Berkeley Students Defend Ethnic Studies

Revolutionary Worker #1005, May 9, 1999

"It has come to the point of crisis where we have been forced to place our bodies at risk to communicate to Chancellor Berdahl and Provost Christ the significance Ethnic Studies holds in the life of students and our communities. We will sacrifice our health until the University meets our demands."

-- UC Berkeley hunger striker

"There's a quote from Mario Savio, who started the Free Speech Movement here in 1964, that said that sometimes the operation of the machine is so atrocious and so vile that all you can do is throw yourself against the wheels to stop it. And that's what we're doing.... They have been throwing the clock back on us for 30 years. We have to say enough. For the first time in being at this school for four years I feel like we are part of something that is hopeful and beautiful and that is really going to make some changes."

-- UC Berkeley hunger striker

On the 30th anniversary of the Third World Strike at the University of California at Berkeley, the movement that established one of the first Ethnic Studies programs in the U.S., students at Berkeley have launched a determined struggle to defend and expand the Ethnic Studies program on the campus. Calling themselves the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) after the movement that led the 1969 strike, the students have held almost daily actions on the campus. At midnight on April 29 six students began a hunger strike and vigil outside the office of Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl. The hunger strikers have vowed that they will not eat until the University concedes to their demands.

Takeover of Barrows Hall

The students' actions began on Wednesday, April 14 with the occupation of Barrows Hall, the building that houses the Ethnic Studies Department. The student occupation of Barrows Hall lasted for over ten hours and forced the cancellation of classes. Banners defending ethnic studies were hung out of windows and students chanted from balconies. Other students gathered outside the building to support the occupation. Food and other supplies were passed into the building, despite the efforts of campus police to prevent it. The meeting of the Student Senate was canceled and Student Body President Preston Taylor and other student senators joined the protesters.

Shortly after 9 p.m. campus police, wearing helmets, entered the building and began to violently remove protesters. The police choked and used "pain compliance techniques" (a.k.a. torture) to remove the students who were sitting in the lobby of the building with linked arms. One student was taken to the hospital after police partially ripped his ear off. Shocked by the brutality of the cops, students outside the building broke windows, attempting to join the students inside and stop the police from beating them. 46 students were arrested and charged with trespassing. Five were charged with resisting arrest and taken to the Berkeley Jail. The University banned six students arrested in the protests from campus and is continuing to push for criminal charges and further disciplinary action against them.

The demonstrators issued a statement to Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl, Provost Carol Christ and professors and students who are concerned with the future of Ethnic Studies. "In the spring semester of 1969 the Third World Liberation Front transformed education and the University of California at Berkeley in a way that had never been done before. The strike was a form of resistance against Cal's discriminatory policies toward people of color.... Now, 30 years later, we find ourselves in a state of regression. The vision and hope of those students who unselfishly put their academic careers on the line and their safety in the hands of a violent police force and administration has been shattered. Today Ethnic Studies is near extinction."

The statement also listed student demands, which included increased funding for Ethnic Studies; hiring new tenure track professors in all of the Ethnic Studies Departments as well as replacing those professors who have left the departments due to retirement or denial of tenure; an allotment of a certain number of spots in the admissions process for each ethnic studies department; the establishment of an Ethnic Studies Research Center and a Multicultural Student Center. The students also demanded that no punishment be inflicted on the students protesting for Ethnic Studies.

Origins of Ethnic Studies

Ethnic Studies Programs were only established after long and hard-fought battles at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State and other universities. The Third World Strike at Berkeley began on January 21, 1969. Students were arrested and brutally beaten by police when they discouraged other students from crossing picket lines. Classes were disrupted. The University banned rallies on campus and Governor Ronald Reagan declared "a state of extreme emergency." Unable to stop the strike, the University escalated their tactics. In late February the National Guard was called onto campus. Tear gas was shot at students and dropped from helicopters. Students responded by throwing back the tear gas canisters and overturning police vans. One student was beaten so severely that he remained unconscious for several hours. Throughout all of this the Third World Liberation Front, which led the strike, rallied broad support. The American Federation of Teachers, the union that represented the teaching assistants, voted to strike, as did the union representing campus workers. Much of the faculty also supported the strike. The TWLF called a moratorium with the strike in March after the University agreed to ethnic studies departments on campus.

Before the strike the history, culture, and resistance of Black people, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians was not considered `worthy of discussion in the university.' History classes taught the lie that slavery was a `paternalistic institution.' Writings by W.E.B DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes were not studied. A professor of Asian American Studies told her students that when she came onto the campus in the 1960s and said that she wanted to study Asian American literature she was told that there was no such thing. By whiting out the history, struggle and culture of oppressed nationalities the university has played a crucial role in reinforcing the system of white supremacy.

