Tristan Reed (Contact)
Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Today marks the eighth day of the most impressive and moving act of student activism so far this decade.
Columbia University undergraduates began a hunger strike last week, swearing off everything but Gatorade until the university concedes to their demands for, among other things, a larger ethnic studies program, more non-Western reading in the core curriculum and the reform of a plan to expand the university into the nearby low-income neighborhood of Manhattanville.
In an era when many people make Jon Stewart their primary news source, it’s easy to chuckle about the whole thing.
Fifteen students launched a counterstrike a few days ago, pledging to gorge themselves continuously until Columbia establishes a “Major Foods Department, including the intense study of the historiography and cultural ramifications of nutritionalization.” Touche.
Whether or not you agree with the strikers’ cause though – I myself think it’s a tad overblown– there’s something all students can learn from them.
If done right, theatrical activism can be invigorating and effective, even with all of its marching, megaphones and – today – malnourishment. We need more of it to wrest ourselves from a political culture in which, more often than not, democratic participation means little more than clicking a link in a hand-wringing e-mail.
The Columbia strikers participate today with their whole bodies, not just their track pads. They’re declaring a commitment to their ideals stronger than I’ve ever seen on any college campus.
Depending on how intransigent the university turns out to be, the activists are literally risking their lives for their cause.
One, Aretha Choi, was hospitalized on the fourth day. Even though we may make fun of the situation, that’s serious dedication.
We should organize protests of similar spirit – though not necessarily of the same means – on the pressing issues of our generation: universal health care, global warming, more money for our public schools and a sane foreign policy.
There’s something different about this sort of activism. These students are outside, sharing hugs and sips of water with fellow citizens, talking and arguing forcefully for what they believe is right. They make democracy palpable.
At one time, UCLA had an abundance of such activism. In 1993, students fasted for 14 days in support of a cause similar to the one at Columbia today: the establishment of the César E. Chávez Center in Interdisiplinary Chicana/o Studies, which in 2005 became its own department. Again, it was not their cause per se that is important; it’s the democratic dialogue they created about their issue.
Steve Veres, who fasted at the time, told the Daily Bruin, “(There was a) raw energy – it was amazing. A powerful force of people who were determined (and) so persistent.”
That’s the sort of feeling today’s point-and-click activism lacks.
We’re perhaps reticent to protest today because of the way the media covers activism. Too often, protest marches are maligned in the press because the image of a faux-anarchist with a face mask makes better copy than actual, honest descriptions of people’s aims and beliefs. We don’t want to look like those fools on stilts outside the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999.
The protestors at Columbia, for the most part, have been savvy in combating such portrayal. They’ve articulated specific demands in press releases, showing not just outrage toward their university, but a progressive vision of how it should change. While they’ve still been mocked by cynical bloggers and less courageous students, they’ve also inspired many to join their vigil.
Last month, Tom Friedman wrote a column calling our cohort “Generation Q,” for quiet.
Like many of his generation, he lauded our volunteer spirit but bemoaned our lack of ferocity.
“Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades or to download their platforms,” he wrote. “Activism can only be uploaded, the old-fashioned way – by young voters speaking truth to power, face to face, in big numbers, on campuses or the Washington Mall.”
The Columbia strikers inspire me not for their cause, but for their spirit.
So many of us are ferociously hungry for change, and they’re of the few that have made that hunger tangible, by taking it off-line and into the streets.
The administration, for the first time in a while, is sitting down with them and negotiating without condescension.
They’ve made our generation less quiet, and for that, they’ve gained us respect.