The Sticking Place

Two, Three, Many Columbias

Thai Jones

On a bitter night in November, I watched two protests face off on Columbia University’s central quad. At the sundial, about 100 supporters of a five-student hunger strike, then in its ninth day, gathered close, screening their votives from the cold wind. They were demanding more money for ethnic studies, a more multicultural curriculum and a more neighborly plan for expanding north into Harlem from the Morningside Heights campus.

On the steps of Low Library, a group of nearly equal size had mobilized, taking issue not so much with the fasters’ demands as with the way they were making them. Speeches were loud and angry. Slogans echoed off the old stone buildings.

“Historically, hunger strikes have been used for very righteous purposes, namely by Mahatma Gandi and Cesar Chavez,” said one counterprotester, Josh Mathew. “The idea that if I don’t eat for 10 days I’ll make the university capitulate is not a safe precedent to set, especially if there is a larger student body that feels left out of the process.”

As I watch, I am straddling two worlds. A Ph.D. candidate in American history at Columbia, I lead undergraduate seminars, and I recognize in each encampment faces from my class. But my ties run deeper: 40 years ago, my mother was a student at Columbia. Her politics were radicalized by the campus uprising of 1968 and the police violence that ended it. My father, who had withdrawn from Antioch College to work full time for Students for a Democratic Society, was among a group of outsiders who took over a campus building, along with the four that were occupied by Columbia students. Later, he was a founder of the Weather Underground, an S.D.S. splinter group.

The historian in me sees the issues and the tactics of radical movements in an academic context. The teacher in me marvels at the acuity of my students, who seem to understand the protest movements of the past and the battles over racial divisions in this country. And my parents’ political journey, their evolution from leftist activists to fugitives to their current work as environmentalists, leaves me wondering about how my own students might evolve, and their very different awakening.

The parallels between 1968 and now are striking. Political leadership had led the nation into an unpopular, and seemingly unwinnable, war. Issues of diversity, multiculturalism and the university’s incursions on its neighbors were front-burner topics. But the stakes and the passions seemed so much greater then – the draft threatened every college-age man, and college administrators were far less accommodating of dissent.

Columbia’s recent hunger strikers were camped in tents staked to the usually immaculate library lawn. The university hooked up the encampment for lights; deeming heaters a fire hazard, officials offered to let the strikers sleep in common space indoors.

The fasters could not be ignored, which, of course, was the point. Ten activists can carry a banner until the ink fades; if they stop eating, the administration – and the news media – will pay attention. Last year, small groups of protesters fasted at Harvard as well as at the state universities of Vermont, Minnesota and California.

But in almost every case, the student reaction was scathing. Polls in campus newspapers have consistently registered disapproval at around 70 percent.

At Columbia, the anti-strike organizers had used Facebook, the social networking Web site, to organize a group called “We Do NOT Support the Hunger Strikers.” Within days, it had 750 members, who fired questions at the protesters and petitioned the administration. Many comments engaged the issues seriously; others did not. One posting proposed an eating marathon. The campus Republican club went a step further, piling donuts on a table facing the strikers’ tents with a one-word sign: “Hungry?”

“Hunger strikes take place where it’s not a democratic society, and people don’t have the power to vote,” said Aga Sablinska, an English and history major who says she had never involved herself in politics before organizing the Facebook group. “We students have the ability to make our voices heard in other ways.”

At the end of the semester, I asked my students for their views on the protest. While they seem to sympathize with past struggles and appreciate how such contests promote social change, not one of the more than 30 in the class supported this hunger strike. Some said it was an antidemocratic action by a small group trying to impose its will; others said it was an excessive method of demanding changes in the curriculum.

Ten Irish nationalists held in Maze Prison near Belfast starved themselves to death in 1981 protesting British rule; no one seemed to believe that the Columbia strikers would jeopardize their health, or be permitted to. In fact, two had dropped out on medical advice and been replaced by two new fasters.

Matthew Opitz, a sophomore at Harvard who joined its hunger strike last spring, remembers the first 48 hours as the hardest: “I was feeling like I had gotten hit by a semi truck, the feeling you get when you got a bad case of the flu. You’re lethargic and sore and your heart is beating real fast, but it’s not giving you a lot of energy.”

He and 10 other students had set up chairs and signs in Harvard Yard demanding higher pay for campus security guards; they each consumed only two glasses of Gatorade a day. “We thought there would be support from casual supporters and hard-core alike,” Mr. Opitz said.

Five years earlier, a popularly supported sit-in at its president’s office had forced Harvard to reexamine its labor practices. Things went differently this time. Reaction on campus blogs and in The Crimson, the student newspaper, rejected fasting as a tactic.

