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A Banner Day for Iranian American Voices


12 Apr 2011 19:32Comments


Nowruz dispute in Irvine echoes broader issues.

[ diaspora ] When Iranian Americans take umbrage over a particular issue, they typically head to their computers and send out chain emails asking recipients to sign petitions protesting the historical inaccuracies of such films as 300 or share Facebook cause pages demanding that Google Maps no longer erroneously label the Persian Gulf "Arabian." And typically, these efforts are well-meaning but ineffective.

The Facebook post by several friends to attend the Irvine Community Services Commission meeting on April 6 to speak out against the city's attempt to ban Nowruz banners on streetlights appeared to be just another cause du jour of an Iranian American community increasingly quick to display indignant rage whenever its colossal ego is bruised.

For the first day of spring, which Persian speakers refer to as Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the National Iranian American Professionals of Orange County (NIPOC) privately sponsors "Happy Nowruz" banners with innocuous titles such as "Wealth," "Love," and "Peace," accompanied by equally innocuous images. These streetlight banners have recently come under the scrutiny of the Irvine City Attorney's office, which presented a resolution to rescind the zoning code that allows nonprofits, such as NIPOC and Memon of North America -- with its Ramadan banners -- access to Irvine's streetlights. According to the City Attorney's office, this rescission is important because it "puts control back into the city."

The resolution to rescind the zoning codes took an interesting turn at the City Planning Commission meeting, where the issue was raised with two dozen Iranian Americans in attendance.

The City Attorney's office alleged complaints were made regarding the banners because it was perceived that the city was "supporting [a particular] religious organization." Even though the banners in question were privately paid for, the question of sponsorship was confusing to some Irvine residents, according to the City Attorney's office. In the place of NIPOC's pennants, the City Attorney's office recommended a "multicultural banner" that would be paid for by the city itself.

The City Attorney's office also claimed that the banner policy currently in place would raise "constitutional issues," for instance, if a hate group desired to display their banners on streetlights, a point that seemed to resonate deeply with the Planning Commission. The commission was asked to vote for a motion that would recommend the City Council rescind this particular zoning code. And by all measures, after a few questions regarding legal issues, they appeared to be ready to do so.

Once the floor was opened to those in attendance, however, the tide slowly took a turn. More than a dozen Iranian Americans took turns speaking at the podium. They were led by Sunny Zia, California Democratic Party delegate for Assembly District 70, who before the meeting adjourned, worked the room like a natural community organizer, shaking hands while passing out forms for those desiring to speak; in fact, there was not a single Iranian American present whom she did not personally acknowledge and thank for attending the meeting.

Zia's contention was that the wording of the resolution to rescind the zoning code was "confusing" and that the fate of new streetlight banners was now precariously at the "discretion of city staff." One after another, her words were echoed by other Iranian Americans, with many of them simply stating, "I am here to agree with Ms. Sunny Zia."

Mike Kazemi, NIPOC board member, who first brought to the Planning Commission's attention that Irvine's Iranian festivals bring tens of thousands of visitors to the city each year, generating considerable income for the city, made a point relevant to the national political dialogue, as well. "Let's not allow a heckler's veto," he said, in reference to the complaints regarding the banners, "to eliminate a policy of diversity and cultural tolerance."

Commissioner Doug Sheldon then raised the question to the City Attorney's office: "Which banner received the complaint?" As the City Attorney's representative flipped through the PowerPoint slides, she pointed to just one, a Ramadan banner, which was privately sponsored as well. She then divulged, inadvertently perhaps, "There were also complaints that the city's own holiday banners were not religious enough."

Anyone watching Commissioner Sheldon during this exchange could probably imagine a light bulb had gone off in his head.

Sheldon: I get it. So all of this was initiated by a complaint?

Ten-second pause as the representatives of the city attorney's office confer.

City Attorney's Rep: It played a small part....

Sheldon: How many complaints were there?

City Attorney's Rep: Still collating.... Not a lot....

Sheldon: Then why even mention the complaints?

Sunny Zia took the floor once again. She stated that if the question of sponsorship was the problem for Irvine, the city's Iranian American citizens would gladly print the name of the sponsor on "half of the banner" if needed. Until all the facts were disclosed regarding the number and nature of the complaints and the wording of the rescission was clarified, she called on the Planning Commission to not take action.

Chairwoman Mary Ann Gaido asked the City Attorney's office if it was wise "to rescind [the zoning code] without looking into what could be done first?" Commissioner Jeffrey Pierson called for further review to study which "parties are affected" by the proposed rescission. Commissioner Sheldon then summed up the general mood: "Iranians deserve disclosure.... I'm sick of a world where a few people get to tell the rest what to do."

When the Planning Commission decided not to take action the crowd of mostly Iranian Americans erupted in applause. The Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment seemed complete.

Had the Planning Commission not taken this course of action, the resolution would have been sent to the City Council on May 10 -- the same City Council to which Iranian American Shiva Farivar (current chairwoman of the Services Committee, an appointed position) failed to win a seat in the most recent elections. The same City Council elections in which candidate Todd Gallinger was attacked by a current councilman for having ties to "Islamic extremists" for work he did with the Council on American Islamic Relations. The misleading attack ad included a large color photo of a Hamas rally in Gaza with men in black ski masks and military fatigues, sporting automatic weapons.

So it appears that the Nowruz banners are safe for now, and the issue has been "tabled indefinitely until [city] staff works with the community," according to Zia, prompting her to call this "a victory."

However, not all Iranian Americans I spoke with were enthusiastic about the Planning Commission's inaction regarding the streetlight banners. One individual, who did not want to be named, noted sarcastically, "Nowruz banners are the least of our problems. We can't get anyone elected past assistant dog catcher in this city."

Irvine is the seventh richest municipality in America. Given the fact that it has a considerable Iranian American population, and a rather wealthy one that generates large amounts of tax dollars, it is perplexing that Irvine does not have a single Iranian American elected official.

Iranian Americans are among the highest-educated and highest-earning minorities in the United States. Yet this economic and academic power has not translated into political power. The few Iranian Americans who have achieved significant political power hold nonelected positions, and even those, like Vali Nasr, senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been attacked by neo-conservatives as "Islamists."

This lack of representation is due to the "fear of politics" according to Zia, whom I interviewed after the Planning of Commission meeting. "Our parents know a different kind of politics," she continued, "and it's been instilled in us that politics is bad and that we should fear it. This has been detrimental to our growth [in America]."

But what about all this attention to Nowruz banners? Should such things even be relevant to the Iranian American community, considering graver issues such as the status of asylum seekers, single-entry visas for students, a census form that does not consider Iranian Americans a minority, and reports of increased discrimination in recent years? Not to mention an even more lengthy roster of foreign policy issues that are much more polarizing and which Iranian Americans possibly have even less say in.

"It's beyond banners," Zia said. "It's about our presence, and our existence. If we didn't take a stand on a seemingly benign issue, then guess what? On bigger issues, we will be taken advantage of. This could be a springboard for our voice being taken away from a community that we have been a major contributor to. Things will not change until we are engaged."

Homepage photo: Street banners in L.A. sponsored by Farhang Foundation; above: the Irvine banners sponsored by NIPOC.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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