As demonstrators arrived on the UC Irvine campus this week to decry a short-lived decision to ban all flags from an obscure campus lobby, dozens of students hung back in the shadows.
Dressed in dark clothing, they talked softly about the hostility and venom that was being directed at the six students who voted to remove the U.S. flag — "The six," they called them.
Now, more than a week after the vote, students and faculty at UC Irvine are beginning to raise their voice over the angry condemnation of the students who created a national stir with their vote.
A petition signed by hundreds from universities statewide said the aggressive and sometimes shrill response to the resolution embodies the exact aspects of nationalism the six had hoped to eliminate — racism, xenophobia and intimidation.
"We admire the courage of the resolution's supporters amid this environment of political immaturity and threat, and support them unequivocally," the petition states.
The decision by the student government's legislative branch to forbid hanging the U.S. and other flags in a lounge area was vetoed days later by the executive cabinet. But by Monday, a national backlash had erupted.
"These are the UC Irvine students that voted to have the American flag removed from the school campus lobby," read an image, reminiscent of a wanted poster, featured on American-Strong's Facebook page. "Make them famous!"
Conservative radio and television commentator Todd Starnes called the students "un-American," and the university's chancellor admonished the student's choice as being "outrageous and indefensible."
Increasingly, though, students and faculty at UCI say it is that hostility that has become indefensible. Some have taken the school's administration to task for not adopting a more reasoned stance, and said they were alarmed by the death threats and racial slurs directed at some of the students who made the no-flag vote.
In a written statement, Chancellor Howard Gillman described UCI students as disappointed by the decision of their six peers.
Gillman applauded those who decided to veto the original vote and praised the "many other students who made sure that their opposition to the original effort was clearly heard on this campus and around the world."
The chancellor later issued an addendum to his statement, condemning harassment and threats of violence regardless of one's opinion on the flag vote.
"Our campus must be a place for safe and civil discourse," he wrote.
Professor Frank Wilderson III said he believed that the students would have peacefully resolved the controversy, but the administration failed to uphold the "integrity of students self-governing."
"The student government is like a little laboratory," he said.
Noah Cowart, a senior who has been involved in efforts to help a teacher be reconsidered for tenure, said he thought that activism was "frowned upon" by a disconnected administration that doesn't listen "until an issue really affects them on the scale it did this weekend."
A full student government meeting set for Tuesday, when the flag issue was expected to be debated, was canceled after the school received threats that were deemed credible. Another meeting was canceled Thursday, the last chance for students to meet before finals and spring break.
The flag flap started innocently enough when someone hung the U.S. flag haphazardly in the student government lobby after it had been used for a party, according to an account in the school paper, the New University.
A group of students later took the flag down, folded it and placed it on the desk of the student government president. The flag later reappeared on the wall, only to be taken down again and then replaced a third time with a note from the executive cabinet on why it deserved to remain, a column by student Khaalidah Sidney explained.
Still, some constituents of the legislative group found the symbol disquieting.
"The vote was in favor of an ideologically free, inclusive and safe space," wrote Sidney, one of the six students who voted to ban display of the flags.
For those at American-Strong, a group that honors military veterans, the vote underscored a loss of patriotism in the country.
"To come home from a literal Hell overseas, some missing limbs, but nearly all scarred from the horrors of war — only to find the people they swore to protect, want to remove the very symbol of our nation's freedoms? It's insane," the group said in a statement to The Times.
For Nasrin Rahimieh, a comparative literature professor who signed the petition, the decision seemed not unpatriotic, but rather an embrace of ethnic diversity on campus.
"We urge our students to be inquisitive, to be open to questioning ideas and to keep an open mind," she said. "I think that has to be respected."
She found it vile that some of the students had been threatened.
"If to be an American, a true believer of this country, is to wish to kill someone because they took down this flag, that is horrifying to me," she said.