“Why does it matter to them what we’re doing with our bodies?” Mr. Opitz asked. “I suspect they really at heart don’t support the goal of the campaign, and they feel bad coming out and saying that. Their gut class instinct is to say, ‘They’re going too far for the workers. They’re trying too hard. They’re struggling too hard.’ ”

The Harvard fast ended without a resolution, but during the summer, the security guards signed a contract that included a raise similar to what the activists had been demanding. “I felt as satisfied as could be expected,” Mr. Opitz said. “Obviously this one campaign isn’t going to change the entire world, so I keep it in perspective and don’t get jubilant out of proportion to what it really accomplishes.”

At Columbia, the hunger strike ended the night after the dueling vigils, when the administration pledged to explore changes to the curriculum, which, it turned out, had been discussed even before the protest had started.

Symbolically, the strikers said, the demonstration had been a triumph. “A lot of these demands were centered around the way we are being educated,” said Samantha Barron, 19, a Barnard sophomore who fasted for 10 days, “and we’re arguing that our education has us starving intellectually.”

Previous hunger strikes at Columbia – in 1985, to demand university divestiture from South Africa, and in 1996, to fight for a more diverse curriculum – had enjoyed popular support. Now, the dynamics had changed. A willingness to commit to – or even to tolerate – radical protest had diminished.

Many students today are active, but their activism is not explicitly political. “They are really focused on volunteering in homeless shelters or teaching in public schools,” says Scott Seider, an instructor at Harvard who studies how emerging adults develop a sense of social responsibility. “They are less interested in protesting, or petitioning Congress to bring about differences in big structural ways.”

“Young people today trust their parents more,” he continues. “This is a generation of young people that places faith in the system, and their elders, to make good decisions. When confronted with radical activists, or extreme tactics, the majority tends to wonder, ‘Why are these small groups of students rocking the boat?’

Back issues of The Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, show that students in early 1968 were equally frustrated with the blockades and disruption of S.D.S., which was then a fringe group.

“If you were at Columbia in early March 1968,” recalls my mother, Eleanor Stein, who now teaches climate change at Albany Law School, “you would have seen a small group of activists doing increasingly militant and confrontational things that were strongly opposed and treated with contempt by much of the faculty and many of the students.”

That April, protests against Columbia’s plan to build a gym in Morningside Park – with a separate entrance for Harlem residents, which led students to label the project “Gym Crow” – and the university’s involvement with the Institute for Defense Analysis, which provided weapons and other research for the Pentagon, escalated until more than 1,000 people had barricaded themselves inside campus buildings.

My mother joined the occupiers, as a law student, wearing a white armband that said “legal observer.” This allowed her free passage through the cordons and barricades, so she served as a messenger among occupied buildings. At night, she and other graduate students slept on the hard stone floors of Fayerweather Hall, the very building where I now teach.

On April 30, after a week of revolutionary exultation, my mother had moved from observer to participant. Columbia’s administration asked the police to end the occupation, and my mother clasped hands with those around her. They sang “We Shall Overcome” as officers axed through the barricades, then swarmed among the protesters, swinging clubs, chair legs, two-by-fours or baseball bats. My mother was dragged by four police officers to a waiting van – scarring her knees on the pebbled path – and taken to jail. Of the 700 arrested, nearly 150 required medical treatment. A student strike followed, with thousands staying out of class, while Mark Rudd, the S.D.S. president, preached solidarity from the Low Library steps.

My mother’s transformation accelerated. By 1971, she and my father, Jeff Jones, who was evading a charge of inciting to riot, were living underground. They would do so for a decade, long past the point of political relevance. For the first four years of my life, I lived under a series of assumed names. When I was 2 years old, the F.B.I found gunpowder belonging to my father in one of the apartments we used and charged him with possession of explosives. The F.B.I. finally caught up with our family in a Bronx apartment in 1981. Charges against my mother were dropped; my father was sentenced to a year and a half of probation and six months of community service. One day he was a fugitive, the next he was striving to build a normal life.

Today, their tactics of choice are lecturing and writing, particularly about the connection between oil dependence in the United States and the war in Iraq. “I work in government and academia; you can’t be more in the system than that,” my mother, now 61, acknowledges. “But that doesn’t mean my values are different. I’m still concerned with the same issues that motivated me in 1968, justice and peace.”

My father, now 60, remains defiant. “The choices we made then were the right choices,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean they’re the right choices for today. We pushed the system from the outside then, and we are working within the system today. I see in the hunger strikers’ commitment and passion the same principled resistance that fueled us on that same campus nearly 40 years ago.”

So as Columbia prepares to mark the anniversary of the occupation and strike with academic discussions and analysis, my parents’ journey has brought them to an unexpected place: common ground with many of my students today.

The New York Times
January 6, 2008

Link to article here.

© Thai Jones/The New York Times
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