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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