Sunday, November 11, 2007

Local Residents Express Support For Hunger Strikers

Local Residents Express Support For Hunger Strikers
By Betsy Morais

Manhattanville residents, Columbia students, and community leaders rallied to protest the University’s expansion plan and voice their support for student hunger strikers Saturday to the beat of a djembe drum.

The march came amid a hunger strike by five students against “institutionalized racism" and about a week after Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s rejection of West Harlem business owner Nick Sprayregen’s 197-a Manhattanville zoning proposal. Harkening back to the spirit of 1968, students spoke of their struggle against both the University and local politicians said to oppose their interests.

“I think the community will never forget who is with them and who is not with them,” Sprayregen’s lawyer Norman Siegel said.

Bundled up on a cold November morning, protesters gathered at St. Mary’s Church on 126th street to begin their march to Columbia’s campus. Tom DeMott of the Coalition to Preserve Community led the way with megaphone in hand. He called out, “West Harlem! Our homes! Community Board Nine!” to which the crowd ardently replied, “Not for sale!”

Banners read, “No Displacement of Residents and Businesses” and “1968, 2007—Same Struggle, Same Fight!” Above the street, people peered from their apartment windows to watch, with one man sticking his head out to shout, “Hooray!” Tourists on a New York Sightseeing bus got their money’s worth as they rode past the rally.

Upon reaching the steps of Low Library, protesters gathered around Alma Mater to hear support statements from City Councilman Tony Avella, activist Bryan Mercer, CC ’07, and other leaders.

“They cannot destroy the fabric of the very community they are supposed to be serving,” Avella, who is chairman of the City Council’s zoning commission, said of his colleagues. He added, “You have my support, I got to tell you, maybe as a lone voice.”

Avella did not forget to mention that he is running for mayor in 2009.

“The politicians have been bought by Columbia,” said Tom Kappner of the CPC, alluding particularly to the actions of lobbyist Bill Lynch, who as been hired by the University. He noted the few exceptions, Avella and State Senator Bill Perkins, but explained that there has been a “naked attempt to use economic and political power against the community.”

Citing Malcolm X, Kappner explained, “we will use any means necessary” to overcome their opposition.

After gathering on campus, the rally relocated to University President Lee Bollinger’s doorstep. One protester held up a poster that portrayed Low Library as a human figure with a Columbia crown and dollar bills in hand.

Columbia released a statement on Saturday that condemned recent campus hate crimes and voiced concern for the health of student hunger strikers, but administrators continued defend procedures taken in pursuit of expansion, “designed to provide multiple opportunities for public engagement and comment in shaping land use decisions that best serve the city's future.”

But Harlem resident Michael McHenry Adams observed, “Obviously Bollinger isn’t at home today. We need to come back when he is home.” The crowd agreed heartily.

The rally then returned to campus, stopping at the sundial beside the hunger strike
rs’ tents. Harlem Tenants Council Director Nellie Hester-Bailey described the need to “send a strong and resounding message to the elected officials: you will not sell us out.” Throughout the day, Hester-Bailey expressed that the community “will not tolerate betrayal.”

“They’re not on the side of the people who voted for them,” International Socialist Organization’s David Judd, SEAS ‘08 said of politicians.

DeMott echoed this sentiment after the rally. “We will not tolerate elected officials who give lip service and then stab us in the back.” He added that if they do not support the demands of the coalition, “we will not allow them to have political life in this city.”

Betsy Morais can be reached at

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