Just as scarf and hat weather hit Wednesday in New York, five Columbia University students gathered on the main campus lawn, pitched three tents, and declared themselves on hunger strike. Cross-legged, among a sea of Gatorade bottles, sleeping bags, and towels, Columbia College senior Emilie Rosenblatt says, "We're prepared to be here through Thanksgiving if that's what it takes to make a change."
The protestor's (Bryan Mercer, Sam Barron, Aretha Choi, Victoria Ruiz, and Rosenblatt) demands center around issues of racial justice, education, and gentrification. In short, they would like the administration to: (1) give more institutional support to multicultural affairs on campus, (2) strengthen, fund, and involve student leadership in the Ethnic Studies program, (3) withdraw and reconsider its plan to expand into Harlem, and (4) reform the core curriculum to include a course on "racialization and colonialism."
A group of at least 100 students has been meeting and discussing issues of race and gentrification for years, according to student press coordinator Jennie Rose, a sophomore at Barnard College, but in the last few weeks both national and local events prompted urgent action, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial visit to the Columbia campus, a noose found on Teacher College professor Madonna Constantine's office door, anti-Muslim graffiti found in the School for International Affairs building, and the continuing planning going on with regards to Columbia's expansion into the surrounding neighborhood--an effort Columbia itself has admitted will displace 5,000 residents. All of these racially-charged events have combined to produce the perfect storm of controversy that motivated this student group to strike--something they had entertained but never taken seriously until recent weeks.
Already looking strikingly pale, Rosenblatt explains, "This fight is personal. I'm an African American Studies major. I have benefited tremendously from the Office of Multicultural Affairs on this campus. Both continue to be underfunded and disrespected by this administration." She goes on, "Plus, a lot of us come from communities that have endured this kind of massive displacement that Columbia is planning." Rosenblatt chose to keep the details of her own personal experience off the record so as not to offend her family.
There is a detectable split among the protestors who gather at the tents--those who come from lower income backgrounds and identify with the vulnerability of the Harlem community and those who appear to be acting out of solidarity and a palpable hunger to be part of social action--something they've studied or heard about via their parents' days-of-yore stories, but never been able to experience first-hand.
Roe seems to fall into the latter category. Dressed in giant pink glasses, a long purple scarf, and a green Army jacket, she pontificates easily about the Weather Underground, Students for a Democratic Society, and other notorious 60s era student protest groups. She explains, "We know this isn't 1968, but we do see ourselves as in connection with previous movements--elsewhere, and especially, on this campus." She cites the famous protests of '68 that ostensibly shut the university down, in addition to the 1996 protests for Ethnic Studies.
She also pays homage to the 2005 Georgetown University hunger strike in which 26 students abstained from eating for ten days, pushing the administration to agree to pay the campus' lowest paid workers a living wage. Zack Pesavento, one of the students involved in that successful campaign told Campus Progress, at the time: "We did all sorts of research, we issued reports, we were as professional about it as we could be and when it finally came down to it they just weren't willing to move and we felt that we had to take some sort of direct action to bring this to a conclusion."
The Columbia University students echo Pesavento's frustration. They claim to have tried to approach the administration in multiple ways at multiple times about issues important to them, such as the way non-Western perspectives are only incorporated in a tokenized way in the Core Curriculum, for which Columbia is famous, to no avail.
A generation often characterized by mainstream media and Baby Boomers as Internet-addicted and too quick to accept bureaucracy, proves otherwise in this bold move on the Columbia campus. Those gathered in the tents, sucking down water bottles and exchanging hugs, even discussed New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's recent op-ed in which he labeled them Generation Q, for quiet and how angry it made them.
Their protest is literally quiet, but certainly not lacking in outrage--another of Friedman's charges. In their official statement, "Why We Strike...," they write:
We are on hunger strike because we want change and because we believe that change is worth sacrifice...There has been tremendous unrest on campus this semester, these past few years, this past decade. And people here feel psychically hurt by Columbia's indifference to our heartache, to our struggle, to our rumbling need for a better university. With luck, Columbia will see the starvation of our bodies as a bell weather of our growing desperation on this campus. It's a shame that Columbia was not more alarmed when we said our minds, hearts, and spirits were starving, too.
In direct contrast to the "community service" model of activism so many of these students were socialized with in order to garner admission to a competitive university like Columbia, none of their material has individual names on it. They expect no credit, just answers. So far they've gotten none. Barnard President Shapiro issued a statement that asserted, among other things, that she supported the students and worried for their health and safety. Thus far, Columbia President Bollinger has met the strikers with only silence.
"It's so exciting that we're really doing something," Rose explains. "Our generation is weary of jumping on the bandwagon and sometimes that paralyzes us. With something like the Iraq War, we're not necessarily going to just join a protest that demands an immediate pull out, because we're not sure if that's what is actually best for the Iraqi people. It's overwhelming." On the other hand, she explains, holding your own university up to ethical standards seemed refreshingly straight forward.
Not all students, of course, stand in solidarity with the strikers. Mark Lenger, a sophomore in the School for Engineering and Applied Sciences, told the campus newspaper that the strike was "an asinine spectacle."
Rosenblatt responds, "We're not a few crazy activists. And this isn't the only thing we do in terms of social change. We tutor kids. We work full time. We're dancers, artists. It's about so much more than this action. It's about making real change."
The strikers have been collaborating with representatives of the Harlem community on a rally scheduled for November 10th on the Columbia College walk, but stressed that they thought it was important that the public understand that this is a student led movement. They articulate being aware that Harlem residents may not have the luxury to sit out on the lawn as they do. Plus, they worried that if Harlem residents had camped out, Columbia's Public Safety office might have had a very different reaction.
Rosenblatt sums it up: "This little encampment is the world that we envision--a space where people can come together, talk, a place of love and laughter. It's a microcosm of our hope for the larger world."
Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. You can read more about her work herehttp://www.courtneyemartin.com.