By Brandon Wallace
Fueled by nothing more than Gatorade and willpower, seven students and one professor at Columbia University in New York went on a hunger strike on Nov. 7 to fight for fullfillment of unmet student demands on a number of administrative policies.
The demands of those abstaining from food are similar to some issues held by students at UC Santa Cruz regarding an ethnic studies department and a plan for campus expansion that does not negatively impact the community.
The strike formally ended on Nov. 16 as the strikers ate bread after administrators agreed to all but one demand — a stop to university expansion into neighboring communities, including Harlem. The strike consisted of students within Columbia University and college affiliates, like Barnard College, a small liberal arts college for women.
Strikers risked malnourishment and physical maladies to gain momentum. Second-year Aretha Choi, a Barnard College double major, was admitted to the hospital after five days without food.
“I was more disappointed than anything else due to my own physical limitations,” Choi said. “It was also disappointing to me that the lack of administrative response had let the strike go on until this time.”
Katie Miles, a second-year anthropology student of Barnard College, did not discontinue eating, but helped with outreach and meeting with administrators before, during, and after the strike in order to reach a reasonable solution.
“For me, it was a really intense process to do a hunger strike. No one went into it saying ‘I have to do this, there’s no other way,’” Miles said.
The grievances included an enhanced ethnic studies department with more funding for faculty, updating a core curriculum class to include topics on colonialism and race, and to support responsible university expansion with community support.
Leading up to the strike itself, students allied together against an administration that made students feel “marginalized,” according to Miles.
“What connected all of our demands together was a feeling that, first, students weren’t having a voice, but also a sense of institutionalized racism [at Columbia University] that united all of these issues,” Miles said.
The campus faced a number of criminal acts of hate leading up to the strike, including a noose placed on the door of an African American professor’s office, images of swastikas placed around campus, and homophobic images splashed in bathrooms. The controversial visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought a variety of passionate responses, including scathing remarks from Columbia President John Bollinger.
“Starving has been going on since the two years I have been there,” Choi said. “By that, I’m talking about educational starving.”
For Choi, there is uncertainty whether she will even be able to fulfill the classes required for one of her majors — Asian Studies — because of the lack of class options.
Some students who were not involved by with the hunger strike urged the strikers to consider alternate viewpoints. Students opposed to the hunger strike created a Facebook group “We DO NOT Support the Hunger Strikers” in response to a Facebook group and blog in favor, “We Support the Hunger Strikers,” and voiced their opinions at the rally that occurred at the end of the strike on Nov. 16.
“There was no position for someone who is still educated but in opposition to the demands, and that sort of language is very dangerous,” said Josh Mathew, a third-year Columbia student who helped coordinate the Facebook group against the strike.
Mathew explained that the strikers’ misuse of language throughout the process created tensions for those in opposition to the strike.
“If you don’t necessarily support the hunger strike, are you racist? Are you an Uncle Tom? That was a very big concern among a lot of students,” Mathew said.
An agreement was not reached on the last grievance — a joint solution with community involvement to the university’s expansion plan. The local activist group Coalition to Preserve Community (CPC) is working to end the university’s expansion plans that would potentially bulldoze through 18 acres of West Harlem.
A Nov. 16 press release stated, “Columbia and its politicians want to sweep the work of community members under the rug and invent some last-minute deal that will be put forth as purported ‘mitigation’ of the devastation the Columbia plan that will wreak in the community.”
Officials from Columbia University did not respond for comment.
Addressing the university’s efforts to ensure affordable housing in the community, a press release quoted Columbia President John Bollinger as saying: “From the beginning we have been committed to working with our West Harlem neighbors and their representatives in finding ways to ensure that the University and community can grow together in mutually beneficial ways.”
The expansion plan is currently under review. Community leaders hope a dialogue will develop with Columbia before massive construction begins.
_For more information of the hunger strike and the demands, visit: http://cu-strike.blogspot.com/_