This battle was also part of a broader questioning. "The fight for ethnic studies was part of our entire generation rising up and calling into question the unjust and unequal foundations of this society--the economics, the politics, and the traditional social relations between men and women, workers and intellectuals, whites and people of color, youth and elders," said RCP spokesperson Dolly Veale at a conference on the 30th anniversary of the Third World Strike. "Like many others, I began to question and reject the traditional methods and goals of capitalist education. We'd laugh about `educated fools from uneducated schools.' We began to see our university education as a reflection and concentration of the me-first, dog-eat-dog society. We saw our struggle for equal and relevant education as part of a larger rebellion against society's multi-faceted inequalities. We disdained aspiring to a self-serving career and becoming administrators over those on the bottom rungs of society. We began to discuss and debate alternatives."

The Future of
Ethnic Studies at Stake

Fast forward to 1999. A few days after the takeover of Barrows Hall was `Cal Day,' the annual university-sponsored event welcoming incoming freshmen to the Berkeley campus. Students from the TWLF disrupted speeches by UC Provost Carol Christ and Chancellor Berdahl, challenging them to answer questions about the future of ethnic studies. Other students blocked intersections and staged a guerrilla theater and covered their mouths with duct tape, symbolic of how the university is out to silence the voices of oppressed peoples. The protesters handed out a flyer to the new students: "Welcome to UC Berkeley of the 21st Century." The flyer ran down the situation in the Ethnic Studies Department:

  • Ethnic Studies has the smallest budget in the College of Letters and Science--across the board cuts affect its programs disproportionately.
  • One-third of the overall Ethnic Studies budget has been cut, forcing the department to cut eight classes next semester.
  • The Department has lost four to five faculty members that the University has not allowed the department to replace.
  • Currently there are NO full-time tenured professors in Native American Studies.
  • After next year, there will be only ONE full-time tenured professor in Chicano Studies.
  • There is currently no representation within the Asian American Studies department, among professors, of South Asians or Filipinos.
  • These recent attacks on Ethnic Studies show that the very future of these programs is at stake. A statement from the Ethnic Studies faculty in support of the protests by the students documents the way the Department has been systematically weakened in recent years: "Whether in terms of faculty resource allocation or support for the research center, what is at stake is our struggle against the racist and indifferent attitude toward Ethnic Studies. Instead of placing the Department at the center of the campus' intellectual and social concerns, ethnic studies has been relegated to the margins and assigned a low priority. A letter from Professor Norma Alarcon said that the Ethnic Studies Department was treated by the campus administration as a "service department," and treated like "maids, ranch hands, or janitors...." Ling-chi Wang, the chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, has stated that if current trends are not reversed there will not be an Ethnic Studies Department at Berkeley in ten years.

    Against the Backlash

    "There's a very scary and a very racist backlash. And that is also pervading the campus community, as well as the California community and the national community. And that's really what we're fighting against on campus and in our communities."

    -- Sara, a student activist with the TWLF

    "The state is forcing people to be more radical. Students say `I don't want to do this hippie shit any more.' We need to start doing shit for real. We need to start organizing like they did in the Third World Strike. That's why we took on the name of Third World Liberation Front. That movement shut down the campus. We need to get to that level."

    -- Jose Palafox, a graduate student
    in Ethnic Studies

    For students at UC Berkeley and other campuses the last four years have seemed like a stream of endless racist attacks. Proposition 187 attacked immigrants, denying them the right to basic government services including health and education. Then came Proposition 209 and attacks on affirmative action. Last year, Proposition 227 eliminated bilingual education programs.

    Last year, Ward Connerly, the reactionary UC Regent who, in 1995, initiated the ban on affirmative action programs at the University of California, questioned the very existence of ethnic studies programs. "All of the infrastructure created back in the 1970s and '80s as a result of Black nationalism and the Black power movement, I think we need to reexamine it now," he said. Connerly said he would demand that faculty meet with him and "make the case that this is sound academic curriculum rather than a political correctness mindset." Some `liberals' like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. have also spoken out against ethnic studies, charging that the "cult of ethnicity" on college campuses is "tearing America apart."

    These attacks have been echoed at UC Berkeley. The day after the Barrows Hall takeover the student newspaper, the Daily Cal, ran a column titled "Good Riddance to Ethnic Studies." The article called the protesters morons and made other derogatory and slanderous statements against Ethnic Studies Professor Ronald Takaki and against the Department as a whole. Students were outraged at the ignorance and audacity to print such an insulting and misinformed column in a campus paper. The Ethnic Studies Department has also received threatening phone calls in recent days. The unidentified caller accused the Department of engaging in "genocide against the white race" and saying "we're going to fight back asshole."

    In a letter to the campus newspaper a student activist defended ethnic studies against these types of racist attacks. "A common complaint about ethnic studies is that it dwells on the history of white oppression. But we must realize that this is a very unfortunate fact about our history. As a white, European male I know this all too well--my British grandfather owned a factory in India, and my French grandmother owned a plantation in Vietnam. This so-called `white male bashing' is not intended to make white people feel guilty--it is about coming to terms with the atrocities of our past. Only by directly combating racism can we move to create a colorblind society. To ignore that racism exists, and has existed for centuries, is ultimately naive and counter productive."

