Strikers on the record
Written by Bwog Staff
The day the strike ended, a motley group of students put together a list of questions for the strike team to answer. Avi Alpert, CC ’06, and Bryan Mercer, CC ’07, have now done so, posted below unedited by Bwog. Alpert, responding to questions posed earlier by Nina Bell, emphasizes that while he was not a hunger striker and does not speak for them, he supported their efforts. Mercer was a striker from the start. Get comfy, kids, it’s a long one.
1) (On whether the strikers have general support from the student body) To answer the question honestly, we do not believe that any such data exists, or could be compiled accurately and scientifically by undergraduate students without advanced training in statistics. (Certainly the numbers of a Facebook group do not constitute such a study.) More importantly, however, we are not sure that this is in fact the real question at the heart of the matter. It is not clear, within the confines of the university, that Centers for the study of gender, African-American studies or human rights would have been created based on majority student interest. Quite frankly, it’s not clear that less popular majors (such as statistics, Slavic languages or dance) would exist either if this were the sole criterion. Columbia, as a self-proclaimed “global university,” supports research not just because of universal student demand, but also because of an intellectual responsibility to the expansion of knowledge. Thus, in making these demands, the students speak not only to their personal experiences and desires, but, equally, to the demands that scholarship be accountable to an ever expanding and complicated world.
We might also answer this question historically, noting that movements for marginalized groups (Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, etc.), are, by definition, unpopular at first, and must be fought for without majority influence. The question of general support should no more be put to these students in asking for their demands than it should have been put to blacks in the South. (Of course, rapacious bloggers, these are vastly different situations, but the analogy of a group on the margins remains the same.)
This is, in turn, an answer to another part of the question regarding the right of these protestors to “impose” their views. We will not say simply that they have a right to free speech, but, more forcefully, that they have a duty to bring these issues to light. Issues discussed in ethnic studies, from colonialism to race to gender, are fundamental to how we live. These issues do not disappear when we ignore them. There is a lack of knowledge for students to address questions of race and colonialism. The angered reactions that the strikers have faced prove their very point: Columbia is failing to train students who understand the complex political issues of the modern world. Suffice it to say that there are extreme gaps in your knowledge of the modern world that a course in “contemporary civilization” should have put on all our radar screen’s. We should know, at the very least, that racism is not only epithets and actions, but is also symbolic and often unconscious. The hunger strikers have been working with this knowledge to combat racism across the spheres of its appearance in society.
Finally, it must be remembered that these demands are a response. As Malcolm X said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.” This hunger strike began most directly because a noose was placed on the door of a black professor. The fact that some people do not understand how pervasive lynching was in the twentieth-century and do not comprehend how traumatic and disgusting such an act is, is again reason for a required course in race alone. This brings us to question 2.
2) (On the addition to the Core Curriculum) These are crucial and important questions which would have to be discussed with faculty and students. There are a variety of models available which one could consider. One might argue, for example, that questions about race, gender and colonialism are direct outgrowths of the core. Feminist philosophers like Judith Butler, for example, engage closely with works by Hegel, Freud and Foucault. African-American philosophers like DuBois also speak directly to Hegel, and Cornel West’s first book was on Marx. There are also important ways that these questions are always present within the current core texts themselves. Aristotle, for example wrote about the place of slaves and women in politics, and Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke wrote at length on colonialism. There is, further, an important question about why we speak of a distinct “Western tradition” when there is ample historical evidence to suggest constant intellectual commerce with Northern Africa, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia. Egypt had a profound influence on Ancient Greece, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures were written in the Middle East, and German philosophers from the 17th century on were fascinated by Buddhist and Hindu texts in translation. All of these issues, on the cutting edge of scholarship, are ignored in the core and render it intellectually insufficient. To truly understand the development of sovereignty, the institution of democracy, and so forth, a global perspective must be taken. This is increasingly recognized by scholars the world over and the Core ought to be responsive to this new and developing understanding of global history.
Other institutions have added a general race requirement to their Core Curriculum. Every student at Temple University in Philadelphia, for example, is required to take a course on “Studies in Race.” The Temple Bulletin notes, “The knowledge and the communication skills gained in these courses help students better understand a critical aspect of their society and their own experience. Such understanding is essential for living and working in our racially-diverse world.” Besides changes to the Core, Columbia could consider the importance of such a course. More than a Major Cultures course, this would force students to critically reflect on their attitudes and beliefs about those of other ethnicities, genders and so forth. The comments on this discussion board lead me to believe such a course would be greatly beneficial.
