Why American students are hunger striking

How a growing student movement in the US is resorting to radical tactics to make their voices heard

Students at New York's Columbia University stopped eating on Thursday 8 November 2007, and within 24 hours the news had reached my warehouse flat in North London.

I called Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, wrote statements of support and solidarity, and signed online petitions.

Everyday during their 10-day hunger strike (which ended at 9pm on 16 November) I logged onto the internet to check the status of the hunger strike and the hunger strikers and to put my fingers on the pulse of the growing student movement in the United States.

Responding to the recent repeat-occurance of swastikas and nooses on campus walls and on the doors of black professors, and protesting the lack of university response, the Columbia hunger strikers are demanded their administration take moral positions and actions against the forces that propagate discrimination and injustice.

They demanded a Core Curriculum reflective of "the multicultural society that we live in and the power relations that constitute it," plans for sustainable expansion that does not displace thousands of Harlem residents, the establishment of an Ethnic Studies program, and proactive efforts to target institutional racism and discrimination.

Their strike ended on Friday after the administration offered to fundraise $50m to expand ethnic and multicultural studies programs and Harlem residents asked the strikers to take this as a "win" and end the fast.

Though it was likely the most radical in its demands, the Columbia hunger strike followed a series of copy-cat actions across the United States in the last two years.

With peaceful demonstrations either used by administrations to justify their legitimacy - "isn't it wonderful that students are free to express their views?" - or as excuses to threaten student radicals and their supporters with arrest or expulsion, many campus activists have come to hunger strikes as a last resort tactic.

Last year, more than five campuses in the U.S. saw hunger strikes among their students, from the University of Vermont (5 days) to Purdue University (26 days), usually tied to campus labour activism.

In April I was arrested along with three other Harvard students by campus police for staging a peaceful political protest at a speech delivered by Robert Mueller, director of the FBI. While detained, campus police told us that though protesters had not been arrested at Harvard for decades, the university was intent on taking a harder line against demonstrators to discourage the growth of "disruptive protests."

In this climate, when Harvard student labour activists were looking for escalation tactics in May, the radical community was either unwilling to risk arrest or expulsion, or - like me - already had out-standing court cases.

With no other option, we launched a hunger strike on 3 May 2007, supporting the recently-unionized campus security officers who were fighting for higher wages and a fair contract. The strike lasted 9 days and left one student hospitalized.

The hunger strike forced the Harvard administration to listen to the demands of the student and worker protestors by threatening the most valuable commodity of the corporatized elite university - it's reputation.

The students of universities such as mine are imagined to one day become the nation's wealthy and powerful, the men and the women who will donate back to their alma mater and brand their lives and their works with the "Harvard" name.

Alumni are the university's connection to money, power, and prestige. By launching a hunger strike that received wide-spread media coverage, we were threatening Harvard's most valuable assets - ourselves.

In response, the university attempted to portray us as immature and confused. On the seventh day, rumours began circulating that the administration was meeting with its lawyers, looking at the legal implications of threatening us with expulsion on psychiatric grounds, claiming that only the mentally imbalanced would choose to go without food for extended periods of time.

While hunger strikes are emotionally and psychologically-taxing, complicated tactics, they are generally very carefully considered and carefully planned.

Hunger strikes and other forms of direct action have been spreading throughout America's university campuses, partially because of the increasingly polarized environment - where the initial neglect and eventual arrest of student protestors leaves little option - and partially because of the support of expanding national networks, connecting student activists across the country.

One such network is that of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) the multi-issue radical movement of students in the 1960s that disintegrated in 1969 and was reformed in 2006. It was SDS that, along with the Student Afro Society, engineered the shutdown of Columbia University in 1968 during what was called the "Columbia Student Revolt".

The history and legacy of SDS as a nation-wide mobilization of campus radicals has continued to inspire students who admire its commitment to participatory democracy and use of direct action tactics. A call to relaunch the organization went out in January 2006, organized by high school students Jessica Rapchick and Pat Korte.

The new SDS has chapters at 148 colleges and 50 high schools across the United States. Each chapter functions with autonomy, with an anti-bureaucratic anti-hierarchical decentralized national organization. Fighting the corporatization of university campuses, engaged in anti-war organizing, and employing a diversity of direct action tactics, SDS is invigorating students on individual campuses and strengthening connections between them.

Though it was not an SDS action, news of the Columbia hunger strike spread like wildfire across the country. I was notified of the strike via the North East Regional list within hours of its commencement.

Similarly, in March 2006 when two students at New York's Pace University were arrested following SDS protests of a speech by Bill Clinton, the national and regional SDS networks mobilized immediately, circulating petitions, letters, and co-ordinating phone calls in protest of the arrests and in solidarity with the demonstrators.

In this context, the Columbia hunger strike - and its resounding success - represents a new page in student radicalism in the United States.

Far from the campaigns that target single issues, the strike dares to reach further, demanding not "accountability" or "transparency" on behalf of the administrators, but questioning the role of un-democratic decision-making in a supposed place of learning and drawing attention to the need to examine the forces behind the propagation of racism and discrimination.

Radical in its scope and representative of the new national networks of solidarity and support, the Columbia hunger strike stands as the next timid yet determined step of the re-awakening and re-invigorated American Young Left.

Claire Provost graduated from Harvard in June 2007, where she studied Urban Planning and was a member of the Harvard Student Labour Action Movement and a founding member of Harvard SDS. She participated in the 9-day hunger strike in May 2007 for workers' rights on campus

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times