    "I'm a senior and over the last years diversity has been degraded to the point where I walk around campus and don't see very many friendly faces any more," one student said at a rally on campus, commenting on the results of the ban on affirmative action. Last year, in the first class admitted under the new guidelines, there was a cut of almost two-thirds in the number of Black, Latino, and Native American students admitted to UC Berkeley. Activists have called this the "resegregation of higher education."

    Statewide less than 1,000 African Americans were admitted to the nine University of California campuses in 1998. At the same time there were over 46,000 African Americans in the 33 "campuses" of the state's prison system. California now spends more on prisons than on its entire education system.

    For the student activists at Berkeley these ongoing attacks have stiffened their determination in the battle to defend ethnic studies. Many are seeking ways to link up with people in the community. "Some of the students have been involved with organizing high school students' walkouts," Jose Palafox, an Ethnic Studies graduate student who has been active in the struggle, told the RW. "So they know the crisis, not just within the university but also in the high schools and how we need to get beyond getting more PhDs or whatever. Those are just demands--but they are linked to a larger picture of the kind of society that we want to build. The society that we want to claim as our own because it is our future."

    Support for the Protests

    A student activist told the RW that protest organizers were surprised by the response of students to the takeover of Barrows Hall. "Before the takeover we only had about 30 people attending our meetings, now there are over 100 attending meetings that are going on almost every day."

    "Some of us underestimated that so many people would get involved. So many people are wearing TWLF armbands and you have the support of the faculty. What's so interesting is that now you have undergraduate students, graduate students, and the faculty getting involved big time putting their futures and their jobs on the line," another activist told the RW.

    The Ethnic Studies faculty has been very supportive of the students. At a meeting with the campus administration after the takeover of Barrows, the faculty walked out after the administration said that they refused to give amnesty to the protesters. "I have been very, very depressed in the last few years over the way that I see our department declining," Ling-chi Wang, a founding member and current chair of the Department said on a radio program. "But I think that those students have completely re-energized me and our faculty to see that now there is a purpose for us to continue the growth that began 30 years ago."

    The student government at Berkeley passed a resolution supporting all of the demands of the TWLF and has called for the University to drop all charges against those arrested during the takeover of Barrows Hall.

    Hunger Strike

    "It's not a coincidence that this University denies us the opportunity to learn about one another. We have to come together and say enough is enough and we have to say to people like Berdahl and Christ, stop lying to us, stop lying to our children and stop lying to the people."

    -- U.C. Berkeley hunger striker

    On Thursday evening, April 29, hundreds of students gathered in a vigil on the steps outside California Hall where Chancellor Berdahl and Provost Christ have their offices. The mood was serious and determined. Six students, five from Berkeley and one from San Francisco State University, were starting a hunger strike--vowing that they would not eat until the University gives in to their demands. The hunger strikers and students will camp on the steps of the building so that the campus officials cannot look away from their struggle or their demands.

    During the vigil, statements of support came from faculty members, representatives of community organizations, and veterans of the 1969 Third World Liberation Front. Poetry for the People came out and read poems, some written especially for the protest. A TWLF student attending a conference of the National Association for Chicano Studies (NACS) in Texas called in to the vigil and said the conference had two minutes of silence in solidarity with the Berkeley hunger strikers and that they were drafting an official resolution in support of them.

    It was also announced that students at other colleges had declared their solidarity with the hunger strikers at Berkeley and would be holding roving, one-day solidarity fasts. The list of campuses included UC Davis, UC Riverside, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Francisco, Claremont Colleges, Cal State Fullerton, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Cal State Northridge, San Francisco State, Arizona State, San Jose State, D-Q University, San Francisco City College, Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly, USC, Cal State Monterey Bay, Cal State Hayward, Laney, Vista, Harvard, University of Michigan, Stanford, Humboldt, Ohio State, Rutgers Law School, NYU, Boston College, Boston University, Diablo Valley College, Princeton, and Mills College.

    As midnight approached, the hunger strikers each gave personal statements saying why they were putting their lives on the line. On the first night of the vigil over 120 students slept out on the steps of California Hall.

    On the eve of the 21st century, Ethnic Studies programs which teach some truth about the history, culture and resistance of oppressed peoples in the U.S. are under fierce attack by a government that more and more is abandoning even the pretense of overcoming social inequality. Students at UC Berkeley are determined to beat back the latest round of attacks on these programs and are putting their bodies and their lives on the line. The struggle to defend ethnic studies on the campuses is linked with the people's struggle on many other fronts. The students deserve wholehearted support from all those who care about justice. As a student at Berkeley said, "This is a fight for our future; this is history."

    The RW will continue to cover the hunger strike and the movement to defend ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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