Of course, just as importantly, other models and other courses considered. Nina’s are important questions in thinking about how to form new courses and why such courses are central to a vibrant academic community.
2.5) One important thing is for the course to address general questions of how power relationships form and structure our lives. What, unconsciously, do we think about others, and what autonomy do we have in forming our beliefs? Core graduates should notice that I am referencing here Foucault, Freud, and Kant, to once again affirm how central these issues are to the expansion of the intellectual development begun in the core. In this way the course does not speak to any specific issue, so much as enables the critical thinking that should be developed in the core curriculum to spread to other realms of knowledge. In this sense, we would not yet begin to advocate specific texts, so much as general points to take into consideration.
The following responses are written by Bryan Mercer, one of the hunger strikers. Any invocation of ‘we’ instead of “I” on my part is because I would find it impossible talk about the organizing around the demands responding to institutional racism at Columbia, or the hunger strike for those demands as if they were my doing alone. With that note, these thoughts do not speak for the whole of those who participated in last week’s actions and shaping these demands, they are my own views that I offer up for this conversation.
Also I would challenge the conception of discussion and debate presented in the introductory remarks to your questions. The reason being, the form of discussion you purpose is an attempt at an ‘accountability’ which I see as impractical and a hindrance to your own concerns for it relinquishes your own power to those you who question the legitimacy of. I participate however, in an attempt to meet you half way. Even still I hold the position that dialogue (and a collective working out of a position) is a more productive process than debate, and am always open to face to face conversation to that end.
5. Do you have evidence that your views are representative of the entire student body?
6. If not, why do you feel that you have the right to impose your vision of Columbia onto those who may not agree with it?
7. What gives you the right to negotiate with the administration on issues that will affect, at the very least, the entirety of Columbia College, if you are not certain that you have majority support?
8. In your statement, you say that you “strike to re-imagine the university as a more democratic place….where students have a deciding say in this university.” If you have not taken steps to make sure that you are representing the opinion of the majority of students, this appears to be contradictory. How is your vision a democratic one if it is not representative? How do you respond to this apparent contradiction?
9. Do you not think that your demands should be channeled through a student organization that is democratically elected?
(To the questions on democracy.) I do not believe my views, or the views of my fellow organizers represent the student body. In order to represent, and to claim participation there must first exist a relationship between people and structures of that participation. If we look at the participation of the Columbia College student body in the election of Columbia College Student Council reps or the nature of appointments for deciding council positions in the Engineering Student Council we see even these ‘democratic’ body are not based in the full or in the case of ESC even partial participation of the student body. Also, let us look at the governance structure of the university itself: there is a board of trustees, who appoint a president for executive affairs and a provost for academic affairs to serve at their wish, below them is a clearly demarcated hierarchy that does not even venture to include structures of faculty governance (see the Faculty Action Committee Letter). Once again we see the classic university structure follows a corporate model rather than a democratic one. There is the university Senate, the only body of students that have policy-making ability within the university, yet the Senate can only make policy for the whole of the University, and it too is limited in its purview and seemingly addressing fewer crucial issues as student involvement wanes and administrative direction dominates.
Democratic structures must be built rather than assumed to be pre-existing in the university. Bwog comments or facebook joins aren’t adequate tools to be the deciding factor in determining the direction of the university or the activism of students. Recognizing, however, that the democracy you speak of is not a question of democratic structures, but instead a question of whether small groups of students can speak on behalf of all students, it is important to make clear I share your concern. The university positions “student leaders” as representatives of entire communities as a semblance of participation, meanwhile most students are left out of the conversation. Why are there so few ways for students to participate directly in the shaping of their education and university life?
Your criticism however clearly lies with ‘us’, that ‘small’ group of students that would take such ‘extremist’ acts to push an alienating agenda. I would not like to draw such an ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction, but I would be amiss of the post-colonial critique that surrounds the greatest academics of this institution to forget that the question of the self and the other are always present. It is important then to mention this, what ‘we’ purpose is not our own agenda, but a space. And we believe this space would be beneficial for the whole of the student body to participate in. We purpose a space for students to participate in the shaping of the Core and Major Cultures, a space for the communities of West Harlem to participate in the development of West Harlem. I claim no representative voice other than recognizing a need, a need which I hope the actions I was a part of brought to the floor, and created between students and administrators ways to recognize and address these needs.
