Hard to stomach

At Berkeley and Pitt, student activists stopped eating. But were they hungry for change or drama?


Chris Colin
May 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

April and May were big months for not eating. At the University of California at Berkeley, six students didn't eat
for eight days. At the University of Pittsburgh, 22 didn't eat for 17 days. This is the new universe of
campus hunger striking -- constellations of impressive numbers and dramatic
famishings. Berkeley and Pitt are but the latest in a series of fasts at
campuses around the country. And if starvation is never actually a
possibility for the strikers, if the strikes seem rather elaborate
responses to familiar and ultimately localized academic woes, well, the
times they are a-changing. Campus activism has upped its ante, and
universities are scrambling to adjust.

The Berkeley and Pitt hunger strikes reflect a trend in university activism toward myopia. Big-fuss, small-cause protests are nothing new -- it's their ubiquity these days that's changing the tenor of campus activism. Unlike the protests of the '60s
and '70s against the Vietnam War, or even the South Africa divestment demonstrations in the '80s,
the most virulent campus activism of the 1990s is remarkably
self-focused. Students do not bring the world into the campus, but focus their
energies on the educational politics and administrative policies of their own
universities. But the Berkeley and Pitt strikes also differed from one another in telling
ways. Both groups of student activists resorted to fasting after
more benign methods of protest had failed, but even this move didn't ensure success. One strike led to a dizzying -- some argue deceptive -- triumph; the other to deafening silence.

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The countdown to the UC hunger strike began when Berkeley administrators announced a 15 percent reduction in the number of
ethnic studies classes available next semester, and students decided it was the
last straw. Previous straws had included: the cutting of one-third of the
overall ethnic studies budget, the failure to fill the four vacated spaces
in the department's faculty roster, the lack of a full-time tenured
professor in the Native American studies program and the decision to have
only one full-time tenured professor in Chicano studies after next year.
Calling themselves the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) -- a reference to
the group leading the 1969 strike responsible for ethnic studies'
conception -- the angry students began fighting back.

On April 14, the TWLF took over Barrows Hall, the building that houses the
Ethnic Studies Department. Ironically, the 10-hour occupation did little
more than force the cancellation of classes. Campus police cleared the
protesters out of the building later that night, making 43 arrests and
drawing complaints of excessive force. Days later the demonstrators issued
a list of demands for UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl: new tenure-track professors in each ethnic studies department, replacements for those who left the departments
due to retirement or denial of tenure, the establishment of an Ethnic
Studies Research Center and a Multicultural Student Center and an allotment
of spaces in the admissions process designated for each Ethnic Studies
department. "Today Ethnic Studies is near extinction," demonstrators wrote
in a public statement.

Fifteen days after the Barrows Hall takeover, the demands stood
unacknowledged and hundreds of students gathered outside the offices of
Berdahl and Provost Carol Christ. At the center of the group
stood six students -- including one from San Francisco State University --
who'd stopped eating to emphasize their commitment. They vowed they would
go hungry until the demands were met.

During roughly the same period, 20 students on the other side of the country
had been similarly engaged, having taken up a cause born a few years
earlier. In January1996, Deborah Henson, a legal writing instructor at the
University of Pittsburgh School of Law, filed a complaint with the
Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission against the university, claiming that
the school's refusal to extend health benefits to her lesbian partner
constituted a violation of the city's Human Relations Ordinance. Had
Henson's partner of nine years been a man, he would have received the
benefits under Pennsylvania's common-law marriage policy. The university,
which receives substantial funding from politically conservative donors,
dismissed Henson's complaint. Pitt's policy, says university spokesman Ken
Service, is in accordance with state law.

In February of this year, students rallied outside the office of Chancellor
Mark Nordenberg in protest of Pitt's policy. By this point, the university
had figured the best defense was a good offense, and was responding to
Henson's ACLU-backed lawsuit with an aggressive assault on the city of Pittsburgh's
existing anti-discrimination ordinance, which does afford civil rights protections to gays and lesbians.

When police arrived and threatened
to arrest the rallying students, the group dispersed, only to form the
Equal Rights Alliance days later. Over the next few weeks, the ERA
dedicated itself to arranging a meeting with the chancellor and a public forum
with the school's Board of Trustees. On April 12, with these demands still unmet, 13 ERA members stopped eating.

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The concurrent Berkeley and Pitt hunger strikes only highlight what is
becoming an increasingly familiar sight on university campuses. UCLA's
Chicano Studies Department made headlines in 1993
with its own protest fast, and Notre Dame, the University of
Minnesota and Columbia University have all witnessed their own hunger
activists in recent years. Campus hunger strikes vary in length and
technique, but share much in the way of theme. Invariably, the strikes
share a particular type of campaign target -- funding for ethnic studies or other
historically progressive departments, defense of affirmative
action, tenure for minority professors, redress for civil rights
violations. In other words, causes touched by the deeply personal forces
of identity politics. Even given the narrowed focus of contemporary student
activism, they don't necessarily emerge from the largest battles. The
struggle for a graduate students' union at Berkeley, for example, involved
far more people and time than the ethnic studies movement, but the Gandhi
diet never made it onto the strategy table.

