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