Berkeley Students Win Demands
in Ethnic Studies Battle

Revolutionary Worker #1006, May 16, 1999

"What we've all learned here, and what Chancellor Berdahl should definitely have learned, is don't underestimate the power of the people. This shows what we can do when we all come together. That's why we won. This is one battle. It's not the war. We need to build on this."

--Cynthia, Berkeley hunger striker

"This has been the best class I have ever taken at Cal. The minute the administration thinks they can forget about this we'll all be back here hungry again."

--Allison, Berkeley hunger striker

"We did it! We did it together!"

--Luis, Berkeley hunger striker

UC Berkeley, May 7, 8:00 p.m.--Day 8 of the hunger strike for Ethnic Studies by six students at UC Berkeley. Chanting "What did we get? Ethnic Studies! When did we get it? Now!" the negotiating team for the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) at UC Berkeley emerged from a day-long negotiating session with UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl. Just a few days before, the Chancellor had refused to even meet with students saying he would not be subject to "negotiations in the streets," and "We cannot have anarchy." But now, a member of the TWLF negotiating team announced that the Chancellor had agreed to almost all of the TWLF demands including eight new faculty positions for Ethnic Studies over the next five years, $500,000 over five years for the creation of a Center for Race and Gender Studies, a recruiting budget for Ethnic Studies, creation of a fund to raise funds specifically for Ethnic Studies at Berkeley, creation of a Multicultural Center on campus, and space for a mural celebrating Ethnic Studies. The University agreed not to bring disciplinary or criminal charges against most of the more than 130 students arrested during the last few weeks. However, the University said it would not agree to drop charges against eight of the arrested students. And defending these students remains an important task for the people.

"This is only one little victory. It doesn't end here," Mario, one of the hunger strikers, told the hundreds of people who had gathered outside the Chancellor's office. "There are problems throughout this nation that we need to address. All of us have been affected by this struggle. We've gotten the vibes, we've got more experience, and we can just build it and change this place. This does not end when we break bread later tonight. We will move on and next year we'll rock this world again."


At 12:01 a.m. on May 4 the hunger strike by six students at UC Berkeley entered its fifth day. At about 3 a.m. that morning an army of over 70 cops descended on the tent city set up outside the offices of Chancellor Robert Berdahl by the TWLF the student group fighting to reverse the University's attacks on Ethnic Studies. The students had maintained a 24-hour presence on the Chancellor's doorstep vowing not to leave until their demands were met. Over 100 students including the hunger strikers camped out every night since the hunger strike began. The University brought in riot cops from other UC campuses, including UCLA and UC Davis and also called in police from the City of Berkeley and Alameda County.

"The whole situation was like a police state. There were cops in a ring surrounding the camp. They had us surrounded with metal racks. They came out marching in riot gear, looking real serious, to where we were sitting in a circle and they began to pluck us off one by one," one of the hunger strikers told the RW. "Despite their attack, it was beautiful the way we were chanting, clapping, singing and cheering. ...Even as we were being dragged away people were still chanting and screaming. People actually laid down in front of the busses to try and prevent them from taking the protesters away."

"We want to be educated so we won't be like you," one of the demonstrators shouted at the cops as they dragged her away. Another protester shouted, "Long Live Ethnic Studies!" Five students from Stanford were arrested. One of the Stanford students shouted, "Stanford supports you! Stand Strong!" as the police dragged her onto the bus.

One of the arrested students told the RW about the brutality of the cops: "They used this really painful hold where they dug their fingers into my jaw muscle here behind my ear. I guess they call it pain compliance. I don't know what they call it but it's basically torture. My jaw is still hurting right now pretty bad. They were beating people with clubs when they dove in front of police vans. We were being nonviolent but they were being very violent."

83 students were arrested in the raid and taken to the County Jail at Santa Rita about 60 miles east of Berkeley. Five of the six hunger strikers were among those arrested. The police refused to give the hunger strikers access to water or juice in their cells--jeopardizing their health. Tents and other supplies that the protesters were not able to remove quickly enough for the cops were confiscated. After the police had "secured" the area they tore up a yellow rose bush that had been planted by the students and threw candles and flowers that people had brought to the protest into the garbage. The demonstrators were held for between 10 and 15 hours before they were given citations charging them with trespassing and "illegal lodging."

"We Will Not Be Intimidated"

That morning as most students were making their way to class, they were welcomed by TWLF posters showing the cops brutally arresting students. Underneath the pictures large block letters: "We will not be intimidated." Another flyer showed two cops manhandling a protester with the caption "While you were sleeping...Berdahl sent in his negotiation team."

"Regardless of the Chancellor's accusations, and regardless of his tactics of intimidation, we intend to continue the struggle. We will continue to elicit support from the community, the students and from our faculty. We will continue to take this everywhere we need to take it until we feel that the Department of Ethnic Studies is safe, not only for today but for the years to come; not only for us but for our children," said Sara, a spokesperson for the TWLF at a press conference denouncing Berdahl's actions.