In short, each of the proposals that were a part of this hunger strike was an attempt at the very things that concerns you, transparency, participation and representation. We did not force upon you a Major Cultures class, we assured a space for your participation. We have spoken on these things for some time and considering the blue ribbon oversight committee (a collection of faculty and students given the responsibility of monitoring the progress on the points of agreement) for the on campus/ academic victories you and I have won, for the next 5 years students can engage these concerns how they see fit.
As a side note, I would question the ideal of the liberal individual (in the enlightenment sense). While I agree with your questions of representation I think there is some falsehood to the notion of a fully autonomous individual with ‘one vote and one voice.’ We are social beings, and as such though we may find it easy to invoke personal experience and some of us have the privileges in different situations to ensure this personal experience is recognized and validated, we may also speak as part of a group or from collective experiences even outside of our intentions to do so. Foucault has an important “Critique of the Liberal Individual,” and this is the very question presented in studying social formations and race within most ethnic studies frameworks – how is the singular subject positioned in a social context permeated by collective categories of difference? To make that concrete, there are things outside of us, like our families, where we grew up, and our friends that frame the decisions we make all the time, and it is helpful to ask where what we think comes from.
10. Have you created an atmosphere where all students can participate in discussion of your demands, equally and without fear? Why or why not?
11. Have you marginalized students who may support some or all of your arguments but question your legitimacy and methods?
12. If so, what actions have you taken to reconcile your methods with those mutually-shared opinions, if any?
(To the questions on discussion, atmosphere and marginalization) The idea of discussion and dialogue and how students participate in building community with each other has been a central issue to this debate. The question of the ‘atmosphere’, to participate in conversation with the strikers/supporters, and how our ideas may ‘marginalize’ is an attempt to address the very foundation of how that dialogue and community building takes place. I appreciate the question, and think it is important to first address the ‘atmosphere’ and ‘marginalization’ you point to. My own questions for you would be how are we all part of creating an atmosphere and what ‘center’ are we all in relationship to?
It seems to me your questions around the ‘atmosphere’ created by the action of a hunger strike for demands to address institutionalized marginalization comes from a concern for the comfort of students to carry out their normal life. This atmosphere made many people uncomfortable – perhaps from the visceral reaction of knowing others are abstaining from food, or that the demands probe at racism in the structures of Columbia, or that there were tents on south lawn proving to be very visible – the atmosphere was one where hard to talk about subjects like race and class and student activism/apathy were brought up. Your discomfort may also refer the to nightly vigils of dozens of supporters, the solidarity statements from student groups, the letters of support from faculty, the well timed coincidence of the Faculty Action Committee letter, the discussions of the Core or university displacement of West Harlem residents that may have come up in your classes. Perhaps even this atmosphere is about the snarky bwog articles, the consistently snarkier and less informed bwog comments, or the 30 people gathering only a half hour before our vigil to reaffirm their unwillingness to have a conversation. Whatever atmosphere you are bringing up it does not seem to me an atmosphere of fear, nooses in front of professor’s doors and displacement plans create an atmosphere of fear. It may be an atmosphere in which you feel discomfort, but discomfort can teach us something.
Even considering the critiques of the tactic of a hunger strike, I think the strike and these demands created an atmosphere of engagement when that discomfort was recognized, people at the very least had to deal with their gut reaction to hearing there was a hunger strike. People may have gone far enough to ask why students would go on a fast. Some students saw this and turned around to take their own actions on these four concerns of the Core, administrative response, Ethnic Studies and expansion – even if that action was not in support. I think the forming of a facebook group where 700 people would join to state they did not support the hunger strike is one of the most important things about this atmosphere. Not because it says: Columbia must be a racist place because so many students would stand against anti-racist ideals. I think it is important because it says that 700 people at least engaged, looking to find discussions about these things in their classroom, or on the front page of the campus paper. I also think for a lot of those people simple clarification of some of our demands, their history, and what lead up to this point would have swayed them in other directions, but that aside, the most important part of this atmosphere may be people realizing they are a part of it. But then again, most critics seem to take issue with the tactics and not the issues or demands.
Now is this atmosphere marginalizing? I think you should tell me; I wouldn’t want to displace your own experience of marginalization with my own opinion. I would push this question though – what is marginalization? As I see it the margin implies a center, and neither the margin nor the center is outside of power, just in different positions within a relationships of power. For the Bwog to easily represent your own views in its articles, or the Spectator to ignore the statements of students to take the ‘official’ position of the university speaks to some of the centers of power in any given situation on this campus. From my perspective, it is the institution, dominant ideals of either ‘love Columbia or go to another school,’ and a public opinion that legislates ‘legitimate protest,’ which are at the center in this situation, all things I think you could easily find yourself on the margins of.