"As a weapon for people who believe in human rights, the fast has been an
effective tool," said Marc Grossman, former aide and spokesman for United
Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez. Chavez fasted several times in his
efforts to improve working conditions for laborers. "When you fast, you
raise the stakes. It's not just rhetoric anymore."

For Robin Moll, one of the ERA strike's organizers, the stakes were indeed
raised. In 13 days, she lost 20 pounds. The original group of 13 strikers
grew to 22, and the Pittsburgh press ran with the story. Two days into the
strike, Chancellor Nordenberg told the ERA that he was unable to arrange the public
forum with the school's board of trustees, despite the group's understanding that
this was within his power. At Nordenberg's suggestion, they wrote letters
to the board members. Still no forum. On April 25, Moll collapsed and was
taken to a nearby hospital.

"We thought it would be over in four or five days," Moll said. "We were
being lied to by everyone, so we kept pushing on."

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On April 26, the Pitt strikers held a press conference in which they
detailed the numerous ways they'd been denied communication with the board.
"Chancellor Nordenberg misled and misinformed us and withheld information
that was vital to our cause after he had stated he would aid us," striker
Shandra Williams said. "At this time we challenge Chancellor Nordenberg,
Chairman [Wray] Connolly and any trustee to step forward and take
responsibility to publicly open the lines of communication regarding this
issue."

The lines of communication were not opened, save the promise of another
meeting with Nordenberg. The ERA strikers had thrown Henson's case into a
spotlight it had not previously known -- ironically, Henson herself was
absent for all the hubbub, having left academia for private practice in
Louisiana -- but months after their first rally, the group's presence was
still scarcely acknowledged by the board. Disheartened, the remaining
strikers called it quits. At posting time, the promised Nordenberg meeting
has yet to happen.

"These people went through all the right channels," said Jim Lieber, the
attorney representing Deborah Henson. Though Henson hasn't been in contact
with the ERA, Lieber has advised them on occasion. "Everyone besides the
upper administration favors [their cause] -- faculty, the staff assembly,
the graduate student body."

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Back at Berkeley, the TWLF claimed it had tried every channel as well. "We
had no other recourse," demonstrator Cynthia Gomez said. The six strikers
dug in. Hundreds of fellow students joined them at their makeshift camp,
demonstrating over the next few days in front of administration offices. When
Chancellor Berdahl announced that "the allocation of resources within the
university is not subject to negotiation in the street," demonstrators grew
furious.

"What is at stake here is our struggle against the racist and indifferent
attitude toward ethnic studies," said a public statement from the
department. In another letter, Professor Norma Alarcon wrote that the
department was treated by administration like a "service department," and
like "maids, ranch hands or janitors."

As media attention on the hunger strikers grew -- like the Pitt strikers,
many of the Berkeley demonstrators used cell phones to keep the press
apprised -- the TWLF escalated its protest. When the group refused the
chancellor's order to remove its tents from school property, Berkeley
police broke up the protest, arresting 83 students.

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Following the arrests, sympathy for the strikers grew. A Chicano studies
professor, an ethnic studies lecturer and a 73-year-old Chilean woman from
the community pledged to join the hunger strike. Letters of support arrived
from university campuses across the country. On May 14, Berdahl reversed
his previous position and agreed to meet with members of the TWLF. Only
hours later, the demonstrators declared victory: The administration, they
claimed, had agreed to each of their ethnic studies budget and faculty
demands, and plans for the multicultural center were in place. According to
Gomez, the victorious hunger strikers enjoyed a symbolic first meal before
a crowd of hundreds.

But now, as the demonstration dust settles at Berkeley and at Pitt, it seems a
quieter dust is kicking up. From the complexity of each demonstration emerges a
larger question about hunger striking: Does it have any place on a college
campus?

"It really diminished their credibility in the academic arenas in which
they need credibility," Berkeley Provost Christ said of the TWLF
strike. "You gauge [their credibility] by the joke level on campus now."

"The threat of violence [at a university] is inappropriate," Pitt's Service
said. "The equation was, do exactly what we say or we'll hurt ourselves."

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Administrators at both schools also found the strikes inherently coercive --
something they considered to be at odds with the principles of higher
education. Rather than employing dialogue, they claimed, the demonstrators'
strategy was closer to terrorism. At Berkeley, Berdahl said it was
"coercion, intimidation and threats of violence" attempting to replace a
"reasoned process."

Christ echoed this, saying she thinks of the protest tool as generally
being reserved for more "urgent" matters. "Ethnic studies could have
achieved what they achieved without the use of a hunger strike," she said.
"It carries all those radical and dire associations, but [in this case]
didn't necessarily possess them."