Poet and African American Studies professor June Jordan said that the students were fighting against `ethnic cleansing.' "I say there shall be no cleansing of the people, there shall be no cleansing of the curriculum of the people. ...I swear to you that not one of the six hunger strikers will suffer further harm without the interposition of my own body between such harm and continuation of their heroic fight."

The arrests swelled the numbers of people at the campus demonstrations. Over 700 students attended a noon rally and a similar number attended an afternoon rally at the Chancellor's office. That night the tent city was set up again and over 300 people--three times the previous night's number--spent the night camped outside.

"Even though we had to wait a long time in handcuffs and they wouldn't let us go to the bathroom, our energy was so high. There were so many of us there and we were so together on it. We felt like we were doing something good," a Berkeley senior who was arrested in the bust told the RW. "When we got out we were really tired, we didn't know what to expect. A lot of people were thinking `I don't know if I can do this again, tonight, we've been in there so long, this is such an arduous process.' But when we showed up back here and saw that the support had quadrupled, it was all worth it and our energy soared."

"All the arrest did is further politicize everybody," Mario, one of the hunger strikers, told the RW. "Most of my cellmates were freshmen. There were 14 people in the holding tank. There were three graduate students, I'm a junior and the rest were freshmen. One of them had gotten arrested for the Zellerbach incident on Friday. That was his first time getting arrested and he was totally paranoid. And now he's been arrested two times in one week--and he was ready to get arrested again last night if they came in on us. So all they're doing is adding fuel to the fire. Last night when people came to camp out with us there was a new batch of people who were willing to get arrested. This has escalated people's commitment."

The Two Faces of Berdahl

"U.C. diversity? We see hypocrisy!"

--chant during the Berkeley protests

Throughout the last week of the protest, Chancellor Berdahl set world records for hypocrisy. Berdahl claims that he supports Ethnic Studies and diversity at Berkeley. Yet his administration has drastically slashed Ethnic Studies, forcing the cancellation of 15 percent (7 out of 48) classes from the Fall 1999 schedule. Additional budget cuts of $300,000 for the program are estimated to result in cuts of 56 to 66 percent over the next year.

The Chancellor tried to portray himself as `reasonable.' However from the start he refused to negotiate directly with the students. Berdahl broke off negotiations with the faculty after the faculty and students did not meet his arbitrary deadline to agree to a proposal that he had put forward. Berdahl and the University used the negotiations with the faculty in an unsuccessful attempt to drive a wedge between the faculty and the students. The University released a flyer which stated, falsely, that the faculty had agreed to the Chancellor's proposal and renounced the students. Ling-chi Wang, Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, denounced the flyer as "nasty political sabotage aimed at pitting the students against the faculty."

Berdahl had said that he is "extremely concerned about the health and safety of the students." Yet U.C. police brutally arrested the hunger strikers and denied them liquids during the time they were held in jail. On April 6, Allison, one of the hunger strikers, was taken to a hospital in an ambulance after her heart rate climbed alarmingly. She was released later that evening, but protesters said that her condition was the result of mistreatment during the arrest and continual harassment by the U.C. police. The cops targeted the hunger strikers, preventing them from getting rest by shining floodlights on them while they were trying to rest, unzipping the doors to their tents and threatening them with arrest.

The day before Berdahl unleashed his cops on the students he whined that he was being "coerced" by the students. "I will not allow coercion, intimidation or the threat of violence to change the process," he said.

Hunger Strikers:
"We can stand up to you"

The RW talked with three of the hunger strikers on their sixth day without food. Spirits were high outside California Hall, the protests were growing and the police had not moved in on the previous night. Several classes were meeting on the lawn in front of the building in solidarity with the protests. TWLF members gave presentations to the classes. Two of the hunger strikers, Luis and Mario, were talking to a group of middle school students whose teacher had brought them onto campus.

All of the strikers were quick to point out that what was most important was not their individual actions but the movement as a whole. "The struggle is growing, it's getting bigger and more people are showing love and support and that nourishes us more and helps us stay focused and continue. We are trying to bring attention to the issue by doing this fast. But the purpose of all of this is the demands," Mario told the RW.

Mario's major is Chemical Engineering. He wants to go on to medical school and then go back and serve the community. His class schedule is so demanding that he's not sure he will have room to take any ethnic studies courses at UC. Mario talked about how Ethnic Studies programs enrich society. "It's not about just me taking the classes. I am an Ethnic Studies student. I will always want to learn about other people's cultures and history, especially now. This whole action is an Ethnic Studies course. It is composed of people of so many different cultures and we're learning so much about each other. The point is that Ethnic Studies programs produce the scholars that write the books that I will read even if I don't take the courses right now. And that others will read--like the junior high students or their teachers."