But you also imply with your question that the strikers and supporters have created a marginalizing atmosphere by creating some new center to the university, a center defined in creativity, collective and decentralized action, solidarity and critical discussion. What’s worse (as your questions imply) is through creating that center, creating an ‘other’ form of power on Butler lawn, we pushed the general feeling of apathy on campus to the margins. On that issue you would be hard pressed to find me arguing that social justice, anti-racism, critical thought and dialogue are bad ideals to place at the center of a university, but to resist sounding self-righteous, I do not think these things have become the center of the university from a 10 day hunger strike, and I doubt you feel this way either. Truth be told, this is a mission students have been fighting for within this university from its inception, and will continue to fight for.
13. Prior to the hunger strike, had you exhausted all other options for furthering your demands? If so, provide concrete evidence and demonstrate what attempts you made to engage the greater student body in these efforts. Did you make clear that non-participation would result in a hunger strike?
A timeline is the best way to answer the first half of this question. At every step of the way in this timeline, including the events of this past semester there were meetings with administrators where the same concerns presented through this hunger strike were raised.
APRIL 1, 1996 — Four students pitch a tent in the center of campus and begin a hunger strike, demanding that Columbia University establish a department of Ethnic Studies and reorganize its Western-oriented core curriculum. These protest led to the creation of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, housing programs in Asian American, Latino, more funding for African American studies and the list C Major Cultures option.
SPRING 2004 — A comic strip, “Blacky Fun Whitey” released in the Fed during Black Heritage Month sparks a week of protest against racism on campus. The Columbia Concerned Students of Color demand what becomes the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
SPRING 2006 — A student returned to her dorm in Ruggles to anti-homophobic, racist and anti-semitic graffiti. Students organized a response under the adhoc group Stop Hate on Columbia’s Campus, with demands for the university’s response to hate crimes, funding for intercultural programming, and university advisors for the queer community.
April 15 2007: After 12 years spent advocating for resources and autonomy for Ethnic Studies, a student-written report on state of Ethnic Studies at Columbia finds that CSER, & IRAAS at Columbia along with Africana studies at Barnard do not match up to programs at our peer institutions. Report calls for more faculty and hiring power.
Sept 24 – The visit of President Ahmedinijad, and President Bollinger’s remarks
Sept 27 -Islamophobic and racist graffiti in SIPA
Oct 1 – Students Mobilize around the Jena Six
Oct 9 – Noose on professor’s doors at Teacher’s College.
Oct 11 – Swastika found in bathroom in Lewisohn Hall
Oct 31 – Swastika found on professor’s door at Teacher’s College
Nov 7 – Five students begin a hunger strike promoting increased support for Ethnic Studies, an update to Major Cultures, responsible expansion, and increased administrative support around hate crimes and multicultural affairs.
These events lead to a number of discussions, town halls and events in support of marginalized communities on campus, and the demands articulated by the hunger strikers grew out of these discussions.
Fall 2007 Campus Discussions Leading Up to the Hunger Strike:
* ROOTEd discussion on President of Iran, safety and exclusion in our community (50 people) – Sept 24
* Black Student Organization calls emergency meeting following SIPA graffiti (150 people) – Sept 27
* USCC Town Hall on campus climate (100 people) – Oct 5
* Concerned students call emergency town hall after a noose is found on a black professors door at TC (150 people) – Oct 9
* Eid-ul-Fitr Dinner of the MSA where over 20 student groups read statements of solidarity with the MSA in light of the upcoming “Islamo-fascism Awareness Week” (200 people) – Oct 21
* SGA Town Hall on campus climate– “Is Our Community Broken?” (100 people) – Oct. 23
USCC Town Hall on Demands and Actions (100 people) – Oct 24
The hunger strike was not organized as a threat against the student body. It was an act of pressuring the administration and creating visibility and space for student organizing. Thank you for your own organizing. It has helped bring forward the discussion of the issue, even if at times uninformed, misdirected or hostile.
14. At which meeting was the decision made to go on a hunger strike? How many were present and how did the debate over appropriate action reach this final result?
