goes on to point out that the BURN! website “includes links supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an organization listed by the U.S. State Department as a Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
“Federal law,” the letter continues, “specifies that providing material support to terrorists... includes communications equipment, personnel and facilities. In this case, communications equipment is the use of the UCSD computer network resource, personnel are the Ché Café members who maintain the server with [the] burn web site, and facilities include the Ché facility where the server is housed.”
On Sept. 20, the Ché Collective responded, asserting that Ratcliff had not followed proper protocol and had not notified the student government of the charges. At one point the letter borrows language that suggests the flap mirrors a much larger national issue: “You do not have the authority to unilaterally impose sanctions based on your opinion that we violated University Policies and Procedures,” the letter reads.
What the letter fails to mention is whether or not the group would abide by Ratcliff's request that the link to the FARC site be removed. This point, however, was later clarified in a widely distributed flyer authored by the collective.
“Stand up for free speech!” the flyer trumpets. “On Sept. 16th, the Ché Café received a threatening e-mail from Gary Ratcliff... stating that the organization and its members are in violation of UCSD policies and federal law by publishing the burn.ucsd.edu web site, because it has a link to the [FARC].... The Che Café Collective has chosen to continue to publish the link, citing this as an important issue of First Amendment rights under the newly imposed USA Patriot Act.
“What lies ahead,” the flyer predicts, “may be a long and protracted struggle.”
Begun in 1993 in a Unix-only world, the impetus for BURN! was to create an online gathering space for alternative political views. In countries where political oppression is epidemic, news that's not censored by the government is hard to come by and BURN! promised to find and publish it.
As the Web site espouses, “BURN! started as a student project in the communications department in the early 1990s as an experiment in a new type of media. Instead of publishing information written about various social protagonists, BURN! publishes information written by them. Primary source media eliminates the go-between because the best way to learn about what's going on is to hear it from the people who are actively involved. The information that we publish is used for research by academics and journalists throughout the world.”
Anarchy seems to be the Web site's creators' dominant ideology, and several groups that have been or are currently featured on the BURN! site advocate violence as a means to an end, but there's an overlying theme of social and economic justice and worker's rights. And although some of the organizations BURN! links to have been accused of harsh crimes (FARC is currently held responsible for 3,500 murders each year), BURN! endorses Noam Chomsky's ethic that propaganda is a tool of the ruling class and the people in power aren't always telling the truth.
Although BURN!'s current incarnation seems scant to what it once was, at its high point it was a clearinghouse for journalists and academics worldwide. During periods of international political upheaval, the site's keepers sought to provide a virtual asylum for news organizations shut down by their respective governments. One example of this came in July 1998 when the Spanish government put an end to egin, the Basque nationalist newspaper. BURN! offered the paper Web space to maintain publication. However, when the Spanish government found this out, it flooded the BURN! mail server, effectively crippling the entire UCSD e-mail system.
UCSD Professor Emerita DeeDee Halleck has written about the evolution of BURN! and recently presented a paper on the topic at an academic conference in Barcelona. In BURN!'s heyday, Halleck said, “they provided Web sites to hundreds and hundreds of people. If somebody wanted to have a Web site, they were making it available.”
This sort of open embrace of alternative viewpoints didn't sit well with everyone.
“I wasn't reticent about declaring my support for it,” said Halleck, “and I think that caused me to lose acceleration in the advancement of my UCSD career. I think there were some people in the university and in the [Communications] department that felt it was wrong that I was supporting this group, but I always thought it was very useful as a research tool.
“You know,” she added, “if you don't have access to these things how can you know what's going on in the world?”
As she highlights in her research paper, controversy over the Web site came to the hilt in 1997 when BURN! organizers became privy to primary information from the Peruvian rebel group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). When the MRTA took over the Japanese embassy in Lima that same year, foreign journalists turned to BURN! first for information and to UCSD officials second to ask why the university supported a terrorist group. Halleck, in her paper, cites a July 21, 1997 Time magazine article that directed pointed criticism at both BURN! and UCSD: “In the give-'em-an-inch-and-they'll-take-a mile-school of thought, the students who run the Solidarity Page and go by the name the Burn! Collective also provide links to a lot of other fringe political groups and radical organizations including Radikal, the German resistance magazine banned in Germany; Arm the Spirit, the Toronto-based anti-imperialist collective; and the Zapatistas, who launched an uprising in Chiapas, Mexico.”
While the university publicly maintained support for BURN!, three more years of complaints, a majority against the FARC Web site that BURN! was then hosting (FARC has since set up its own Web site and BURN! merely links to it) and the U.S.'s strong stance against Colombian rebel groups forced UCSD officials to pull the plug on BURN!, lock up its server for two weeks and ultimately banish it from its home in the Communications Department.
From there it was picked up by a campus group called the Groundwork Collective, which, after being cited by the university for hosting a Web site for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization also on the State Department's FTO list, handed BURN! over to the Ché Café Collective in May of 2002. The move was fitting since the café was the original gathering spot for BURN! founders. Although on their Web site the Ché Collective denies it, the PKK site remains on the BURN! server. The university has asked the collective to remove it, though Nick Aguilar, director of student policies and judicial affairs, said that, for now, there's no plans to pursue the matter further. “Our practice and policy is to respond to complaints. We're not in the practice of monitoring Web sites of our students.
“It's a matter of free expression,” he noted. “UCSD has a long tradition of promoting student expression, electronic and hardcopy, that have a variety of points of view. Sharing and circulating information is well within the UCSD tradition. A link is considered to be within that arena.
“Hosting,” he added, is another matter; hosting is actually providing material support through controlled access to UCSD computer systems, in violation of federal law.”
As for the link to the FARC Web site, Aguilar said the Sept. 16 letter sent to the Ché Collective “unfortunately did not distinguish between linking and hosting [a Web site] and it should have. We corrected that mistake and clarified through the university's attorneys that linking is permissible and does not constitute providing material support.”
Aguilar pointed out that he did ask the Ché Collective to monitor the Web site “to ensure that they are not engaged in hosting or directing or any activity that would be something other than linking that would put UCSD computer resources in jeopardy.”