"We need to learn not just disciplines like Chemistry, English, or European History but the history of all peoples," he continued, "I'm not just talking about people learning their own history. Me, I'm a Chicano. I think it's important to learn, for example, the history of Asian people and their struggle." Mario was angry that Chancellor Berdahl tried to compare Ethnic Studies to other disciplines on campus, saying that the University can't treat Ethnic Studies differently. "But you can't compare Ethnic Studies to other majors," Mario said. "I told the Chancellor I wouldn't be hunger-striking for Chemical Engineering. That's my major but this is about people, about the future."

Mario also talked about his vision of Ethnic Studies and some of the work he has done with high school students. "It cannot just be intellectual. It has to be practical. A lot of us work with the youth. Rafa, another of the hunger strikers, works with youth at Pittsburgh High School. I work teaching youth at Oakland Charter Academy. I teach math and science but that's not all I do. I also mentor them. I talk to them. They know exactly why this is going on. We need to make connections with our youth. Not just talk to them a little bit but really be with them. And it's not just that we politicize them but we ourselves are politicized by our interactions with them."

Luis, another of the hunger strikers, is the father of three young girls who have been with him during most of the protest. He says he is concerned about the kind of society his daughters will live in and whether they will have the opportunity learn about their history and culture. "I'm a sociology major, but I see the importance of Ethnic Studies. I've taken several classes in Chicano Studies and that's where I've found an identity for myself and finally realized that I had a history, a culture and that I should be proud of it."

"I've been in jail several times," Luis told the RW. "Nothing serious, but it was all because of the way I look or because I have tattoos. Or because I hung out with a bunch of Chicanos who look to them like gang members. We were just hanging out and looking a certain way. Being here today is a build-up of different things that have happened throughout my life. Being told I can't do certain things. Being told I have to learn English and forget about Spanish. Being told that I should end up in a wood shop class instead of looking at something like college. Those kind of things have molded me and brought me to this point--where I have to tell the University, where I have to show my kids, where I have to speak out and say, `I'm more than what you try to tell me. You want to deny me my history and my culture. You're wrong. I can stand up to you. And more importantly, we can stand up to you.' We have to question institutions like UC Berkeley and the criminal justice system and be critical of them, and challenge them."

Cynthia is a history major and a senior. She sees the battle for Ethnic Studies in a larger context. "What we're seeing in this country is that they are turning back the clock and taking back all the gains that we have fought so hard for in the 1960s and the civil rights movement. The attacks on Ethnic Studies are totally linked to that. Ethnic Studies is something that has always come out of struggle and has always been hotly contested and has always required a commitment on the part of people to fight for it. It has never been given." Cynthia talked to the RW about her response to some of Berdahl's attacks on Ethnic Studies. "Chancellor Berdahl said that the legitimacy of Ethnic Studies is diminished by the fact that it has come out of struggle. Actually it's exactly the opposite. The fact that you have movements like this and all of the movements that created Ethnic Studies, that people are willing to put so much of their time and their lives and their bodies into this fight, all this makes Ethnic Studies even more legitimate."

"My major is history and the reason that it's not Ethnic Studies is that when I was a freshman here I was contaminated by the same intellectual snobbery and disrespect that is the undercurrent for all of this," Cynthia told the RW. "It wasn't until later that I realized where this idea came from and who had put that idea in my head and that it was simply not correct. It was too late to change majors. None of us wants to be in a University that doesn't have Ethnic Studies. Especially in the state of California where white people aren't even the majority any more."

"To Be Committed Is to Be in Danger"

"The University may have gotten us out of here for one night but they really made a mistake because now we're five times stronger."

--an arrested student

In the days after the police attack support has grown every day both on and off campus. Three new people joined the hunger strike: a Chicano Studies Professor, an Ethnic Studies lecturer, and a 73-year-old Chilean woman from the community. Ten professors signed a pledge saying that if the police came down to arrest the students they too would be arrested. Speaking at a rally Professor Ron Takaki quoted African American writer James Baldwin: "To act is to be committed, to be committed is to be in danger." Takaki added "If the Chancellor uses the police to put you in danger he will not only have to arrest you. He will have to arrest me."

Support for the actions at UC Berkeley spread to other campuses nationwide. At Brown University and Columbia students wore yellow TWLF armbands. At Stanford there was a rally on May 7 in support of the Berkeley student demands.

Students also received support from many civil rights, labor and community organizations, from high school students, and from unions including AFSCME, UAW (which represents the Grad students), the UFW, Oakland postal workers, the United Farm Workers, the Healthcare Workers Union, the California Nurses Association and others. A statement of support was signed by 50 national civil rights organizations.

Determined to continue their struggle until their demands were met, one student said, "This is the legacy that we will leave on this university." Their victory is a victory for people fighting for equality everywhere.

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