(On the decision to strike) It was not a decision made by a student group, or representatives of a student group. The decision was made amongst friends who had been a part of these conversations, and presented to larger groups of people, some in campus organizations, some personally. I do apologize for not being able to notify everyone before hand, but direct actions are in part about the element of surprise. Your exclusion from the decision is only because to have posted flyers or emailed list serves about it would have meant the administration knowing before hand. Participating in these very conversations that are listed above may put you closer to what people are planning, but more importantly in spaces to develop your own actions around these issues in ways that you care about.
15. If concerned members of the Women’s Studies Department or the Human Rights Program went on a hunger strike demanding the reallocation of the $50 million set aside for a Major Cultures Seminar to their respective under-funded causes, would you support them? Why or why not?
(On solidarities with Women’s studies and Human Rights) bell hooks is famous for often using the phrase “white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy” in her writings. What she implies is a fundamental connection to so called ‘women’s issues’ and so called ‘people of color issues’ and the political economic organization as the fabric of our society. In that same vein to talk about Ethnic Studies is to not close ourselves to all other forms of difference and give primacy to race. It is to put forms of difference in conversation with each other. I have not taken a single Ethnic Studies class in which gender and sexuality were not important forms of difference in their own right or in intersection with race. The same stands for Human Rights. I hope that the new major cultures class uses a gender, sex and human rights framework in its study of cultures other than European cultures. In short yes, I support the struggles of Women’s studies and Human Rights as academic disciplines and practical intellectual standpoints in our world. Further I do not believe there should be a need to choose between Major Cultures, Women and Gender studies, Human Rights or any other program in the Arts and Sciences in a university that is currently fund raising for a campus that will cost $7 billion over the next 25 years.
Note: there has long been in the academy a conversation between feminism and ethnic studies/anti-racism. Patricia Hill Collins’ collection Black Feminist Thought is a classic representation of that, also Gloria Anzaldua, et al in This Bridge Called My Back is another classic example.
Another Note: The Center for the Study of Human Rights and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender are both programs, not departments. They face the same difficulties as Ethnic Studies in hiring and retaining faculty. IRWAG is often mentioned in our literature and we have received concessions on resources to strengthen the relationship between IRWAG, CSER and IRAAS. Human Rights is not far from that relationship, and with the work of the faculty and students their already existing ties can be strengthened.
16. Returning to your commitment to “a more democratic place” for students, if your demand to allow more student voices on the Core Curriculum is implemented, and the majority of students still do not share your visions for the Core, what will you do?
17. In a similar vein, you make the following demand: “Interested Ethnic Studies majors collectively, shown through a vote, must be given 1 or 2 votes (depending on committee size) which will be delivered by the current student positions on all hiring committees for junior and senior faculty to increase student presence and determination of CSER’s direction.” Is there any precedent for this in any other Columbia departments?
18. Should this be something that is enacted across the board, or just in the Ethnic studies area? Why or why not?
There is no precedent for student representation in the hiring process in any Columbia department. And there still stands no precedent for this in any Columbia department. Ethnic Studies is not a department. It is a program, and has remained such since its inception, though students organize for a department. As such Ethnic Studies is always dependent on other departments in bringing in faculty, and the departments shape its direction, but this is another conversation. What is relevant to your question is that part of the victory for Ethnic Studies in 1996 was student presence in the hiring process. To reflect back on the struggle for Ethnic Studies then and the position of Ethnic Studies now it is crucial that students have this voice because of the many and often competing interest in shaping the direction of scholarship in the field. Students have a vote in Ethnic Studies because pedagogically Ethnic Studies is accountable to students.
If you notice, with the Committee on the Core we ask that the positions be better publicized, and we will advocate for the Committee on the Core to hold its meetings in public. If student representatives on the Committee on the Core do not represent student views, transparency would make it more possible to hold them accountable. Participation should not fall to giving over your rights to representatives who do not have to ‘lead by obeying’ their constituency, but rather an engaged process of ensuring that representation.
To your question about applying this across the board for other departments it is important to point out an enigma of the university, the departmental review process – where by the teaching and research missions of departments are reviewed as the basis of allocating additional and future resources. These reviews can and should be more inclusive of students and our learning experience. In the hiring process that is another story, and depends on the teaching commitments of faculty and the pedagogical commitments of a discipline and the sensibility for such involvement for students and faculty alike.
19. What kind of a precedent does a hunger strike set for those who have attempted to deal with these or similar issues in other ways?
I would hope an inspiration, or perhaps a counter universalism, or even a re-centering of power. More concretely, that a hunger strike can create a space for other action and organizing and spark campus dialogue about issues that before the strike this past semester have only reached us as so called ‘incidents of bias.’
Tags: hunger strike