Student Movement Wins Ethnic Studies Victory

UC Berkeley saw the largest student protests in more than a decade this spring as hundreds of students successfully used direct action tactics to defend the Ethnic Studies Department from a slow, institutional starvation. The multi-racial coalition of students, faculty and community members won a number of limited concessions from the UCB administration after a brief but intense struggle that was designed around attainable goals in order to virtually ensure that victory could be declared.

The victory at UCB demonstrates that when students organize, they can win. The struggle was a positive example of a multiracial alliance with strong participation and leadership by women activists. It was a proactive struggle that not only defended past gains, but pushed forward with new demands. Finally, the victory creates institutionalized change.

Ethnic Studies, along with Women’s Studies, Labor Studies and (where they have it) Queer Studies represent institutional challenges to power structures based on white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and authoritarianism. These departments have been catalysts in developing new theories and concepts of race, gender, class and power, as well as providing new generations of activists and organizers with skills and knowledge. The survival and success of these departments contributes to the survival and success of movements for social change.

The first Ethnic Studies Departments in the United States were created at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University after long and courageous student strikes in 1968-69. Students from both campuses formed the Third World Liberation Front and completely closed down the schools in a demonstration of multiracial power supported by teachers, employees and community members. While the strikers were met with fierce police brutality and repeatedly denounced by then Governor Ronald Reagan, the demands were won. Ethnic Studies (ES) Departments and courses have been developed on campuses across the US, but since the day they were created they have been contested, denounced and attacked by defenders of the traditional canons of Western Civilization ” conservatives and liberals alike.

Thirty years after the creation of Ethnic Studies at UCB, students this spring re-formed the Third World Liberation Front to ensure the future of the ES department. An action alert by graduate students K. Liao and K. Yep stated: “The administration has derailed departmental efforts to fill empty tenured track faculty positions. As a result, there are NO full-time tenured Native American Studies professors, only ONE full-time Chicano studies professor… with the expected retirement of faculty in the new decade, the future existence of ES is in question.”

A student flyer titled “Welcome to UC Berkeley of the 21st Century” gave further evidence that ES is under attack: “ES 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.” Student actions to defend and extend Ethnic Studies began on April 14 with an occupation of Barrows Hall, home of the ES department. The students, organized under the banner of the TWLF, held the building for over 10 hours. Campus police, suited up for a riot, used pain compliance techniques to remove and arrest 46 students for trespassing. Several days after the occupation, the TWLF protested at the annual “Cal Day.” Student activists disrupted speeches by UC Chancellor Berdahl and Provost Carol Christ. The students challenged the UC leadership to explain what was happening to Ethnic Studies. Student protesters articulated the connections between attacks on ES and the voter approved Proposition 209 which further dismantled affirmative action programs and lead to a sharp decline in the number of people of color accepted into the UC system. On April 29, hundreds of students held a protest vigil in front of the offices of the Chancellor and the Provost. At the vigil, six students announced they were beginning a hunger strike to increase pressure on the administration to accept the demands of the TWLF. The hunger strikers, who maintained a liquid diet, and dozens of other protesters set up a tent city in front of the administration’s office in California Hall, where they would stay until the demands had been won. Over the next few days, more and more students and people from the community joined the protest, creating a massive encampment on the Chancellor’s doorstep, reminiscent of the anti-apartheid shantytown established on the same spot in 1986.

Early on May 4, police arrested 104 protesters, including all 6 hunger strikers. Campus police from UC Davis, UCLA and other campuses were brought in to assist in the arrests. The protesters returned immediately and news of the police action increased both media attention and community support. Activities around the tent city increased. Protest signs and messages of solidarity from students around the country decorated California Hall. More and more students and community activists joined the occupation. The student government passed a resolution to support the TWLF’s demands

The administration was put in an impossible situation as the encampment grew and their act of repression backfired. Any further mass arrest would make them look like brutes, but the hundreds of students in sleeping bags just couldn’t be ignored.

On May 8, negotiations between students, faculty and the Chancellor led to an agreement which included the following provisions: 8 faculty ladder positions over the next 5 years, 3 of which will be filled this coming year; a budget sufficient to maintain the department ” no more cut backs on classes; a research center on “Race & Gender Studies”; additional office space; a Multicultural Center for students; funds for recruiting qualified transfer students who are interested in ES; a mural in the building that houses ES; dropping all criminal charges against student protesters (although disciplinary letters will be

Sweeping Away Human Rights and Protesting for Social Justice

Food Not Bombs serves dissent at SF City Hall Reopening Ceremony

Police sweeps have returned as the official policy on homelessness in San Francisco. In keeping with political tradition, Willie Brown has resorted to the tired tactic of using police to ticket, arrest, and harass homeless people in public spaces in an attempt to win votes under the guise of ‘doing something’ about homelessness. Like his predecessors, Art Agnos and Frank Jordan, Brown has entered his reelection year in office with ‘get tough’ policies that make headlines and garner approval from downtown business, but do nothing to improve the situation for poor people. Police sweeps have been on the rise all over San Francisco – in the Haight, the Castro and Union Square in particular. By December, the police sweeps were launched in full force in Civic Center in preparation for the reopening of City Hall. City Hall had been closed for upgrade, restoration and retrofitting since early spring of 95. Over 300 million dollars had been spent on City Hall, including 4 to 5 hundred thousand dollars for gold plating on City Hall’s dome. Using the policy of ‘zero tolerance’ (i.e. if you look poor and aren’t white, then you will be questioned), the police forced people out. Additionally, all of the benches in Civic Center were removed and using enormous lights, the entire plaza was lit up throughout the night to prevent sleeping.

