IT’S (NOT) OVER!
Written by Bwog Staff
Going by the tone of tonight’s candlelight vigil (and counter-protest), the fact that the hunger strike has ended doesn’t change anything. The strikers still plan on holding vigils every night at 9. They still plan on camping out on the lawn between College Walk and Butler. And, as speakers and attendees to tonight’s vigil reiterated, they definitely haven’t forgotten about Manhattanville. Said one student, “this is phase two.”
As for the end of phase one: pre-vigil, the feeling among hunger-strike supporters was an almost unqualified sense of having accomplished something important. When asked if the lack of progress on Manhattanville and the failure to produce any spectacular, immediate concessions lessened the impact of the strike, Political Science professor Dennis Dalton suggested that the discussion started by the protest was its most important result. “I’m feeling very happy,” said Dalton. “[This is] a time to discuss our cause, and to add a whole new dimension to the discourse.”
By around 9:15, a group of about a half-dozen counter-protesters had gathered opposite the sundial. You’d think the anti-hunger strikers would have been happy to see the hunger strike end. Not so: “the strike isn’t ending in response to students,” said Josh Mathew, C’09, citing CB9’s statement of disapproval as a larger factor than the opinions of the students the strikers professed to be representing. Aga Sablinska, C’09, added that the counter-effort will still be going on: on the anti-strike Facebook group she created, she posted that “further plans of action (not by me, by others) are being formed right now.”
The vigil was billed as a celebration of the hunger strikers and all that they had accomplished during an undoubtedly rough 10 days without food. The hunger-strikers spoke first: Just about all of them thanked the students and the community for their support, and vowed to continue the fight for “ethical expansion.” Brian Mercer, C ’07 read an excerpt from Stoakley Carmichal’s autobiography (written, confusingly enough, by Oscar Wilde); after him, an older man arrested during the 1968 protests elicited cheers when he said that his daughter was one of the people who had occupied Hamilton Hall during the 1996 hunger strike.
Striker Richard Brown’s speech more or less epitomized what the night was about: brandishing an unopened Twix, he explained how the unity of the two chocolate bars within was a metaphor for the shared fate of the student body and their greater community. While his tone was light-hearted and celebratory, he remained on message. And with so many of the speakers alluding to the hunger strike as a “movement” or a “revolution” (said one hunger striker, “the day after the revolution is as important as the revolution itself”), it was clear that supporters viewed the week’s events as a starting point. But for what?
Dennis Dalton didn’t go into specifics about that–but he did thank students for their support, and said that Wednesday night’s protest was the best nonviolent action he had ever participated in at Columbia; Aretha Choi spoke next, and said that Bwog commenters had briefly made her “utterly scared of the student body.”
As with every other vigil this week, participants observed a moment of silence, during which the counter-protesters folded up their signs out of respect. Although they stayed behind and chatted with journalists, the vigil proceeded to the Low steps, where the hunger strikers led the crowd in a chant: “It is our duty to fight!” they screamed. “It is our duty to win! We have nothing to lose but fear!” Hunger striker April Simpson, C’11, closed the rally with an update on the Bob Marley song “War:” “We are confident in victor of good over evil,” she sang. “There’s a war. Until that day, Columbia University will not have peace.”
The hunger strikers broke their fast at the sundial moments later with bread and Gatorade. “Food!” one screamed excitedly; amidst the hugs and tears one striker gave a pretty succinct–not to mention candid–read on things: “this has been so insane,” she said “and now we have to do it all over again.” One Harlem resident opined along similarly cryptic grounds, suggesting that the University had fatally mishandled the situation. “How they’re really in trouble,” she said. “They’ve made the biggest blunder in the world.”
So the hunger strikers are optimistic in spite of forcing limited concessions and making admittedly little progress on Manhattanville; meanwhile the counter-protesters were pessimistic in spite of the hunger-strike being over. Could the punishing, sub-freezing mid-November cold have contributed to this no doubt counter-intuitive “conclusion” to the hunger strike? Probably not, although lost in all the giddy, frostbitten celebration of a hunger-strike well done was the question of whether anyone will pay attention now that the stakes (y’know, not eating and all of its resulting physical effects) are considerably lower.
-Pictures and additional reporting by JJV
In case you’re wondering what the hunger-strikers themselves had to say about the end of the hunger strike, here ya go:
***FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE***
November 16, 2007
*Tonight all remaining Columbia hunger strikers will break their fast*
In response to the concerns of the Coalition to Preserve Community and prominent community members for the Columbia University hunger strikers’ health, the remaining hunger strikers will break their fast at tonight’s 9pm vigil. Although, at the urging of community members, they will change their form of protest, the individuals who have been on strike and those who have mobilized around this movement are committed to continuing their struggle for an ethical expansion by Columbia into West Harlem.
Negotiations on the strikers’ demands relating to Columbia’s expansion took place yesterday. The administration’s response to student demands was patronizing, and led to nothing but a restating of the university’s current positions, demonstrating continual resistance to engaging in constructive discussion with its students. Ryan Fukumori, CC’09 and a student negotiator, noted that, on the issue of expansion, “This administration is in a moral crisis when its financial interests surpass the greater needs of the community.” He added, “Despite significant advancements made in the areas of administrative and curricular reform, we have unfortunately not seen the same cooperative attitude from administrators on the topic of expansion.”
Community members have expressed their greatest appreciation for the student movement that escalated into a hunger strike ten days ago. The administration’s appreciation for the community is less apparent: community members were asked by present officials to leave the gathering of silent observers at yesterday’s negotiation. It had been agreed at student insistence that negotiations would be made public, but it had not been explicitly specified whether community members were included in this agreement.
Students maintained their resolve over their demands regarding Columbia’s expansion. The points brought by students to the negotiations yesterday were compromises from the students’ original positions. Demands include: that Columbia take eminent domain completely off the table; that it promise to negotiate with tenants and the Local Development Corporation rather than landlords and city politicians; and that resources be allocated to creating affordable housing for the 5035 people who are living in unsubsidized housing in the area of expansion.