The associations, presumably, are those of Gandhi, who put fasting on the
contemporary activist's map decades ago. And indeed, the scope of the
protest mechanism seems to have changed in the years since. When he fasted, after all, his sights were set on such things as stopping the Hindus and Muslims killing each other by the thousands. Other headline hunger strikes
have likewise involved life-or-death issues. This May marked the 18th
anniversary of Bobby Sands' death in Ireland's Long Kesh prison. Sands died
after 66 days without eating, the first of 10 prisoners to starve in
protest of British penal abuse.

Of course just because something worse happened in the past -- a
Muslim-Hindu war, for example -- doesn't mean something bad isn't happening
now. Aaron Kreider, a Notre Dame graduate student who recently led a
three-day fast to have sexual orientation added to his school's
non-discrimination clause, took issue with the scale argument. "It can be
life or death [at a university]," he said, alluding to the suicide of a gay
student years earlier at the school. Hostility on campus, Kreider claimed,
played a hand in the student's death, and his fast took aim at this hostility.

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In addition to questions of scale, hunger striking at a relatively affluent
American university raises concerns over the potency it will have in the
future; if pulling out the big guns becomes commonplace, what will
activists do when there's really a war?

"People have to be careful about it," United Farm Workers' Grossman
conceded. "It has to be used selectively."

Pitt striker Christie Hudson agreed that, as a tool, the hunger strike has
transformed over recent years. Nevertheless, she stood by her action. "If
you're passionate enough to risk your health," she said, "it's appropriate."

Supporters of the strikes dismiss the charge of coercion. After all, they
say, there's nothing wrong with coercion if it gets the right thing
accomplished. Yet the very nature of a student hunger strike over an
academic issue calls into question whether the protest was in fact an
extreme political tactic or simply a political spectacle of the highest order. After all, privately, the strikers at both schools admitted that they would have eaten at some point, regardless of public statements suggesting they would only eat when demands were met.

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"None of us thought it would ever come to dying," Gomez said. "There are
other battles I want to be around for."

"None of us was willing to die," Moll said.

Over the yelling and the fighting and the starving hovered the delicate
specter of metaphor: The strikers' threats were but representations of
threats. "It's like a ... virtual protest," Christ said, referring to the
discrepancy she perceived between the face of the Berkeley protest and the
true situation. "It was a rather conservative set of goals [reached] through
revolutionary tactics."

"It was not a traditional hunger strike -- everyone went home at night,"
Service said of the Pitt protest.

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The prevailing message issued by the demonstrators -- particularly
those at Berkeley -- revolved around the attainment of goals via
self-sacrifice. "Our bodies are on the line," their literature said. But
Christ said no one was ever in "mortal danger." Campus medical services
paid close attention to the strikers, checking their vital signs on a
regular basis. Both Christ and Service hastened to point out -- as did
conservative critics of the strikes -- that the demonstrators had plenty of
fruit juice and Gatorade. Given the reality of the health situation, the
core of the hunger strikes seems intrinsically confused.

As the agenda of the Berkeley strikers shifted from academic resources to
the amnesty of protesters arrested, it became clear that something was
indeed muddled. The demonstrators who had proclaimed their radical
authority undermined it through their demands that they suffer no
disciplinary consequences. If they were serious about their civil
disobedience -- and after all, they refused to pick up camp when asked -- why object to the
standard punishment?

According to Christ, the TWLF's confusion ran to the very core of its
victory. "They didn't walk away with anything. There were no budget cuts
before [the protest] and no additions afterwards," she said, insisting that
the protest effected no actual changes in policy. "They only got a
confirmation -- which they claimed a victory -- of the [faculty] target size
that had already been determined."

Christ suggested that the group didn't fully understand what it was upset
about. "There was a lot of subtext to the protest," she said. "Students and
faculty who identify with a minority feel disenfranchised with Proposition
209 [the state measure that killed affirmative action]. The subtext was minorities in the university, not ethnic studies."

Whether or not the TWLF was misdirecting its anger, the ethnic studies
numbers don't indicate anything like forced extinction. Despite a steady
decline in the number of students in the department over the past few
years, the number of permanent faculty rose 16 percent from 1989-90 to
1998-99. This was the second-highest increase among the Social Sciences,
with African-American studies (a separate department) having risen 18 percent. The numbers from other
departments -- anthropology, history, political science, psychology -- all
fell.

"Most of my reasons [for participating] weren't rational. I just knew I
wanted to do it," Gomez said. "Hunger strikes can mean a lot of different
things. Sometimes they are more ceremonial and symbolic than others."

It's dangerous finding a fly in the ointment of good-cause movements. A
critique of the demonstration -- in this case, that the Berkeley protest seemed to suffer a
notably confused agenda -- can be appropriated by opponents of ethnic
studies programs, of gay civil rights. What's more, it can be too easy to take pot shots at campus political action -- if the recent hunger strikes bore the mark of hothouse activism, they are but the latest in the academic tradition of questionably directed protest momentum. But maybe by assessing the successes and failures of these movements, the self-appointed champions of these causes can both streamline their vision and enjoy three squares a day.


Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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