On January 5th, City Hall reopened and was kicked off with a ceremony lead by Mayor Brown. The ceremony took place across the street in Civic Center and all signs of poverty had been removed – the reality of failed homeless policy, the effects of welfare reform and economic inequality had been hidden to make way for the photo opportunities of a triumphant ceremony of city politics as usual. However, Food Not Bombs decided to ‘celebrate’ the reopening of City Hall with an all day protest and community meal for poor people.

For years, Food Not Bombs had served free food across from City Hall in Civic Center. By sharing food in a high profile area and visibly protesting against poverty and the criminalization of poor people, FNB was targeted by Mayors Agnos and Jordan for arrest and political repression. Since the closing of City Hall, the group has been sharing food in United Nations Plaza. With the reopening, FNB returned to Civic Center in an effort to both draw attention to the social injustice of poverty and to protest the city’s punitive attacks against homeless people.

From 9 am to about 7:30 pm FNB served on the opposite side of Civic Center from where the ceremony was held. With two large banners reading “Food Not Bombs” and “Visibility is a Human Right”, FNB served breakfast, lunch and dinner, distributed literature, engaged hundreds of people walking by and created a safe space for poor people to return to Civic Center after being forcibly removed. While the number of servers/protesters never exceeded a dozen or two, hundreds of people received food and literature and many stopped to read the banners and get an alternative perspective on city politics.

“Virtually every passer by remarked on the importance of our mission – to feed people and thereby make the clear statement that government is failing in it’s mandate,” commented Rg Goudy, a workfare worker and member of People Organized To Win Employment Rights, the Coalition on Homelessness and FNB. Goudy as stated that he was “amazed at the press interest in FNB’s historic, visual and vocal return to Civic Center”. While there was much press interest, there was also concern from the police which included a surprise visit from the City’s Health Department to inform FNB that it was conducting an illegal activity.

Sasha, an activist with FNB, later said, “By the amount of attention we got early-on in the day, it was apparent that we had touched a nerve in city government. Willie’s dream seemed to be a City Hall for it’s upper class tastes to serve the upper class people who run the city. We served as a reminder to everyone’s conscience that it’s wrong to have dessert at the expense of someone else’s dinner.”

Tai Miller, who recorded much of the event for Free Radio, wondered “why we let them take our tax money to build a monument to people who are so boring while others of us starve”. Miller, a long-time activist with FNB and the Industrial Workers of the World, also wondered, if City Hall belongs to the people, as the Mayor stated during the ceremony, why were poor people forced away. “Such is life in the capitalist world,” she said.

Now that City Hall is reopened, poor people are still being cleared out of Civic Center and at the end of January, the Board of Supervisors under the impetus of Amos Brown have voted to increase the police sweeps in United Nations Plaza. Amos Brown who has argued that SF’s homeless problem is due to “compassion overload” and the generosity of the city, has repeatedly called for increased punitive measures against homeless people and “zero-tolerance”. Homeless people are being pushed into the neighborhoods as police make their presence felt in the plazas and parks. Politicians like Amos Brown have turned the public debate away from the lack of affordable housing, lack of drug treatment programs, lack of decent paying jobs, and other economic and social dynamics onto issues of personal behavior and individual conduct.

Fortunately, protests have been taking place throughout February. The Coalition on Homelessness held a “Have A Heart” rally for Valentine’s Day at City Hall. A group of almost 100 people went into City Hall and visited the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor with chants of “L-O-V-E”, “Have a change of heart”, and my person favorite “Stop in the name of love”. All supervisors who supported the police sweeps were given broken hearts, while the three who opposed the sweeps were given beautiful valentines. Religious Witness For Homeless People also held a rally denouncing the police sweeps and political rhetoric that attacks homeless people. On Feb. 17th, over 150 people rallied at Civic Center and kicked off a 21 day fast to protest the enormous amount of housing available in the Presidio that could be given to homeless people. Over 250 people are currently fasting (as this article is written). Some people are fasting one day, while others are fasting on a liquid diet all 21 days. The fast has garnered mainstream media and has been accompanied with daily vigils in front of City Hall.

Public protests, like those of Food Not Bombs, the Coalition on Homelessness and Religious Witness, aim to bring the public debate back to the real issues of economic inequality, misplaced priorities and the need to address social issues like homelessness with social and economic justice.

The slogan “Homes Not Jails” rings painfully true as the government spends more and more money on prisons to warehouse the poor, and San Francisco looks to “crack-downs” and police sweeps as answers to economic inequality and homelessness.

For more information please call SF Food Not Bombs at 415.292.3235.