By Mary Kohlmann and Jacob Schneider
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 12, 2007
With one striker down, the hunger strike on Low Plaza enters its sixth day with new support and looking forward to a fresh round of negotiations with administrators.
Since last Wednesday, five students have been subsisting on water, tea, and Gatorade to protest a perceived lack of diversity in Columbia’s Core Curriculum, a dearth of ethnic studies professors, and the University’s proposed Manhattanville expansion. The protest suffered its first loss on Saturday when Aretha Choi, CC ’10, was rushed to the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital. In her place, several other students plan to join their ranks this week while Barnard political science Professor Dennis Dalton announced Saturday that he, too, has begun fasting for the cause.
Administrators and students sat down on Friday for a first round of negotiations.
According to the strikers, the discussion centered on logistics rather than the strike demands. The two sides agreed to open up the meetings to a small group of students after the strikers demanded that they be public, according to Christien Tompkins, CC ’08 and one of the negotiators. The meetings will be set up to give equal time to discussions of the Manhattanville expansion and campus issues.
“The main reason was that [the administration] felt that a public meeting would constrict dialogue,” Tompkins said.
With the strikers’ health failing and temperatures dropping into the 30s during the night, the strikers have begun decamping from their makeshift tent city near the Sundial to indoor lounges after dark.
No further discussions were held over the weekend.
“We’ve had to wait a long time, a great number of years,” Tompkins said. “But with the hunger strike there’s a sense of urgency, and we hope the administration shares this sense of urgency, not just to end the strike, but to solve the issues that brought it about.”
With negotiations on hold, the big news of the weekend was Choi’s hospitalization.
Michelle Stiles, a spokeswoman for St. Luke’s, said early Sunday morning that Choi was admitted in stable condition to the pediatric emergency room. She has since been released from the hospital and returned to campus.
According to Linval Forrest, a Public Safety officer, Choi was carried out of Butler—where she and supporters of the strike had been camped out—on a stretcher at about 10:45 p.m.
“She [Choi] will not continue the strike for personal medical reasons,” a statement released by supporters of the strike read. “Organizers, other strikers, and supporters are aware that risks to the body are inherent in the action of a hunger strike, and we greatly respect her commitment to doing what she and others feel is a necessary action to demand change at the University.”
On Sunday, Choi said that while she was beginning to recover from the health effects of the strike, she felt ambivalent about leaving the hunger strike.
“I’m able to walk and stuff, but I’m dizzy and I can’t really take solid foods and stuff well,” she said. She later added that “it’s been very strange not being with my fellow strikers.”
Dalton bolstered the hunger strike over the weekend when he acknowledged that he had joined the strike on Thursday. Dalton, who also participated in the 1985 hunger strike that led to Columbia’s divestment from apartheid South Africa, said that he was most impressed by the strikers’ determination.
“They are reaching out to the administration in a Gandhian spirit of cooperation, negotiation, willing to enter into any solution that will be acceptable,” he said.
Over the weekend, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race released a statement of support for the hunger strike. Among the signers was Claudio Lomnitz, the director of the center, and Jean Howard, former vice provost for diversity initiatives. Meanwhile, a backlash sprung up across the Internet, with Bwog commenters chastising Choi for wasting CAVA’s time and the launch of satirical Facebook groups and blogs discussing “WHY WE EAT.”
In a post stating why they felt the need to eat, the bloggers at we-eat.blogspot.com wrote: “Recent acts of starvation, in conjunction with people who don’t eat, in conjunction with people who make us nervous. Lastly we act in solidarity with Dining Services, which we consider a partner in the struggle against needless starvation and purposeful under-nutrition.”
Lien Hoang, Joy Resmovits, and Laura Schreiber contributed to this article.